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Accelerate@Babraham intake learns how to walk through walls

By Mike Scialom

Congenica chairman Dr Andy Richards, left, with Dr Jonathan Milner and Derek Jones, chief executive of Babraham Research Campus. Picture: Keith Heppell
Congenica chairman Dr Andy Richards, left, with Dr Jonathan Milner and Derek Jones, chief executive of Babraham Research Campus. Picture: Keith Heppell

Spellbinding talks by Andy Richards and Jonathan Milner

The first cohort of the Accelerate@Babraham programme listen to the talks. Picture: Keith Heppell
The first cohort of the Accelerate@Babraham programme listen to the talks. Picture: Keith Heppell

A memorable induction for the first-ever Accelerate@Babraham competition winners cohort included masterclasses from two of Cambridge’s most spectacularly successful entrepreneurs and investors, Andy Richards and Jonathan Milner.

The cohort was selected following a Dragon’s Den-style pitching day in July. Five companies were picked for the inaugural accelerator programme: Antiverse, Qkine, VisusNano, Oppilotech and Kalium Diagnostics. Each has been awarded three months’ access to the bio-incubator facilities at the Babraham Research Campus, along with one-on-one mentoring with world-class scientific, technical and business experts, and £20,000 non-dilutive funding.

These five have subsequently been joined on the programme by an additional venture, SNPr, a spin-out of the Babraham Institute, taking the total first cohort to six.

The morning session began with an introduction by the CEO of Babraham Bioscience Technologies (BBT which develops and manages the campus), Derek Jones.

Accelerate@Babraham inductees with Jonathan Milner. Picture: Keith Heppell
Accelerate@Babraham inductees with Jonathan Milner. Picture: Keith Heppell

“Today is a welcome and an introduction,” he told the teams from the six firms on their first day at the campus as part of the Accelerate@Babraham programme. “As you know this is a learning experience for us too – we’ve not run this programme before, ask us questions, please feed back to us, and I hope it’s very beneficial for you all.

“The vision of this campus is to be the best place in Europe to start or grow your life sciences company,” said Mr Jones. “The most important reason people come to places like this is world-class science. It’s not about the buildings, it’s about a campus, a community, connections – the network. You’ll get a sense of that over the next three months.”

The inductees got a good sense of it a lot sooner than that. Having heard from Prof Michael Wakelam, who gave an overview of the work of the Babraham Institute, located on the campus, which works with 140 companies on and off-site and produces around 100 research papers a year, the first session was given by Andy Richards.

Dr Richards, a Cambridge graduate with a PhD in chemistry, received a CBE for services to life-science investment in 2015, and is chairman of Arecor, Congenica, Abcodia, and Babraham Bioscience Technologies at the Babraham Research Campus. He is also a director of Ieso Digital Health, Silence Therapeutics plc, Cancer Research Technology (commercial arm of CR-UK) and Sensiia.

Dr Jonathan Milner founded Abcam in the 1990s. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Jonathan Milner founded Abcam in the 1990s. Picture: Keith Heppell

Dr Richards sketched an industry that is in the throes of massive change. Medical science is now shifting towards preventative medicine and early intervention rather than late stage treatment. The digitalisation of the sector is throwing curveballs all around the campus. In addition, China is where the growth is. “By 2030 China is going to be the world’s biggest pharmaceutical market.” Then there’s the way drug discovery pipelines are evolving. Any new firm – such as the six in front of him – has to address prevailing narratives.

“Data disruption, particularly with AI, is distorting the value chain and a lot of bigger tech companies are now looking at the sector and going: ‘Ah, if we could destroy that, then…’”

He primarily means companies like Google and Amazon, which is investing in healthcare. Earlier this year Amazon bought US mail-order pharmacy firm PillPack for $1billion. Google is working on the assumption that all patient data will soon be held on the cloud, with huge impacts on face-to-face treatments.

“The disruption is going to be profound, not just for the large players but also for the ecosystems that feed them,” Dr Richards said. “Companies like Google don’t think the current rules apply to them. Amazon’s move into pharmacy you can see as being terrifying – you can see how Amazon could slash at the pharma value chain. There are some huge trends coming on, and whether you like it or not you have to create a narrative that fits those trends.”

Babraham Research Campus CEO Derek Jones with Chris Torrance, founder and CEO of Phoremost, at lunch. Picture: Keith Heppell
Babraham Research Campus CEO Derek Jones with Chris Torrance, founder and CEO of Phoremost, at lunch. Picture: Keith Heppell

If the risks are significant, so too is the opportunity. At the Babraham Research Campus, and other such sites around the globe, the task is to maximise the opportunity and minimise the risk.

“Everything we do here at Babraham reduces risk so you have a better chance to be successful,” said Dr Richards. “We want to create big companies that change the world and a cluster like this, which is concentrated, networked and supportive – that’s how that happens. It’s our job to reduce the risk – and for you to be ambitious and succeed.”

At 11am Jonathan Milner arrived for his talk, entitled Lessons Learnt from Science Start Ups.

Dr Milner stayed just long enough to give his talk before dashing off to Bath to open the Milner Centre for Evolution at Bath University that afternoon (September 20), which shows how much progress he’s made since doing a postdoc in antibody engineering there in the 1990s. The founder of Abcam is now a rock star biotech entrepreneur but Abcam’s start had its share of struggles, as the new intake heard.

“My girlfriend, now wife, moved to Cambridge in 1995 so I moved here to be with her,” Dr Milner said. “The most obvious place to go was CAT, Cambridge Antibody Technology, where I spectacularly failed, and I ended up working with Tony Kouzarides working on breast cancer.” (Professor Kouzarides was researching the molecular basis of breast cancer at the University of Cambridge.)

His work involved antibodies.

“I was at The Gurdon Institute, I was in science heaven, but I couldn’t get my project to move forward because I couldn’t find the right antibodies and I was getting more and more frustrated. That coincided with a company I found – back then there weren’t any websites – called Amazon and I thought ‘great!’. It took two weeks for the order to come but I thought ‘why not put antibodies on a website?’.

“Just by chance I was talking to David Cleevely. I went to see him in January 1998 and he said: ‘What’s the idea?’ It was so vague! I said: ‘I’ll sell antibodies on the internet.’

“He asked how much it cost to make one, and I said £3 to £5. ‘How much do they sell for?’

“I said: ‘About £150.’ That got him interested, though I didn’t tell him that most of the antibodies you produce won’t cover costs as there are so many failures.”

Abcam turned over £233million in 2017-18 and employs more than 800 people, but at the start Jonathan struggled with some aspects of starting a business. Then he picked up a book at the airport by Michael Gerber called The E-Myth: Why Most Businesses Don’t Work and What To Do About It.

“He said one amazing thing, that you need three skill sets to start a business – as an entrepreneur, as a manager and as a scientist/technician. You need a balance of all those things: the science has to be good, you need to manage time, money and people, and of course you have to be an entrepreneur and show confidence in your business.”

Dr Milner was lacking in the management part. “I forced myself to learn the basics of management.” Eventually he found Eddie Powell from Marconi and the other two roles he could fulfil himself. He concluded the sales side of is often overlooked. “As an entrepreneur you need to be someone who can walk through walls – and convince people you’re someone who can do that.”

Dr Milner handed over the CEO role to Alan Hirzil in 2014 and retains a significant shareholding – plus a role as deputy chairman.

Lunch was fun. Attendees included Chris Torrance from Phoremost, Kai Stoeber from Shionogi, Laura Ferguson of MedImmune, Laura Hamilton from RxCelerate and Natasha Taylor from sponsor Taylor Vinters, which also participates in the one-to-one clinics.

The delegates themselves were probably rather blown away. The standard at Babraham Research Campus is incredible, the footsteps they are following in legendary. It should be an interesting three months for them. Their success is Babraham’s success is Cambridge’s success is the UK’s success in a global marketplace.

“We ought to be able to do this,” concluded Dr Richards. We’ll be sure to let you know how they get on.


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