Terry Pizzie on becoming CEO of Horizon Discovery, growing sales... and Norwegian sea fishing
Exclusive interview: 'We'll scale in a few major areas'
Terry Pizzie had quite an introduction to life as chief executive officer of Horizon Discovery.
His promotion to the role took effect as the Waterbeach-based company was fending off a takeover bid from fellow life sciences firm Abcam.
“It was a rite of passage for me,” he tells the Cambridge Independent. “I became CEO officially on the Monday at 7am and at noon I was presenting to about 40 analysts under the threat of an aggressive takeover.
“I thought they did this to all new CEOs… I wondered what else they could throw at me! It was an interesting experience.”
Terry confirms the offer – rejected by Horizon and subsequently not pursued by Cambridge-based Abcam – came out of the blue.
“We’re always for sale: we’re listed,” he points out. “Every day of the week someone could buy us but it has to be at the right price.
“And the price wasn’t where it needed to be for shareholder value. It was one penny over the IPO price.
“As far as the industrial logic behind it, Abcam is a fantastic business but pretty well dedicated towards e-commerce.
“You cannot sell the majority of what we sell through e-commerce. Those are very big engagements and you can’t go and sell a service that will run for six or nine months for £100,000 or £200,000 through e-commerce. That’s an intimate customer sales process which is very sophisticated.
“We transact a percentage of the business through e-commerce here but I use it in areas that I don’t want to distract the sales organisation, which is reasonably significant in size and the most expensive asset you’ve got. So you want to have them constantly in front of bigger opportunities and use e-commerce to transact the everyday stuff.”
He describes the experience as a “team-building” event – albeit a strange one – and says the Horizon team now identifies “more strongly” with the brand than ever.
“We’re on a mission and they understand that but they also understand we are for sale every day of the week,” he says. “If you want shareholders to believe in us and stay the long haul, then you deliver and grow the business aggressively and they’ll see more value. Or at some point someone can present more value than we can show.”
The 57-year-old’s mission is to realise the potential that has long been clear in Horizon, taking the company into profitability and scaling it through a rigorous commercial focus. Offering gene editing, gene modulation, screening expertise and cell lines for the life science industry, Horizon was led for more than a decade by charismatic co-founder Dr Darrin Disley, who left the company in February to pursue his other interests, which include mentoring, entrepreneurship and investing.
“Darrin is a great scientist and has done some amazing things to get the company where it is,” says Terry. “I’m from a different direction of the industry. I’m more commercially-focused and I’m looking for commercial excellence and delivery from this business. That’s not to say we’ll ignore the science. We’ll do that in a more directed fashion. But I’m in a good position to grow the business.”
Father-of-five Terry brings 30 years of commercial and leadership experience in biotech companies to the role.
Following a degree in physiology and biochemistry at the University of Reading, he had a spell as an analytical chemist at Napp Laboratories before a 17-year stint at Applied Biosystems, rising from a sales role to vice president Europe.
Commercial leadership roles at Genetix, prior to its acquisition by Danaher, and Pacific Biosciences followed before Terry joined Horizon as head of commercial in January 2017.
“When I came here, I saw an organisation that had fantastic products. The customers it had were really happy and were coming back. It just lacked the ability to engage with customers,” he says.
“The science and the quality of what we do here is really impressive. Correcting the commercial organisation was the biggest issue.
“Technical companies at an early stage tend to have quite technical sales people so I’ve been in the process of recruiting the right type of people and having the right type of messaging.
“Early tech companies tend to shotgun technology up against the wall and see if any of it sticks. Our approach now is to ask customers what it is that they want to do and then match what we have to that.
“More positioning – and more listening – is the key, as well as having coverage that is appropriate. We now have appropriate sales organisations in three locations: across Europe, across the US and then into Asia-Pacific now as well.”
He is finding the role of CEO to be “a lot more externally-focused” than his previous job.
“I’m spending a lot of time out with investors and analysts telling the story about where we are going.
“They are very interested because I’m a change of face but also very interested in Horizon because it’s a high growth potential company,” he says.
“Until now, Horizon has gathered a broad portfolio of technologies and ventured into the area of therapeutics as well. We are still relatively small as an organisation and therefore to be distributed out over quite so much is a challenge, so we’ve made the decision to dial back away from therapeutics.
“We see ourselves as a tool and services supplier in the cell biology area. It’s a very, very hot market at the moment and we’re in a great position to do very well.
“We’ve got an excellent set of scientists here and we are becoming more commercially-focused in the developments that we are going to endeavour to pursue.”
In 2017, Horizon made a loss after taxation of £9.6million. But preliminary results show group revenue increased by 52 per cent to £36.5million. It also enjoyed an over-subscribed £80million fundraising round and strengthened its offer with the £85million acquisition of Colorado-based Dharmacon.
In the first quarter of 2018 trading was in line with board expectations and the company is building towards profitability.
Horizon is seeing a significant growth for its CRISPR screening service. The genome editing technology enables researchers to alter DNA sequences and modify gene function.
Pharmaceutical and biotech companies are using it to help discover new drug targets and understand pathways.
“That’s a technology that’s only commercially been around for about 18 months,” says Terry. “Horizon, commercially, is probably the number one company in the world in CRISPR screening. A lot of people try to do it themselves – and find it’s not as straightforward as it seems.”
Horizon is well placed to serve customers who aim to do this work themselves, as Dharmacon can supply reagents and CRISPR libraries.
But, Terry says, many conclude it is better to outsource the work.
“If you are doing CRISPR screening, you’re interested in the outcome, not the activity,” he notes. “A CRISPR screen can run out six to nine months before you get the data. We’ve now run 350-400 CRISPR screens, so we’ve made all the mistakes on the way, and understand how to do it well.”
It is an example of how the Dharmacon acquisition gives Horizon a more complete portfolio.
“Someone who was using a Dharmacon RNAi-type technology might be progressing on to cell-line engineering.
“On screening, they might be interested in a CRISPR library, which was originally from Dharmacon, but eventually they’re going to be a screening customer.
“Once you prove your capabilities in one area, they are more likely to trust you in others – you get the halo effect,” says Terry.
The acquisition also bolstered Horizon’s sales force and its geographic coverage.
“Prior to this, Horizon had quite a limited sales capability in terms of numbers of people.
“We were more dependent on good marketing to find and connect with customers. Now, with the Dharmacon acquisition and some of the additions we’ve made, we’ve got good geographic coverage.”
The focus now is building customer intimacy.
“Some of the transactions we’re into can range up to half a million or a million pounds, and they are projects – they can run out to six or nine months. We have a very high rate of people coming back.”
CRISPR screening and cell-line engineering are among the processes that Horizon is looking to scale up.
“One of the issues we need to address now is industrialising some of the processes we have,” he says. “We have many product areas but a few need to get bigger and a few we need to push much harder. We need to put in automation to flex with the customer requirements.”
He describes Dharmacon’s automation of its processes as “impressive”.
“It’s a synthesis company. In the RNAi business they have, people order online and it goes straight through to a machine which synthesises what they want and comes out bar-coded with the customer identified. That’s how you make money out of relatively small chunks of business.
“For the other parts of our organisation we use some automation, but there could be more.
“The company has moved so fast until now in adding and developing the portfolio that it hasn’t looked at the efficiencies. I think we need to take a step back and look at that now because if you’re going to drive to profit you need to look at those areas.”
What might Horizon look like in five years?
“You will see an organisation that has scale in a few major areas. Scaling allows you to invest in the science and remain cutting-edge. Scale allows you to become more profitable, with better margins and you can push more back into the business,” Terry replies.
Looking around the offices on Cambridge Research Park, he adds: “We will outgrow the footprint of this building within five years. Already it’s getting tight. We have a big facility in Denver that we have the capability of building out.”
And there could be further acquisitions.
“In five years, we’ll be something of a different organisation. We’ll have added some bits and pieces along the way and developed some of our own interesting science.
“We’re in a good place to execute on this because we have a channel to market. There are many small organisations that are going to spring up in the cell biology area that will struggle to commercialise and they will be interesting targets for us to go and look at.”
In the meantime, Terry has some fishing of another kind to do.
“Once a year, I make an epic journey into the Arctic Circle to go sea fishing with my twin sons and brother,” he says. “Northern Norway is the best sea-fishing in Europe. My record is a 100lb halibut but they go a lot bigger than that.”
With Terry steering the ship, you sense Horizon Discovery is ready to go a lot bigger too.
Bringing a touch of Silicon Valley to Silicon Fen
“I’m still beginning to network into the Cambridge area. I’ve spent 25 years of my 30 years in the industry working for west coast American companies, so I know Palo Alto better than I know Cambridge at the moment, but I’m working on it,” says Terry.
Originally from south-east London, Terry moved to Cheshire when he worked for Applied Biosystems and his family home remains there. He is living during the week in Rampton.
“I know the area pretty well but I’ve been internationally focused,” he says.
But his knowledge of Silicon Valley is proving useful in Silicon Fen.
“There’s some great science and great funding available here but commercially I think west coast America is a bit more aggressive and focused,” he says.
“I see many technology customers trying to sell it technically to companies.
“The reality is that companies buy solutions to problems. You might be very proud of your technology but they might not care.
“Every tech company in my experience makes the same mistakes – whether it’s biotech, IT or whatever. There is a tendency to hire in your own likeness when you hire a sales organisation and those people are going to go and talk technical to customers. And customers don’t buy technical.
“A few might fathom their way through and see some advantages but most want a solution to their problem.
“When you are selling high-level, sophisticated products, generally one person isn’t buying that product. If you go out with one flavour of sale, it’s not going to work. If you’re selling a half-a-million pound or million-pound service, there’s probably half a dozen people involved in buying it. You have to fulfil the requirements of each one.”
He compares this to selling a Porsche SUV. A salesperson looking to satisfy a family might need to convince s a petrolhead, a partner focused on safety and a child more interested in the screen in the back.
“If you missed out any one of those, they’re going to erode the chance of that sale,” he says.
Horizon’s sales team are now trained in such methods.
“In all our areas, we’re endeavouring to become extremely good partners for customers,” says Terry.
More by this authorPaul Brackley