BioLeader Interview – Eliot Forster (September 2020)
Eliot has more than 28 years of experience in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry. He previously served as Chief Executive Officer of Immunocore, Creabilis Therapeutics and Solace Pharmaceuticals. Other previous roles include Head of Development and Operations for the EU and Asia at Pfizer. Eliot has also held several non-executive Director roles. He is an Honorary Visiting Professor at the University of Liverpool and Honorary International Visiting Professor at the University of Pavia. He is also Chairman of MedCity, a Board member of OSCHR (Office for Strategic Coordination of Health Research), and a member of the National Genomics Board. He holds a PhD from University of Liverpool and an MBA from Henley Management College.
Key milestones in your career journey to date?
- During my PhD, experience of working at Warner Lambert & Merck, were the central catalysts for following a career in industry, rather than academia, for which I was probably much less suited.
- Living in the US, whilst working for Pfizer; introduction to the vibrancy and potential of the US pharma and biotech eco-system.
- Deciding to leave big-pharma in 2007, joining the early stage biotech, Solace Pharmaceuticals, as CEO.
- Good fortune to be part of the founding group of MedCity, giving me my first exposure to the political dimensions of this vital sector.
Who has had the greatest influence over your career?
- Late Professor Rod Gregory for helping me to understand the importance of the legacy of people in a career.
- Peter Chambre whose counsel encouraged my move into biotech in 2007.
Your approach to spotting and developing top talent?
- I look for rule breakers and disruptors, and those willing to take pre-determined risks, drive success and innovation, particularly if they can persuade others to follow.
- I look for those who are willing to step forward and take personal responsibility to get a job done.
- Follow your instincts on people; I’ve generally regretted it when I haven’t.
What attributes make an outstanding leader in today’s world?
- Beyond the classic traits of drive, energy, curiosity and courage, the ability to listen and be flexible – pivoting on a plan when the evidence demonstrates that the plan is not working.
- The ability to find an alignment of the interests of the majority of stakeholders, including investors, patients, community and the organisation.
What is our industry’s contribution to improving climate change?
- Many small changes in organisational behaviour will make a difference, for example, replace disposable plastic; provide reusable drinking bottles.
- We should all continue to evaluate how essential travel is, in particular, post-Covid19, embracing the use of video conferencing to replace the culture of easy travel.
- Encourage the ‘next generation’ to implement green policies in the company.
How do you create a culture of continual learning, innovation and curiosity?
- Support individuals to take responsibility for their career, working out what they want to do and where they want to go aligned to the interests of the company.
- Encouraging colleagues to be curious and to try different approaches that will push the boundaries of innovation; celebrate stunt work and the things that go wrong.
- Change the way appraisals are done; regular, immediate feedback and more fluid process than the typical regular fixed review points.
What’s your hidden talent or something that might surprise others about you?
- I am chairman of a free music festival that runs every year in south Oxfordshire – though not this year unfortunately due to Covid-19.
Thoughts on the current funding model for early stage companies?
- Capital is not evenly distributed across funds or stages in the UK.
- There’s a $2bn funding gap at Series B/C in the UK.
- Introduce fiscal levers to redistribute ideas and capital across the UK; encourage collaboration across clusters, north and south.
- More growth initiatives from big pharma is good to see; for example, the Pfizer Breakthrough Growth Initiative has allocated $500m for pre-listed companies, where the science and technology are not mature enough for M&A.
What will be the biggest technological transformation in the industry over the next 5 years?
- Convergence of technology; digi-health and associated analysis, overlaid with massive sets of data genetic and phenotypic along with advanced therapies.
- Social and community health data, from which new companies and sectors will emerge; new discovery interfaces – e.g. biology and the consumer – enabled by technology.
Your views on encouraging volunteering amongst colleagues?
- A company’s role is to support an individual’s volunteering activity, acknowledging our collective role in the community.
Your legacy to the sector?
- To inspire enthusiasm in others to join the sector; as I did close to 30 years ago.
Your simple philosophy on life?
- Keep smiling!
Words of wisdom?
- Best advice I was given: My dad was, for a short time, a professional football player; and he said that whilst physically I should have been at my strongest in my early 30s, he advised me to be patient since the best, intellectually, is yet to come. Fingers crossed!
- Advice I would give: Stay humble and remain grounded. Success is built on the experiences gained through trying and failing.
- What I wish I’d known: Most of ‘them’ are just making it up as they go along. 50% is enough to get going; you will learn the other 50% along the way.