BioLeader Interview – Jason Mellad (May 2020)
Jason is a scientist entrepreneur passionate about translating innovative technologies into better patient outcomes. As CEO and co-founder of Start Codon, a Cambridge based accelerator, he aims to identify and recruit the most disruptive healthcare start-ups worldwide, seed fund them and leverage the exceptional resources of the Cambridge cluster to de-risk and drive their success. Previously he was CEO of Cambridge Epigenetix and Business Development Manager for Horizon Discovery’s diagnostics division. He also served as an associate at Cambridge Enterprise, the technology transfer office of the University of Cambridge.
Key milestones in your career journey to date?
- Winning the Marshalls Scholarship to study a PhD at the University of Cambridge; before that I had never been out of the US so you can imagine the culture shock moving from New Orleans to the UK.
- Joining Cambridge Epigenetix as their third employee; becoming the CEO in in 2017, growing the business to 60 employees and leading 2 fund raises.
- Co-founding Start Codon in 2018; recognizing that a new accelerator fund in Cambridge would fill an equity gap.
Who has had the greatest influence over your career?
- My parents; they emigrated from the Caribbean to the US where my brother and I were born; Dad did a PhD in Genetics and Mum developed her entrepreneurial skills; I think I have inherited the best of both of them.
- Director of Tulane’s honors programme, Jean Danielson; she nurtured my passion and believed in my potential; and encouraged me to apply for the scholarship, and introduced me to a new gene therapy unit where I worked for 4 years.
- Cathy Shanahan my PhD Supervisor at Cambridge who encouraged my interest in business.
- Iain Thomas at Cambridge Enterprise from whom I learnt so much; and ultimately encouraged me to consider a role at Cambridge Epigenetix.
Your approach to spotting and developing top talent?
- Look for the hidden top talent; those who have had to deal with adversity to achieve their career and life objectives.
- They are often efficient and highly organised, balancing many things to get through their week; a great work ethic and passion that drives them; perhaps a mother returning to the work place; a student who has worked from the age of 15 whilst doing their studies.
- Creating diverse teams whose combined experience and approach make a powerful and driven group.
What attributes make an outstanding leader in today’s world?
- The ability to embrace diversity within an organization and the eco-sphere.
- EI is every bit as important as IQ; humility and self-awareness are becoming increasingly important attributes for leaders.
- A visionary who can chart the path, build the team to execute the plan, encourage collaboration and team work to achieve the goal.
What is our industry’s contribution to improving climate change?
- Many are looking at sustainable practices for manufacturing and the supply chain.
- Virtual working rather than travel; the benefit of which is likely to be recognized ever more given the Covid-19 crisis.
- How we use biology to help combat climate change – enzymes to break down plastics; alternative compounds to make plastic, artificial meat – all are being developed by visionary innovators.
How do you create a culture of continual learning, innovation and curiosity?
- Look at those companies which are already doing it well and benchmark their model.
- Mandate the culture to encourage all to follow.
- Encourage innovation circles, bringing together different teams.
What’s your hidden talent or something that might surprise others about you?
- I co-own a cocktail bar, The LAB in Cambridge, which has a 1920s vibe and is an homage to scientists in Cambridge.
- I love to cook.
- I am relishing being a first time Dad!
Thoughts on the current funding model for early stage companies? (pre Covid-19)
- Assess the viability of new products more fully earlier in the cycle; making use of a strong network of commercial leaders who work closely with Innovate UK assessing business plans and market potential, pre-funding.
- Whilst the US investment community seed funds at a higher level and more quickly; a leaner budget encourages more innovation.
- The biggest challenge in the UK remains the Series A gap and how to fund scale-up. We also need to encourage and incentivise serial entrepreneurship and mentorship by our most successful industry leaders.
What will be the biggest technological transformation in the industry over the next 5 years?
- Data is everything; the drive to analyse greater volumes of biological data remains a priority.
- Train a greater number of bioinformaticians who have combined the disciplines of biology, chemistry and software during their education; I see this happening in the US and Asia and starting to happen in the UK.
Your views on encouraging volunteering amongst colleagues?
- All cohorts who work with Start Codon select a charity to support from the start of our relationship.
- I volunteered at school and went on to run one of the largest student volunteer groups in the US.
Your legacy to the sector?
- I hope that my passion for diversity will impact all companies and organisations I am involved with.
- The plan is that Start Codon will enable more early stage innovations to get into the clinic and save lives.
Your simple philosophy on life?
- Things matter when you decide they matter.
- Stay true to yourself and what defines you – rather than following the crowd.
- Don’t be afraid.
Words of wisdom?
- Best advice I was given: Read the book ‘Feel the Fear and do it anyway’; it’s OK to have panic attacks!
- Advice I would give: Always pay it forward; it will go full circle and help someone else.
- What I wish I’d known: How much our self-doubt limits us.