Serial Entrepreneur and Value Creator for European Life Science (September 2023)

Serial entrepreneur and value creator in European life science companies. As CEO built two businesses (Oxford Asymmetry International plc and Ablynx nv), led their successful IPOs on the LSE, EuroNext and NASDAQ and raised over €500M in equity and debt financing. Was responsible for developing the business plans and implementing them. Ran the sales process for each company generating values of £316M (Evotec) and €3.9Bn (Sanofi) respectively. Expertise in high value service provision to the pharmaceutical industry and in drug discovery and development. At Ablynx, oversaw the whole process from discovery to approval and preparation for the launch of Cablivi™ – a product designed to treat an ultra-rare hematological disease. Primarily focussed on high growth businesses and change management. >30 years of Board level experience in more than 20 companies, mostly as Chairman. Currently mainly focussed on a small, high quality portfolio of Chairman/NED roles in private and public SME’s with potentially breakthrough products/technologies, supporting the Board/management/company to successfully undergo transformational changes. Been closely involved in raising approximately €500M in equity and debt financing over the last 36 months.

Key milestones in your career journey to date?

  • My first job after completing a post-doc was as a salesman for advanced lab reagents in Germany. The company (BRL) gave me a 3-month course in Molecular Biology and Immunology and even more importantly in “selling” – the ability to “sell” has been key to my career development. BRL was a “biotech” environment and gave me a taste of high energy, high intellect, fast-moving environments which were going to be my future.
  • After the BRL experience I spent 5 years at Amersham International in the UK. This was subsequently bought by GE and was focussed primarily on the provision of radioactively labelled products for research and diagnosis. I again extended my sales experience in the field as well as learning all about a range of cutting-edge medical research techniques. This was my “business school” as I was surrounded by a large international group of very talented marketeers – I became a Product Manager and Marketing Manager and learnt loads as well as having extensive interactions with countries around Europe. After being told that I was too young to be promoted to the next level!!!! – I decided to go back to SMEs.
  • I spent 3 fabulous years with Sir Chris Evans at Enzymatix in Cambridge – he introduced me to the concept of “Eternal Optimism”. Initially as BD manager and then promoted to the Board as CBO, I was exposed to everything from chiral chemical development to diagnostics to the development of phospholipids for treatment of infant respiratory disease and the production of astaxanthin from yeast to put the colour back into farmed salmon. Huge learning period including selling DNA fingerprinting to mushroom growers!
  • Then followed an unexpected offer to join one of Italy’s first biotech companies in Rome. I decided it was “now or never” and went off on a 3-year adventure as COO in an anti-sense company. I loved my time there and learnt some invaluable lessons regarding different cultural and work environments.
    Returning to the UK in 1993 I landed my first CEO job at Oxford Asymmetry; 4 men in a garage with some chemistry technology from Oxford University and some HNW backers! A golden period when I learnt to raise VC money, created a profitable high-quality services company for pharma within 5 years, IPO’d on the LSE in 1998, ultimately leading the company sale in 2000 to Evotec for €0.5BN (we had raised <€50M) – the complete journey. And the company still exists with >300 people – lovely legacy for all involved.
  • Spent 4 years learning how to be a valued NED in service, drug discovery, public, private, PE/VC backed companies all around Europe. One of those was Ablynx and after becoming Chair in 2004, they offered me the CEO job in 2006. This was the start of a 12-year journey, learning biologics, drug discovery, growing from 40-500 employees, going public on EuroNext in 2007 and then Nasdaq in 2017 – hostile bid by Novo followed by auction and eventual sale to Sanofi for €3.9Bn. First product got to market in 2018 – many more Nanobodies to follow. The company is still prospering 5 years later and >12 Ablynxers are now CEOs.
  • Currently full time NED now with Achilles, Lab Genius and Avantium. Will only work where I can make a difference. Love the environment and working with smart people “changing the world”!

Who has had the greatest influence over your career?

  • My wife, Sarah, for her common sense, offering a mirror and superb judge of character.
  • Giovanni Cozzone (Italian CEO) – whose mantra was ‘why wait till tomorrow when you can do it now?’
  • Jean-Louis Bisson (French boss at Amersham) – genuine “out of the box” thinking – recognise you don’t always think in a straight line to find solutions.

What top three attributes make an outstanding and relevant leader in today’s world?

  • Credibility and honesty.
  • Intellectual agility.
  • Charisma and communication skills.
  • Doing what you promise and telling the truth.
  • Working very hard but not being a martyr and respecting other peoples’ time.
  • Being lucky/successful!

Describe your approach to identifying and developing high performing teams

  • Hiring the best (even if they are the most expensive or demanding).
  • Ensuring constant alignment and realignment on key goals – honesty amongst the senior team as to why you are all there.
  • Moving people on promptly when they are no longer contributing effectively – important for all parties.
  • Demanding respect amongst the senior team and for all co-workers.

How does your company meet the challenges of leading a multi-generational workforce?

  • I think it is vital that the company leadership decides what they want the company to achieve and the best strategy to achieve this; e.g. strategy on working from home.
  • They then need to attract and retain employees who can support these aims. If the company believes that regular on-site attendance is the way to ensure corporate success then they need to attract employees who will adapt to this working style.
  • Flexibility and listening are key; and being prepared to adapt whilst not giving up on core principles.

Tell me something about your company that you would like to share with the PIR community

  • A key philosophy is to genuinely celebrate success as professionally, and with as much energy, as you pursue your professional goals. In our environments I want the “work experience” to be something that employees never forget – e.g., Family Days, where an employee’s family and friends can come and see where they work and get a sense of what they and the company do.

How do companies create a more diverse culture; and what do future challenges look like?

  • Cultures have naturally become more diverse. I have always sought to focus on the person and their capabilities rather than be “blinded” by race, gender or any other characteristics which result in stereotyping. Boards can play an important part in “walking the talk” here.
  • Real cognitive diversity is the aim, not putting people into meaningless categories to satisfy box tickers.
  • The biggest challenge to manage is “group-think” which seems to get worse in difficult times when individuals can retreat into their group bunkers!

The provision of flexible working and employee wellness support are increasingly important in the retention and attraction of key talent. How are these being managed by your company whilst ensuring that productivity targets are met?

  • I think this is all about the liberal application of common sense and a willingness to face down lifestylers i.e., they can’t expect the same deal as those fully committed to their company’s success. Work is a contract between an employee and employer – terms and conditions have always been negotiated but without a viable business there are no jobs and without employees there is no business; so compromises have to be made.
  • “Wellness support” is an issue which has always existed and which good leaders will focus on. My concern is how employees/managers differentiate between ‘having a bad day’ vs a pathology which could have long term consequences and where professional support is required.
  • Bullying remains an issue where CEOs/Boards have a duty to be extremely alert across an organisation.

What will be the biggest technological transformation in your sector over the next 5 years?

  • The increase in the use of real AI and ML; e.g. to model, predict and accelerate drug discovery. These technologies will challenge the role of existing drug discovery experts who will have to adapt to survive.

What is your hidden talent or something that might surprise others about you?

  • I am very shy and introverted, hate walking into crowded rooms and parties BUT as an introvert you are more likely to listen and learn rather than “broadcast”. This is not to say I am timid (hard to be when your CEO/Chair) but the things that many people find emotionally easy are extremely energy draining for me.

What advice would you give your 23-year old self?

  • Enjoy every moment, grab every opportunity and learn, learn, learn and experience different cultures – they completely change you and living life as a “foreigner” is something everyone should do once.

Words of Wisdom?

  • Best Advice I was given:
    • Don’t put things off – answer the email today!
  • Advice I’d give:
    • Be punctual! Tell the truth! Be nice to people – it doesn’t cost much! Be responsive, respectful (to everyone) and do what you promise.
    • Realise that only a very limited group can live with the ambiguity which is the daily life of a CEO.
    • Again, to CEOs, be very selective about the investors/Boards you choose; their behaviours can have a dramatic effect on you and your business – make sure you have a strong hand in this!
  • What I wish I’d known:
    • To have a clear plan on how to benefit from the impact of very bright hires or advisors whose values/behaviours are not aligned with those of the company. Be assertive/determined/smart about your damage limitation strategy.