Business Big Interview: Dr Tom Stratford, chief executive, Kelso Pharma

As the former boss of Borders-based drugs developer ProStrakan, which was acquired by Japanese peer Kyowa Kirin more than a decade ago, Dr Tom Stratford is one of the most familiar and experienced figures in Scotland’s life sciences sector.

Now, after a stint running Kyowa Kirin’s North American operations, and 25 years after joining ProStrakan from Glaxo Wellcome in 1997, Stratford, who holds a degree in bio-chemistry and a doctorate in biology, is doing it all over again by launching Kelso Pharma. The fledgling firm’s chief executive reflects on his career to date and the thinking behind his new venture.

You were pretty much in at the start when your father founded the pharma company, ProStrakan. How did that come about?

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I had finished a short period of working for Glaxo in their laboratories as a scientist after gaining my PhD in London. I enjoyed science but didn’t want to be lab based. ProStrakan were looking to find a business development person with a scientific training, to help build out the development and commercial portfolio. It sounded like good fun and I knew how committed my dad was to making the business a success and helping patients after his own career in big pharma, so I thought I’d give it a try. The rest is history.

You ended up running that business in Galashiels after it was taken over by Kyowa Kirin, then you moved to the US to run their North American business. What did you learn from that experience and what brought that to an end?

I learnt very quickly the importance of a team. You need to make sure you have driven, enthusiastic people around you. Support them and give them the tools to shine. In Europe we had teams across 14 countries and by the time I left for the US, the business was around 650 people.

You have to have a good team and trust and support people to make that work well. Kyowa Kirin, the Japanese parent company, supported the growth of the European and US business in the nine-year period that I worked with them and I really appreciated that support. As the business got much larger, my role changed in nature and I didn’t feel so close to the patients who, after all, are what it’s all about. So I felt it was time for a change.

What was it that motivated you to do it all over again by launching Kelso Pharma?

Dr Tom Stratford, CEO of Kelso Pharma. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

First of all, I had had a lot of fun being part of a small growing company. It is a lot of hard work but enormously rewarding to see a business, and our people, develop and grow. To see colleagues strive and succeed as you bring new medicines to market and have a chance to make a difference to patients is incredibly fulfilling and that’s what I hope we can recreate with Kelso Pharma. Being part of a small, fast-growing company is where I believe I perform at my best. I wanted to get back to that environment and give it another go.

We’ve started well, as I’ve managed to persuade two of my senior colleagues from our Galashiels days to join the business at launch. Allan Watson is an experienced chief financial officer and Andrew McLean is a lawyer with a strong background in pharma. Between us we have extensive experience in running and building specialty pharma businesses, and perhaps even more importantly we work well as a team.

Tell us about your aspirations for Kelso Pharma and how you plan to go about growing the business to achieve these?

Firstly, just getting Kelso Pharma off the ground has been incredibly exciting, exhilarating even. In Apposite Capital we’ve found the most supportive of backers and because they specialise in this space, they understand that this is a long game and we’re in this together.

In the next five years I see Kelso Pharma developing into a pan-European specialty pharma company that operates across multiple markets with a portfolio of innovative products that make a difference to the lives of patients as well as to the healthcare system. I believe passionately that medicines need to be affordable to the healthcare system, especially as we respond to the societal need to face up to the fact that we have an ageing population and the added pressures that puts on the healthcare system generally. We will respond to that in a responsible, added value way.

We have taken the first step forward with our acquisition of Stirling Anglian Pharmaceuticals, providing Kelso Pharma with its first three medicines, and this is really bedding in nicely. We have a new product launch planned for later in the year and a number of other opportunities that we are looking at and expect the business to grow further in 2022 through organic and M&A activity. We also expect to add to our team, as a fast-growing business needs resource and talented people to keep it growing.

So, we are actively on the lookout for new opportunities – whether that’s buying new medicines, in-licensing them or even acquiring new businesses that are already established in European pharma. We have a supportive shareholder and we’re in the market. The therapeutic areas we are particularly focused on for our buy and build strategy are: gastrointestinal; women’s health; men’s health; paediatrics; and dermatology

I also strongly believe that, as a pharma business, behaving in an ethical way is really important – to our patients, to the healthcare professionals we work with and to our shareholders. We’ll be working hard to ensure we do the right thing.

You’re a scientist by training and the difference that medicines can make are obviously important to you. But you talk a lot about people being a differentiator. Why do you think that?

If I’ve learnt anything it’s that business is all about people. No matter how many PhDs and master’s degrees we have, we can only bring an innovative product to the patient if we have a talented, enthusiastic, happy team. In our industry a good, effective team is critical to bring products from the scientists in R&D through testing, regulatory reviews, production and ultimately into the market. Kelso Pharma will only operate in the later phases of bringing a product to the patient initially, but as we grow, we will engage in more innovation to expand our opportunities.

We plan to build a business that attracts good people who are good to work with and who will create, with us, a specialty pharma company that is easy to do business with.

Most of the pharma industry in the UK is located in the south of the country, why have you chosen to set up Kelso Pharma in Scotland?

There’s a few answers to that. Firstly, the Kelso Pharma team live here already and none of us wanted to relocate. And to be honest, you can establish a business almost anywhere now – as I think the Covid lockdown proved. It’s not about where your desk is, it’s about what you do when you’re sitting at it.

Scotland is a great place to do business from and in our sector, we can draw on the fantastic life sciences reputation that Scotland has. The Scottish universities produce some of the most talented scientists and specialists in the world, many of whom have grown to love the lifestyle that Scotland can offer them. Businesses like Kelso Pharma can provide them with the opportunity to stay in Scotland while pursuing a career in life sciences. We saw that at ProStrakan where we had the most talented of teams, many of whom could have moved south or overseas and earned much more money, but they chose to stay in Scotland because they enjoyed the culture, the lifestyle and the pace that you can only get here.

We’re proud to be based here in Scotland but remember this is only a base and we plan to have offices right across Europe in time. Meanwhile, we know our domestic and international partners are only too pleased to come to Scotland to do business.

How will you know that you’ve achieved everything you can?

I confidently predict that I won’t ever feel that we have achieved all that we can. It is probably a character flaw, but I never feel completely happy with where the business is at any given time. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate what we have achieved, and it is important to celebrate milestones along the way and recognise our team members for their important contributions.

What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs who are considering launching their own business?

The only way you will know if you would have succeeded is to give it a go. It will be hard work but incredibly rewarding. And don’t be afraid to ask people for help. You will be surprised how generous people can be with their ideas or time. It is always about a team. Understand your own strengths, but more importantly your weaknesses and find people that fill the gaps. Then go for it – and be sure to enjoy the ride.

60 second CV:

Born (year, place): Nantwich, Cheshire 1970

Education: Biochemistry degree from Bath University; PhD in Development Biology, Kings College London

First job: Clearing tables at a Little Chef on the A303 – it kicked me up the backside to work hard and go to university!

Ambition while at school: Very little. Late developer and left school with two O levels

What car do you drive: A Ford Fiesta, or the family Range Rover on special occasions

Favourite mode of transport: Train – it’s a relaxing way to travel and can be quite productive

Music: I like a mix – I enjoy classical, and having visited Nashville when I lived in the US, I’ve grown to love country music too

Kindle or book: You can’t beat the convenience of a Kindle, but I’m increasingly drawn back to the tactile attraction of real books

Reading material: Currently I’m reading the most recent Michael Connelly thriller – The Dark Hours (one of the Harry Bosch series)

Can't live without: The support of my wife, Penny, and our girls

What makes you angry: Laziness or bullying - otherwise I think I am a pretty level-headed kind of person

What inspires you: Seeing people grow and develop into something more than they thought they could be

Favourite place: The Scottish Borders – beautiful countryside and a great place to live

Best thing about your job: Doing something I enjoy, every day, with fun people

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