The essential qualities life sciences companies need at each stage of their development

It’s a situation that will be familiar to any life sciences entrepreneur – you wake up in the middle of the night with a brilliant idea for a new company. You crash around on your bedside table to find that handily-placed notepad and pencil but – unable to locate them in the dark – you grab your ever-on mobile phone instead.

Picture: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock

After tapping a few lines of text to remind yourself about your great idea, you slip back into slumber, safe in the knowledge your new business will be up and running. Then the morning comes and you have to turn that idea into reality.

One of the first steps is to begin assembling your team. If you’re an academic researcher then the science part is likely to be straightforward, but what are the other skills that life science companies need as they start-up, spin-out, and scale up?

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Sinclair Dunlop, managing partner at Epidarex Capital in Edinburgh, describes getting the right mix of skills as “critical” to the success of a company. His investment firm was founded in 2010 to build ventures looking to commercialise medical research and technology from universities to tackle major healthcare needs.

“A serial entrepreneur needs a minimum competency in their specialist area – for example, an entrepreneur who’s built a cancer company could create a different type of therapeutics company, like diabetes, but it would be hard to turn a therapeutics entrepreneur into a medical technology entrepreneur,” Dunlop explains. “On top of that sector specialism, they need a universal skillset, including the ability to scale, and the ability to raise money, both inside and outside Scotland.

“That requires ambition, self-confidence, self-belief, and – in some cases – perhaps more aggression than they would typically have. We believe academics can become entrepreneurs but, in some cases, they need nurturing and support. As their partners, we see that as part of our job.”

Dunlop points to successful leaders within Epidarex’s portfolio, including Steve Myatt at Macomics in Edinburgh and Neil Wilkie at Mironid in Glasgow. “There’s a lot of talent out there in our universities and it just requires some nurturing,” he adds.

Once a company has been created, its founders then need to assemble their team. Shireen Davies, professor of integrative cell signalling at the University of Glasgow, has been busy growing both the science and business sides of Solasta Bio since spinning the company out from the university last year.

In August, Solasta secured a £1.3 million investment to develop its insecticides, which target pest species but leave other bugs alone. The firm now employs 11 staff – five in management and six in research and development (R&D).

“There’s a real shortage of skills in insect molecular science and bioinformatics in the UK now,” Davies warns. “We’re very fortunate because we’re working at the research end of R&D and so people want to work with us because we’re doing interesting and cool stuff.

“That’s what attracts good people. They know they’re not coming into a company where everything is incremental to what’s come before – a lot of what we’re doing is unknown, so we’re taking quite big steps, and that’s been very attractive to people.”

Davies expects Solasta to bring more business development staff on board next year for “the D part of the R&D pipeline”. “We’re working in an international context, so I don’t think it’ll be hard for us to recruit,” she adds.

Craig Robertson, who founded Dunfermline-based Epipole in 2011, agrees that working in an exciting sector helps attract talent. Epipole is currently releasing the next generation of its machines for eye doctors and opticians, which not only allow them to take photographs of the back of the eye but also record videos.

Its technology is also being applied to animals for the first time, which could help to diagnose conditions including high blood pressure in pets. Epipole has worked with Edinburgh Zoo to use its technology to help more exotic species too, ranging from penguins and tigers through to chimpanzees and llamas.

“When I started Epipole, it was an idea in a notebook, so I had to go and find an optics engineer,” Robertson recalls. He contacted Bob Henderson, who had created the optics used by Optos, Robertson’s former employer, and convinced him to come out of retirement in Thailand and return to Dalgety Bay.

“He was the first of several people we got out of retirement,” Robertson adds. “That’s a brilliant way to hire people because they don’t have to go through the 100 things that might work – they know the ten things that will.”

Using his and his team’s background in computer science, Robertson has also been able to tap into academic networks for recruitment. Having gone through a period of product development during lockdown, Epipole is moving back into “sales mode” again, and will add to its headcount of 15 next year, primarily focusing on sales and marketing staff, but the firm is always recruiting engineers.

“Fife is not an easy place to recruit, even though we’re only 20 minutes from Edinburgh,” he admits. “But the technology level we operate at is very high – our reputation precedes us.”

Recruiting the right staff for certain niches within the life sciences sector can also be a challenge. Ian Yellowlees, founder and director of specialist statistical consultancy Quantics Biostatistics, is disappointed not to have recruited more statisticians from Scottish universities, with between 80 per cent and90 per cent of applicants failing a statistics test he sets.

“It’s a very standard piece of statistics work, but you need to be able to do it backwards – and we find that many of our candidates can’t do it because they don’t have a sufficiently in-depth understanding,” he explains. “The University of St Andrews has quite a good course and has produced three of our staff.”

Quantics, which was founded in 2002 and now employs about 20 people, moved into employee ownership in August. The firm has just completed its latest recruitment round.

“We have real difficulty getting staff and, as result, we have people from many different backgrounds, including native French, Hungarian, South African, German, and Italian people,” adds Yellowlees. “We had a good number of applicants during our latest recruitment round and ended upinterviewing ten people and hiring one of them.”

Encouraging women to enterprise

Sinclair Dunlop highlights the need for venture capital investors to spend more time working with universities to nurture women entrepreneurs in the life sciences.

He highlights the success of female-led businesses within Epidarex’s portfolio, including Oxford-based Theolytics, which is run by Charlotte Casebourne.

Dunlop founded the transatlantic firm Epidarex Capital in 2010 with Kyparissia Sirinakis, pictured inset. Both served as managing partners on either side of the Atlantic – the pair had previously worked together at Dunlop’s former business, MASA Life Science Ventures.

Sirinakis had previously founded and run WomenAngels.net, a fund that invested in start-up technology and healthcare companies.

“Women entrepreneurs are too rare in the life sciences,” Dunlop says. “Epidarex is majority female owned and managed – which is virtually unheard of in the venture capital industry – and there is interesting data out there that suggests female fundees are more likely to be supported by female funders.

“This is an area in which venture capitalists need to spend a bit more time, sourcing those individuals who have exactly the right instincts. Sadly, the venture capital industry is incredibly male-dominated.”

This article first appeared in The Scotsman’s Life Sciences 2021 supplement. A digital version can be found here.