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The thrills and skills of becoming an entrepreneur

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by Cancer Research UK | Philanthropy and partnerships

19 November 2020

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researchers at a conference
Entrepreneurial Programmes Initiative 2019

Evidence indicates that more of our researchers could be engaging in activity to translate their findings in the lab into life-saving cancer treatments. So in September 2019, we launched our Entrepreneurial Programmes Initiative to develop and nurture a culture of entrepreneurship within our research community. The initiative includes a range of programmes that provide opportunities for researchers to learn new skills, access resources and expand their networks, including events, workshops, competitions and mentorship schemes.

It’s particularly targeted at early-career researchers, who may face more challenges in this field but who we hope will become a generation of future science leaders who view research and translation as equally important. Here we speak to five researchers who took the plunge and developed their ideas into brand-new businesses.

“Investors challenge every detail, so you need to have a firm grasp of your idea”

Monika Gullerova is an associate professor and Lee Placito Fellow in Medicine at the University of Oxford and a Cancer Research UK Senior Research Fellow.

“A couple of years ago, I was struck by a new idea: What if we had molecules that could simulate the behaviour of cells that repair damaged DNA? And, if possible, apply such molecules to trick cancer cells into self-destruction?

“Although I’m a scientist, not a businesswoman, I also saw an opportunity to develop this idea into something that would have real-world impact. But from the start, I noticed fundamental differences between basic research and developing a potential translational spin-out company. Academic research is led by data and scientific curiosity, whereas developing a spin-out is a far more focused and targeted process. Even if your idea has the potential to expand, investors need quick commercial success before exploring further avenues. They also challenge every detail, so you need to have a firm grasp of your idea.

“Adapting to this new way of working was challenging. At first, I found it hard to accept that I would gradually lose influence over the commercial and strategic decision-making, which eventually falls under the control of the investor. On the other hand, working with my industry partners was a collaborative and enjoyable experience.

“I hear that lots of scientists have ideas they believe would have a real-world impact but don’t act on it because there isn’t much of a financial incentive. But the fact that you are making an impact on people’s lives is worth it and there is so much to learn from the experience itself.”

“A good team can lift you up through challenges”

Jason Mellad is the CEO and co-founder of Start Codon, an initiative that supports teams across the globe to translate their research ideas by offering seed-funding, guidance and access to an extensive network of partners.

“I’m from Louisiana in the US and I moved to the UK to do my PhD in cardiovascular medicine at the University of Cambridge. I was a scientist working in academia, but then I moved into the business world, eventually becoming the CEO of Cambridge Epigenetix. Two years ago, I co-founded Start Codon. 

“An entrepreneur has to embrace the unknown. I enjoy starting new projects and thrive off the thrill of a new opportunity. But while embarking on this journey was a natural step for me, developing my idea into a successful business was more of a challenge. I decided to put together a team to help me drive it forward. A good team can lift you up through challenges, educate you and complement your skillset. I always tell people that you don’t have to do it all yourself, there are many people who are willing to help if you ask them.

“As a son of immigrants, being African Caribbean and openly gay, I have had my fair share of personal challenges, but thankfully diversity is improving in business. My mission is to give people their chance through Start Codon and help them take the leap to becoming an entrepreneur. I’m here to remind them that they can also be ‘the first’ – and together we can inspire the next generation.”

“It’s easy to doubt yourself, but if you have a good idea then you should go for it”

Myriam Ouberai is the founder and CEO of Spirea, a spin-out company from the University of Cambridge that develops antibody-drug conjugates to target and kill cancer cells. In 2018, she was selected as one of 50 Movers & Shakers in BioBusiness by UK biotech platform BioBeat.

“The idea for Spirea was conceived in a collaborative environment. I’m a chemist by training, and I was working alongside biologists and medical students. We were all aware of the need to find an effective way of delivering drugs to cells to treat cancer, so I applied to Innovate UK to develop a technology for use in oncology.

“Initially, I didn’t know where to begin, but then I got involved in several entrepreneurship programmes in Cambridge and attended networking events about venture creation aimed at scientists with potential business ideas.

“People often asked me if I was sure about setting up a company, saying that it was a risky career move – perhaps because I’m a woman and not a UK national. But I pushed passed my hesitations and other people’s questions. And when I received Innovate UK funding in 2018, I knew I had made the right decision.

“It’s easy to overthink and doubt yourself, but if you have a good idea that you believe will have an impact then you should go for it. I recommend reaching out to as many people as you can and seeking advice from people who have done it before. It’s what I did, and it worked.”

“Talking to people is essential in this field”

Debora Lucarelli is the CEO of Enhanc3D Genomics, a spin-out company from the Babraham Institute in Cambridge that uses a disruptive technology to discover targets for immune-oncology therapies. 

“I enjoyed working in research but became frustrated by how only certain ideas would be taken forward and how long it took for a concept to have an impact. I reached out to Jason Mellad from Start Codon, who introduced me to Peter Fraser, Stefan Schoenfelder and Mikhail Spivakov. Together, we launched a new genomic platform.

“Talking to people is essential in this field. Most of my friends are scientists; I don’t know many bankers, investors or businesspeople. So I talked to my contacts, neighbours and friends and asked for introductions. I also attended conferences and networking events and joined forums and networks such as Meetup groups, where like-minded people discussed a topic in a pub.  

“You might not have a strong business skillset but being able to convincingly explain why your idea is worth pursuing will take you far. Through perseverance, I eventually made the connections I needed and Enhanc3D Genomics is now a real and exciting business.”

“Every day, I face new challenges and have to be resourceful”

Anna Perdrix Rosell is the co-founder and managing director of Sixfold Bioscience, a biotech company that’s developing safe and effective systems to deliver drugs to cancer cells. She has been recognised by Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Science & Healthcare, Maserati’s Top 100 British Entrepreneurs and The Observer’s rising stars of science.

“I co-founded Sixfold Bioscience while completing my PhD at the Francis Crick Institute. We had an idea that we knew would have a positive impact for people with cancer and thought starting a company would be the fastest way of realising that potential. Three years on, we have a team of 16 scientists working at the interface of chemistry and biology who are funded by private investors and prestigious grants.

“I had to quickly learn how to fundraise, understand intellectual property, build a team and much more. Every day, I face new challenges and have to be resourceful. It has been hard work to get this far and it will be hard work to keep the momentum going. The responsibilities increase exponentially. Before you know it, you have a team joining you on the journey and your decisions have an impact beyond yourself – but the potential of the technology we are building makes it worthwhile.  

“When you are in the early stages of your career, you can be easily overlooked. The important thing is to evaluate what you know and what you’re good at and then surround yourself with people who can complement you. Self-awareness is not something that comes with age, but something you can work on and it enables you to exponentially improve yourself.”

Interviews by Rupal Mistry, Research Information Manager

Read the extended interviews: Researcher voices: The thrills and skills of becoming an entrepreneur

Find out more about the philanthropy at Cancer Research UK