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Building a Business: Lessons Learned with Angela Osborne

Don’t let imposter syndrome hold you back

Pursuing a career in science never really felt like a choice – it was a calling. And, just like any passion, I willingly followed the path it took to making it an integral part of my life. English and history had no draw, but I loved the way science allowed me to explore the fundamental aspects of life as well as their practical applications. I made sure to take advantage of every opportunity that came my way. While completing my PhD in biochemical engineering at University College London, I was sponsored by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), which was the largest British manufacturer of its time. The experience was pivotal, but I thought that I might be better suited to a smaller company. Once I completed my degree, I applied for a job at British Biotech. While my peers sent out hundreds of job applications, I only sent off one. I knew I wanted that particular role; I’d worked with some of the company’s founders during my degree as part of a summer job and I was lucky enough to be selected for the position!

As the only engineer employed by the company, I was afforded a great deal of responsibility from the onset. I was there for four years and I had the opportunity to manage my own team, work on the design and development of my own facility, and see one of our products enter the clinic.

Gender does not define anyone

I believe that many people let their differences hold them back from reaching their true potential. The notion that a person’s gender, race or age can limit their ability to excel is unfounded. My next position in John Brown (later Kvaerner), a process engineering and project management company, was truly formative. I was the only woman among a sea of male engineers. Chauvinistic behaviors and ideas ran rife and I had to navigate the machismo-laden environment to prove my own competence. It wasn’t an uncommon assumption that every woman who worked there was a secretary – and I was asked on multiple occasions to send out a fax on behalf of a male member of staff. But I knew I was as capable as anyone else there – a point reinforced by early promotion to a more senior position and strong reminders from my boss. My experiences have only made me more resilient and have allowed me to recognize the value I am able to bring to a role.

When I enter a boardroom full of men, I don’t think of myself as the only woman in the group. We are all just people. We have a conversation to get through – an agenda – and my womanhood doesn’t make me any less able to participate in it. I do believe that men and women have different ways of thinking and approaching problems; I think it is essential to have a balanced team so that more comprehensive solutions can be provided to any given problem.

I do believe that it’s only human to succumb to feelings of unworthiness on occasion, but I strongly believe that focusing on personal ambitions rather than negative thoughts is key to anyone’s success. A woman in a field dominated by men will stand out – and to anyone else in this situation I urge you to see it as your opportunity to shine!

Don’t be afraid to take (calculated) risks

In time, I began to find being part of the corporate machine tiring – no doubt many of us do! Being pursued by larger companies for more senior positions wasn’t thrilling; it was draining and the idea of being shackled to the bureaucracy and politics of the pharma industry did not appeal. I wanted to find a more meaningful pursuit.

My partner and I had always wanted a farm and our search took us to Exmoor National Park, where, in 2002, we bought a small piece of land and began rearing some animals. Purchasing this new property marked the start of an exciting new adventure, but there was also the fact that there was no work for us in the area! I decided I might like to become a self-employed consultant. I reached out to some colleagues – and eXmoor Pharma was born in a spare room at the farm.

Was it frightening? Yes. There was no money or company to fall back on if it didn’t work out. We were alone. I had financial responsibilities including a mortgage. Then again, if we failed and I needed to find a new job then so be it. The regret of not pursuing the business would have been a far worse feeling. My colleagues and I wanted to change our lifestyles and have careers that fit round our individual passions and pursuits, and setting up the company seemed like the most logical way of making that a reality.

Multiple people have told me that we were lucky to be able to have taken such a huge risk, but the success we’ve had at eXmoor over the course of the last 15 years isn’t a product of chance. We were a team of experienced individuals with the drive to do something different from the conventions set by the industry. And now, you couldn’t pay me enough to go back to the type of work I was doing before!

Hold on to your integrity

When you initially conceptualize a business, it is more than likely that you won’t be able to fathom all of the issues that come with running one. One of our greatest dilemmas was finding the right people to work with, and sometimes we had to say no because the companies offering us work weren’t a good fit. We didn’t want to be owned, we wanted to have our own unique voice to help support businesses. And that’s difficult when you are just starting up and have no money coming in. But I think we were very good at evaluating opportunities and not being afraid to say no – this is easier when you are a consultancy because you don’t have assets.

I recall that someone had once told me to write down a list of 10 places I thought eXmoor would work with – and then throw it in the bin, because the likelihood of them working with us was low. And they were absolutely right. Smaller companies were full of enthusiasm and ambition but lacked the money and resources to enable us to work alongside them, and we were totally averse to working with large pharma companies, despite the abundance of funds they had at their disposal. Medium-sized businesses proved to be ideal and working with them enable us to hold on to our ethos instead of selling ourselves to the highest bidder.

The rise of cell and gene therapies has caused a shift in the industry. It’s been exciting for us to finally be able to work with smaller companies as they now have the funding to allow us to support them and help them affect change in the industry.

Change happens – don’t resist

The initial focus of the consultancy was conceptual design of biopharmaceutical manufacturing facilities and associated manufacturing strategies; however, cell and gene therapies have ushered in an exciting new era in the industry. To stay abreast with the changing tides, many industry players – including ourselves – have needed to adapt.

Today, every science graduate interested in the pharmaceutical industry has heard of these therapies and appreciates the impact they will have on healthcare around the globe. But when I left university, biopharma was similarly in its infancy. When Guy’s Hospital in the UK was interested in opening a cell therapy manufacturing facility, somebody recommended eXmoor to them. Though we had a great deal of knowledge about biologics and GMP, we knew little about cell and gene therapy technologies at the time. Despite this, I believed we were the best option available – no one in the industry had much experience with cell therapy – and eXmoor did know a lot about biologics and GMP. I made sure to let the clinicians I spoke to at the hospital know how I felt – and they gave us the contract.

First, we had to work on their first advanced therapy manufacturing platform. We developed the conceptual design for the facility and provided them with continued support throughout the project. Twelve years later, one of our QPs still works at that facility, and cell and gene therapies have become eXmoor’s main focus. Working on that project showcased how important the cell and gene therapy space is – and, since then, we’ve added more skills and looked at what is needed to convert research processes into manufacturing processes and how to integrate this into a manufacturing facility.

Changing gears and moving into a new field wasn’t easy. And we lost some of our key players during that period of time for different reasons, but it allowed us to restructure the organization and introduce new directors to help smooth out the transition. We’ve been able to open our own labs in the last 18 months (Future Space, based at the University of West England), and it’s an amazing asset for us because it allows us to work on process development for clients. It’s also very useful for our consultancy team to see the latest equipment in the lab and understand how it really works. We’d never have been able to achieve this kind of growth and expansion without embracing the changing industry trends.

There are many skills gaps in the cell therapy field

A lack of skills in a particular field means there is a real opportunity to influence in a positive way. Much of the equipment used in the manufacturing of cell therapies is borrowed from the biopharma and medicine spaces, and so doesn’t quite fit the requirements of this industry (yet).

How do we close processes? And how do we get to commercial scale manufacturing with a closed process and a reasonable cost of goods when you have a bunch of equipment that wasn’t designed for that task? Much needs to be improved in the sector. Regulators are also still getting their heads around the field, but it’s exciting to work with them, push the boundaries, and influence guidelines. I’ve read some articles indicating that regulators aren’t open to innovation but that isn’t my experience. I think regulators’ reactions to the progress in the field has been excellent. They are very practical and are just as eager to see innovative change happen in the industry as we are. And that makes working with them all the more enjoyable.  

I would say there is definitely room for improvement in academia. In our early days at eXmoor, one of our biggest frustrations was the secretive nature of academic groups. We saw the wheel of problems re-invented time and again because of their refusal to share information. At any given point, we could be called in by two or three groups with the same issues. It was in the best interest of all of these groups to create a community where they could share best practices and bring individuals across the industry closer together, and this is what sparked me to co-found the Advanced Therapy Medicinal Products (ATMP) Manufacturing Community ( in September 2010. The community has events, as well as working and advisory groups. We currently have 400 members, who, like myself, understand how crucial it is for stories to be shared and collaboration to happen so that the industry can be pushed in a more positive direction.

New science is exciting, but let’s not get carried away

The advanced medicine space is exciting – and very rewarding. I have encountered remarkable people and companies throughout my career, but people often get caught up in the excitement of the projects. Rather than developing a full plan, and working from an end point back to a starting point with a clear plan to close the gap, they skip steps and then wonder why it all goes wrong. Often, consultants are approached to resolve problems that could have been avoided entirely if a methodical plan had been paid out and followed from the start. My advice? Don’t get carried away. The highs and lows (and general chaos) of running a business mean that logical thought can be left by the wayside. Take a step back and try to be logical; think about how you will get from point A to point B. Once you have a clear picture of how to get there, the entire process becomes more straightforward.

Stay grounded

It’s easy to get caught up in the competitive aspects of work. Meetings can leave you buzzing with the prospect of broaching new territories and making new industry connections. Coming home to administer medicine to a sick animal on the farm is a whole different kettle of fish! It reinforces the fact that work isn’t everything. That said, it’s fantastic to be working in such an inspiring field. Cell and gene therapies are life and death technologies that are genuinely making huge differences for patients – and we’re seeing the results of these treatment types in real-time. Sometimes our QPs come back from approving a batch of treatment that is just about to be released. We’re all acutely aware of the fact that the patient is waiting for the treatment, so the critical nature of the situation is brought home. In the general pharma industry, where there is a detachment from the real people using the drugs, you don’t have such a strong connection. For me, motivators other than profit and acclaim give real meaning to my work.


Angela Osborne is Managing Director at eXmoor, UK.

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About the Author
Maryam Mahdi

Deputy Editor

After finishing my degree, I envisioned a career in science communications. However, life took an unexpected turn and I ended up teaching abroad. Though the experience was amazing and I learned a great deal from it, I jumped at the opportunity to work for Texere. I'm excited to see where this new journey takes me!

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