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Discovery & Development Analytical Science, Profession, Small Molecules

From Big Pharma to New Green Horizons: Lessons Learned with Ross Burn

Let your profession choose you

Having an interest in chemistry and being someone who enjoys solving problems meant that analytical chemistry was a great fit for my MSc. That’s what I studied at Strathclyde University – along with forensics. This was back in 1998-2003 before forensic chemistry hit the mainstream with CSI! Even then, some people had this idea that they’d be helping to solve crimes or giving evidence as an expert witness in court, but the day-to-day job of a forensic scientist tends to be quite routine. 

I was always more inclined towards the analytical side – I especially enjoyed separation science and investigative analysis. And that led me to study for a PhD, funded by Pfizer, based on analyzing the human proteome and trying to find new biomarkers of disease. There, I was exposed to the workings of drug development within a large pharmaceutical company and began to appreciate the role analytical science plays in bettering human health. So, while I couldn’t see myself going down the forensic side, you could say pharma chose me!

A big pharma company allows you to develop into a top-class scientist

After my PhD, I was fortunate to get my first role at AstraZeneca. After having spent several years at Pfizer during my PhD and then at AstraZeneca as a process chemist, I realized that large pharmaceutical companies know how to develop top class scientists. Not only are you working with cutting edge equipment, but you’re learning from experienced professionals who are brilliant at following the science towards answers to complex practical problems. Big pharma gets a lot of bad press, but my experience was that they empowered us to be the best scientists we could be. You can see why many are happy to spend their entire careers within a large pharma company, but that wasn’t my path… 

You need thick skin to build new relationships from scratch

In 2010, AstraZeneca decided to reduce its R&D footprint and shut down several sites in the UK. But they wanted to retain what we were doing well in the Bristol lab: catalysis screening. So, four colleagues and I decided to set up an independent lab and service AstraZeneca’s portfolio until they were able to recreate the facility in Macclesfield.  

Although for a period of time we were carrying on the work we were doing as AstraZeneca employees, I noticed some significant changes when trying to find new contracts. Without a big pharma name, building new relationships from scratch wasn’t easy and we had to grow thick skin to handle rejection. I also took on the financial responsibilities of the company from the start, in addition to working on the science, business development, and leadership. Finding the right work/life balance was tough while we honed our entrepreneurial skills and fought to create a sustainable business. 

Fortunately, the UK government at that time ran a three-day crash course in business skills that taught you the essentials as a business owner. And AstraZeneca were kind enough to allow us to take some time during our final months to educate ourselves. They did that for anyone looking to change careers as part of their winding down process.

A 40-second elevator pitch is worth more than a 100-page business plan

I realized early the importance of having a good value proposition – and that’s what really got us going. My advice to anyone looking to set up a business is, don’t expect it to be something like Dragon’s Den! Ensure you thoroughly carry out your market research, validate that your product provides a value-add or a solution to a current problem or need, and make sure your product or service is market ready at launch. There are startup networks and accelerators available that function as sounding boards for testing your hypotheses and prepare yourself for many years of hard graft to build a sustainable business. 

And as a new business you will need funding – cash is king, as they say. Traversing the entrepreneurial valley of death from startup to breakeven isn’t easy. We’re a bootstrap business, which means that we are owned by the co-founders and we don’t have any capital partners that inject cash into our business. The upshot is that we started the business with bucket loads of sweat equity, and still to this day reinvest as much of our profits as possible to fuel our business to grow. We also take on significant risk accelerating growth by leveraging additional bank debts into the business.

We decided to focus on sales and marketing from the beginning and assemble the best team we could. The goal was to get beyond the breakeven point as quickly as possible and to plan our funding needs from there. There are a number of great schemes available in most countries (in the UK, one can take advantage of the Entrepreneur Investment Scheme) that allow companies to raise external finance quickly. Remember, there’s trillions of dollars in the ecosystem waiting to help a business start and scale up – you just need the right business and team to make it happen. 

I wouldn’t recommend spending weeks writing a 100-page business plan in the early stages. Instead, make sure to refine your sales and marketing strategy so that you can clearly explain your value proposition – one that will resonate with stakeholders – in 10 slides or so. Having a 40-second elevator pitch to grab people’s attention is vital.

Don’t be afraid to re-evaluate when things don’t go to plan

We were lucky enough to have our first client, AstraZeneca, in the bag at launch and we managed to win business quite quickly. But that turned out to be a false dawn. Many of our initial customers were intrigued to see how we were using AstraZeneca’s honed methodology, which we owned, to solve catalysis problems. They wanted to see what sorts of processes AstraZeneca was using and perhaps didn't intend on giving us repeat business. 

In the end, we decided to shift our business model from catalysis screening to pharmaceutical process research and development. Many of our initial projects were in other sectors such as chemicals and agro. We decided to use catalysis as a tool to solve problems in the pharma industry and go back to what we were always good at: developing chemical processes for small molecule medicines. Since we made the change, we’ve grown an average 50 percent year-on-year.

Consider the environmental impact early or risk trouble down the road

Another key decision we made was to focus on green chemistry. I believe we should do our best, as a company and an industry, to reduce our carbon footprint and minimize the use of finite materials. Many processes use platinum group metals that predominantly come from just two countries: South Africa and Russia. Our approach is to use iron or base metal catalysis, which are far more abundant. The environmental case is clear but there’s also an economic argument. Such rare materials will continue to increase in price and you are limited in terms of building redundancy into your supply chains – something people are increasingly concerned about due to COVID-19, Brexit and global trade negotiations.

We passionately believe that companies need to be thinking about the environmental impact of their processes early. We see a lot of emerging companies developing new chemical entities. Often, they aren’t looking to commercialize the process themselves so environmental concerns aren’t near the top of their priorities. But companies must be aware that, even if you’re making kilos of API, the process mass intensity could be huge – especially if you have a high number of steps. We try to explain that companies need to be thinking about the process at the candidate selection stage because you don’t want an inefficient process with considerable environmental impact down the road. 

Fortunately, the industry as a whole is becoming more environmentally conscious. The big pharma companies all have green metrics to which they try to aspire – in turn, that’s putting pressure on CMOs and CDMOs, as well as the smaller companies, to follow suit. Over the next 5–10 years, I believe most companies will have good green metrics in their objectives.

Never underestimate the importance of staff wellbeing

Of course, we, along with everyone else, are having to adapt to the new challenges associated with COVID-19. We were allocated key worker status and were open throughout lockdown and we never had any confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the company. We couldn’t operate quite as effectively as usual but we managed to deliver on the projects we had booked. Like everyone else, we had to accelerate our digital strategy by probably 5 years, with managers and leaders working from home and interacting digitally with their colleagues. But we were already quite familiar with tools like Teams and Zoom because we have an international sales team. 

The impact on the business wasn’t as severe as other industries and companies. The real challenge for us was the wellbeing of staff. People react differently to an existential threat like a pandemic and many were anxious. Finding ways of making sure that everyone felt supported – with so much negativity in the press and people worried about their loved ones – was tough when working remotely.

In terms of our clients, they fell into two camps. In camp one, they knew how to proceed. They had their own milestones to hit and they decided to proceed as normal. In camp two, companies were more inclined to hold off on making decisions on repeat business until they had a better idea of when lockdown was going to end. This delayed decision making did give us some concern, but now we’re back to business as usual.

Digital technologies are coming, but collaboration is also key to innovation

When we talk about the (digital) future, we’re talking about CatSci 4.0. Phase 1 was the initial founding, phase 2 was the switch to process research and development, and phase 3 involved bringing in a new senior management team. Now we’re planning on further embracing industry 4.0 concepts: using in-silico tools for chemistry, using bots for automated back end processes in the business, intelligent automation for parallel synthesis, and integrating artificial intelligence across the business. The idea is to free up the minds of the chemists to solve the difficult problems. 

We’re also seeing a trend away from the traditional contract research organization towards “innovation partners.” Much of the innovation in the industry is coming from the smaller, emerging pharma companies and the supplier “CROs”, with pharma companies outsourcing more and more – potentially to the extent that a candidate may be outsourced all the way through to the clinic. But many companies are thinking too bilaterally with their collaborations. For example, they might have an outsourcing manager that has conversations with parts of the value chain, but the niche CROs and CDMOs never work together. We believe we can disrupt that thinking and work more collaboratively. We’re now forming partnerships with other niche organizations in the UK and overseas to bring new innovation to the industry. In fact, we recently announced new partnerships with three UK companies across the pharmaceutical supply chain – M2M Pharmaceuticals, New Path Molecular and Upperton Pharma Solutions. This collaboration will ensure that customers can access specialised capabilities and expertise throughout the journey from molecule to medicine.

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About the Author
Ross T. Burn

CEO at CatSci

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