Eliot Forster, CEO of Immunocore

Eliot Forster is the CEO of Immunocore, one of the world’s leading biotech companies, and a spinout from the University of Oxford.  He studied neurophysiology at Liverpool and an MBA at Henley, and has worked in big pharma (Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline), as well as VC backed biotech companies (Creabilis and Solace).  He was also the co-founder of a couple of startups, and is currently chairman of MedCity.

Q: What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
A: To me, entrepreneurship is the willingness to explore an idea to see if there is any practical utility to it, out of which can emerge economic benefit.  It is bringing together of all the elements needed to test this hypothesis.

Q: What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
A: I was working at Pfizer when, due to a possible move to the US, I started to question what I wanted to do with my career.  Ultimately, I came to the conclusion I was more at home with entrepreneurs and academics than big pharma. A colleague of mine, who was thinking of starting a company, asked if I would be interested in running it, and so I did.

Q: So what would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
A: The ability make a simple and understandable story from complex idea, creating a hook around which people and funding can orientate, is quite important. If I can understand it, others will too.
Doggedness is essential, as it is much easier to give up than to keep going.
The ability to learn quickly is also really important, as you will be learning about 1000 things a day when starting up.  Learn and deploy that learning.

Q: What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
A:  It’s the adventure of the unknown.  I am a highly curious person, and every business and interaction is unique.  Like polar exploration in the office!

Q: What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
A: I really admire Winston Churchill, because of his doggedness. When the whole world said we couldn’t do it, he kept saying we can, and kept going.  But also, Steve Jobs because he was able to articulate visions of technology that were almost unbelievable.  From a leadership position, it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day details – one needs to look beyond that.  They both got stuck into the details, but also always held onto their vision.

Q: If you could have 5 minutes with the above indiv/company/org, what would you want to ask or discuss?
A: I would ask them “What’s the first thing you thought about in the morning before getting out of bed, and last thing you thought about before falling asleep at night?

Q: What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
A:  it is so amazing watching people I have hand picked and employed, to go on and be real successes in their own right.  I love seeing people enjoy and bring energy and enthusiasm to their role.

Q: What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
A:  I would say I am a pretty good judge of character, so going against my instinct on a couple of occasions, and then seeing it go wrong. It’s not always easy, but trust your instincts.

Q: What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire?  Bad?
A:  Good – Oxford is world renowned and surprisingly close to everything, the latter in a way I hadn’t anticipated, as a result, it’s relatively easy to get people to work here.  Bad – Because it is so easy, and with great universities, it is expensive and congested.  It has created issues for people, particularly junior staff, who want to live and work here.  Housing, for example, is almost unaffordable for younger staff.

Q: If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship information or resources in Oxfordshire, where would you send them?
A:  I don’t think there is any one place.  You’ve got to be willing to go and interact on many levels.  There are many organisations to join, and events to attend. You need to be willing to put in lots of effort to build your network, as it is essential!  It is a mistake to operate in splendid isolation as an entrepreneur or business.  This is a fast moving ecosystem, including business, academia, government, health, and consumers, all of which need to be understood and accommodated in thinking.

Q: Any last words of advice?
A:  If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, hope to fail because as long as you’re still willing to learn, the failure will teach you 10 x more than success.  It is a phenomenal learning experience.  In the US in particular, investors are often more willing to back entrepreneurs with multiple failures because serious investors understand that mistakes bring learning and they will be the wiser for it.  The UK is less understanding of failure, but slowly the culture is changing.