Professor Tom Brown is Professor of Nucleic Acid Chemistry at the University of Oxford, and has co-founded three biotech companies (Oswel, ATDBio and PrimerDesign). He recently won the BBSRC’s Innovator of the Year for high impact serial entrepreneurship in DNA chemistry and outstanding commitment to innovation.
What is your background? Why are you doing this?
My background and studies have always been in chemistry, with PhD from Bradford, post-doc research at Oxford and Cambridge, and lecturer and professorships at Edinburgh, Southampton and Oxford. While at Edinburgh, I started a DNA modification service as part of my research, which became profitable very quickly, and served labs all over the country. Since then I have been involved in two other businesses related to my research, with labs in Southampton and Oxford.
An entrepreneur is someone who goes around looking for innovators, putting money into things. They are able to see things are important, even if they don’t understand the science. Entrepreneurship is about seeing an innovation, discovery or science development and taking it further than that, into something of use, commercial or otherwise.
The first spinout company came through necessity; we set up a service to make modified DNA, funded by the Wellcome Trust. As the service became more in demand, the university decided it did not want to run it, and so asked me if I wanted to buy it, which I did. My wife was helping to run it, and we saw we could control it without too much interference, and make it a bigger financial success.
So what would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
You need to be comfortable taking risks as there is no guarantee that things will work. You need to be able to multitask, to think past the basic science, as you will need to do everything in the early days. And of course, you have to work long hours, and have good energy and stamina.
It is wonderful when you get people coming together from different science background with problems they can’t solve. As a chemist, you might not know the problem existed for someone else, but then find a chemical solution to that problem. I enjoyed working to develop new forensic technologies and work with about 6000 customers, (about 80% academics) in my first company (Oswel). There was a real mix of people, lots of technical enquiries, with similar queries coming up repeatedly, and some unusual and fascinating ones.
Illumina, a US company based in San Diego, is a leading next generation sequencing company, whose technology has huge implications for health and biology, including biomedical applications. They bought Solexa, a tech company developed in Cambridge (who were able to grow based on being bought as they couldn’t get enough investment in UK).
I know so much about them already! How were they able to grow so rapidly once they became a US company? How much extra investment is need for that much bigger potential market? You can do so much if you have enough funding, if you put big money into science it will deliver.
Working with UK Forensic Science Service when forensics were really being developed was very exciting. Working with a number of biotech companies and helping them grow substantially. Turning an idea from research lab into something people use every day (diagnostics and forensics) is so rewarding. Sometimes as an academic you’re not really sure if you have done something worthwhile, and it is great to see the proof that it really means something beyond the basic science.
If you do something and it doesn’t work, you try something else. When we were running Oswel, we had a strong relationship with large instrumentation and reagent company who wanted to work with us closer, and handle our sales & marketing for new business. It sounded good at time, but it actually made no difference to turnover and created an extra administrative burden so we pulled out. With Oswel, a US company tried to buy us – but at the very last minute, we noticed a minor (almost hidden) clause which would have meant a lot less money that we were expecting. So we walked away from the deal and went from strength to strength.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
In Oxford, the concentration of active and talented researchers is so great that you can easily develop a very valuable network, even as a student. There is a very supportive environment here. It is relatively easy to attract investment as Oxford is one of the world’s best universities, with a fantastic name, and people want to invest in Oxford.
It’s a good time to be doing this. It can be quite daunting, but it’s not as bad as you think. Just get out there and do it. You can always find expertise, as the community is very receptive and helpful. Just remember that things don’t always work out how you think, but they sometimes move in surprising and exciting directions!