Rosamond Deegan is the CEO of OMass Therapeutics which is an Oxford University spin-out supported by Syncona Ltd and Oxford Sciences Innovation. The company uses biophysical technology to push drug discovery for genetic diseases and immunology, using a mass-based approach and new methods. Deegan graduated from Cambridge University where she read Natural Sciences before completing her Masters, and she now has over 20 years of experience working in biotech, pharma and consulting across Europe as well as the US.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I am not sure that I ever actively decided to become an entrepreneur. Although I am entrepreneurial in biotech, it is a different kind. I never had to go through, what one might view as the traditional conception of entrepreneurship, working with no money, no salary, no security. Trevena was the earliest company I joined and although, we had a 24 million dollar investor syndicate, it was nonetheless entrepreneurial in the sense that we were working together in a tight-knit group and there definitely was that unique start-up atmosphere.
However, the thing that really made me want to be an entrepreneur was that I am a generalist. In bigger organisations, I believe people were trying to put me in a box and confine me to a specific task. This is not who I am and I really enjoy the variety of trying new things. This is what I also love about being CEO, nothing is ever “not your job” and that keeps things really interesting.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
What we do is entrepreneurship as we are breaking new ground. My personal skill set is taking a start-up and putting in place the right processes to really help it along and ensure it is robust. However, I massively admire those entrepreneurs who run with ideas and perhaps, align more with the traditional conception of entrepreneurship. For me, what is really important is confidence in the people you work with. As I am, in some ways more a business woman than a scientist now, I wanted to go into a sector that overlapped with my skillset and where I had a scientific knowledge base. However, as I am not so involved with digging deep into the scientific processes, a crucial component of my work will always be my judgments about these brilliant scientists. So many of my decisions rely on their work and so a high level of trust is vital. I had huge confidence in all my colleagues at OMass and this is what helped make this company such a success.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Resilience is crucial. In the start-up world there are highs and there are lows. You have to be able to pick yourself up very quickly and move on. Ambition is also necessary, the ability to envision an idea and not limit yourself in what you are trying to achieve. Thirdly, I would say, passion. You need to be passionate about what you are doing. This ties into resilience as, if you are not passionate then having the necessary resilience will be difficult.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why? Galapagos is a Dutch company that I find really inspiring. The CEO has taken the company and really worked to make it into one of the biggest European biotech companies. The journey it has undergone from a relatively small start-up, to a firm which is commercialising its own products is very impressive.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I think it’s always interesting to know what a successful entrepreneur would do differently, looking back on their journey. Also, the question of when something is luck and when it is judgment because both are needed in this industry.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
I think I have learned a lot about myself as an individual, as well as the companies I have worked with. The importance of company fit is crucial. Often as a firm grows and expands, different people are required. I can give a personal example of Trevena as when I joined the firm, my skill set was the perfect fit. However, as a firm develops it is constantly evolving its requirements. I was aware of this and was part of the team that started recruiting specialists in order to aid this process. As this team was assembled, the more generalist job that I had been doing was no longer necessarily the right fit for the job and no longer the best environment for me to thrive in. It was an important thing to realise that actually, employing yourself out of a job can actually be your job, and to be comfortable and learn to be proactive from that.
How have you funded your ideas?
In biotech, there are various avenues to get sponsorship and there are various investors that focus on private biotech. It is all about identifying the investors you think you would appeal to and would like to work with. It is important to realise that this is a long process. You continually need funding in this industry and it is a question of building relationships and trust with investors. The best advice I would give is putting yourself into the investor’s shoes and thinking about value-inflection points from their viewpoint.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
I would look out for grants as there are some great ones around. Innovate UK has really good grants, we have one at OMass and are looking into applying for another.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
What is nice about the UK in comparison to the US, is that it is smaller and you can really get to know others working within your field. Oxford has been excelling recently and if you just look at the work around the Covid vaccine and the partnership with AstraZeneca, you can see that this is a real coming of age for Oxford. Being part of Oxford is therefore really significant regarding access to high-quality staff amongst other things.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
I would definitely send them to Oxford Sciences Innovation. They are one of our investors and particularly in the Oxford area, they have fantastic connections and really have specialist expertise.
Any last words of advice?
Building networks is crucial. My advice would be to take active steps. Message that person on Linkedin you admire, ask for help and reach out to different people. Often these people really want to help you and if they have the time, they will. When people message me and it is clear that they are passionate and well informed I love to give any advice I can. When someone can show me that they have credibility and drive, I really do want to do anything I can to help. You will be amazed at how many strangers will want to talk to you if you show passion.