Sir Christopher Evans on Entrepreneurs, Life Science and Knob Heads!

08/03/2012 12:57 GMT | Updated 07/05/2012 10:12 BST

The British life science industry is thwarted by lack of investment with a slow regulatory process which is impeding its development, said Sir Christopher Evans, the biotech king who is regarded as one of Europe's leading medical science entrepreneurs, if not the world, and created the now famous Cambridge cluster of biomedical companies.

As someone who has established 45 successful science companies, and now running Excalibur Fund Managers, a specialised venture investor in life sciences companies, he is well qualified to speak from his vast experience, and he pulled no punches in his frank speech at the 'bench to boardroom' event run by One Nucleus in Newmarket, a membership group for life science and healthcare companies.

He was asked by Greer Deal, Director of Global Regulatory Services, for his opinion on regulations in the UK, and replied that it was too slow, and impeded development.

"If you are doing developmental work rather than research (the research is fine, we are quite good at regulating research), but when you start developing something from that research, you run into new raft of regulations.

"Britain is slow at interpreting, we are just too slow. We get in the way of exploiting these things and it costs money. So all these new companies, year after year they spend spend, spend, and then waiting, waiting, waiting for some mandarin or some do-gooders who think they know it all.

"And then you analyse the committee and you think, half those guys haven't got a clue, and they are deciding what we experts should be doing. You think, what's happening here? You know that's the rule Chris, shut your gob, back out.

"And there are real examples of that today in this country in 2012. You can't talk about them in a forum like this. Why? Because we are a country of fantastic political back stabbers. So I believe we pay a price if I named and shamed, and I would love to, because they really are knob heads. So you can do it quietly and hopefully the authorities will move in the right direction so that other companies can move quicker and develop some fabulous new science, move it through swifter."

When asked about comparisons between opportunities in the United States and Britain, Sir Christopher described our lack of "American flair" to exploit British scientific ideas.

"At the moment when they create young companies, and I often get shown the very young companies, they are far more advanced, the young companies have  got a lot more stuff in them, the scientific proofs have gone through a lot more phases than in the UK by the time they are offered to you, and that's why  a lot more venture capitalists keep piling in to the American companies while they are not piling into the British companies.

"It seems to me that the Americans, maybe they have got far more cash in the university system, well they have, we know that for a fact. They have learnt to take things secretly and quietly a lot further in the laboratory and then bang, they create go-faster ink, and they show it, it's very impressive. I am doing something there in the States at the moment which is quite substantive because all of the projects which we have assembled in America are extremely high quality and they are in development.

"Some of the British science base, I think we have some brilliant basic science and brilliant ideas coming through, but there is so little money in the science base. If I hear about anyone cutting the science base or restricting its budget, you think, "Jesus, now is the time when we should really step up the investment in British science because British science leads to enterprise, enterprise to small businesses, small businesses to the growth of the economy, jobs, revenues, profits, cash, value and excitement.

"But Britain has got some fabulous basic science, brilliant breakthrough ideas, but they are not making it into spin outs and start outs because they can't as there isn't the cash to spin them out, and also there is a real dearth of management, really good smart entrepreneurial management, but plenty of wasters and idiots walking around pretending they have flashy CVs.

"And actually we don't have the American flair, that's always been an issue for us for exploiting those British scientific ideas."

Sir Christopher emphasised the importance of having a skilled entrepreneur on the board - but admitted he hasn't always got it right, and described what happened to his company Neuropharm which was developing a drug for autistic disorders in children and adolescents, blaming an "egotistical" management for its decline. In fact, he didn't mince his words, and said that management had "effed this up big time".

He said the company could have been taken forward for a small part of the market with a turnover of £20 - £30 million a year, which would have been a good margin, a profitable business and they could have built on that success.

"But some of these knob heads went and spent all the bloody cash doing some gigantic egotistical trial to impress the FDA,  buggered it up, got the trial wrong,  the FDA walked away like they always do. That was  $100 million, and could have been $300 million the next day, it was $3 million the next day, and then 300k and then gone, history.

"And that's how it is with people who are a bit arrogant, too stroppy, know it all. I wasn't on the board at all, so I didn't know what went on in the boardroom, but it was bullshit as far as I was concerned and they screwed up."

Sir Christopher's advice is to ignore glossy CVs.

"Employ energy, intelligence and enthusiasm, that's something I have learned, not people with great CVs, with a fantastic background, boring, dullards, knob heads  If they are smart, they can do anything, if they are energetic, they will do anything, if they are enthusiastic, they set fire to everything and everything around them, and that is what makes things exciting.

He revealed that he was trying to seek funding for his latest challenge to raise the largest amount of money in the world, but declined to say what it was, but I wonder if it is involved with research involving stem cells and regenerative medicine which he described as a "gigantic field".  I wonder if it involves the development of growth organs and organ replacement, which he also referred to, enabling us to live forever and be partly bionic by having our organs replenished, wrinkly on the outside, but young inside. I imagine it is hugely innovative and exciting.

"I'm always looking for a  big challenge, I always tell people you need vision. I myself have to have some for myself and I have set myself a bloody big vision for this year, a huge project which I am not going to tell you about - maybe next year if it is successful, if it is really crap I will bury it. I'm really going for it, I have to raise a huge amount of money, a huge amount of cash to back up a huge array of research projects all at the same time and try and take this entire machine forward.

"I will apply all my rules, assuming I can raise the cash, which is the biggest amount of cash that I or anyone like me have ever raised in the world ever, but I am going for it.

"I've never built anything for ten billion, and very few people in the world have actually, and nobody in Britain has ever built a biotech company from nothing to ten billion, for me that's that the challenge."

When asked to name a "rising star" company in Cambridge, Sir Christopher's answer was Abcam.

"The most exciting company, the  best business that I am not involved in is Abcam, a fantastic company it will go on to be billions. It is run by smart people and that is a business I would loved to have set up with them and be part of for a decade or 15 years. I think they could grow that very, very big, a very profitable company. That is my number one."

The key attributes for an entrepreneur, according to Sir Christopher, are intuition, commercial sense, opportunism, risk taking, persuasiveness and leadership - all skills and characteristics which you cannot teach, but are inherent.

And this is the motivational statement which Sir Christopher carries around with him:

"Life's a journey, pain is temporary, but failure is forever."

He added: "I just could not stand that, failure forever, and it's true, and I want people to remember that before they throw the towel in on some of the good things they are doing."