Last week, as part of the BIA’s Women in Biotech (WIB) evening, we were treated to an inspirational presentation from Melanie Lee, Chief Scientific Officer at BTG. Melanie was the guest speaker at our inaugural WIB event back in 2007 and it was fascinating to hear her perspectives on how both her career and the sector have progressed over the last eight years. With the event a sell-out, we’ve rounded up some of the highlights below for those of you who were unable to attend.
With over 25 years of experience, Melanie embarked upon her career in the life science industry around the same time that the BIA was founded. Since her last presentation to the Women in Biotech (WIB) network eight years ago, Melanie has filled the position of CEO at two very different companies and recently stepped down from the BTG board to become CSO. Her family life has also changed drastically – her then teenage sons have now left home and in 2012 she lost her husband and sister to cancer, a stark reminder of the importance of our sector and the work we do.
There are a thousand topics that can and should be addressed by our exciting and dynamic sector – it is perhaps the most complex industry that it is possible to find. How do we stay ahead of the game in such a challenging and changing environment, both personally and as an industry?
One of the top line messages emphasised during Melanie’s presentation was the importance of taking risks. We work in an uncertain industry with a low probability of success, as such we need to be comfortable with risk. Melanie outlined some examples of where she had taken risks in her career and frequently pushed herself out of her comfort zone. Such an attitude is essential in any career – being comfortable is the worst place to be.
Following the completion of her PhD, Melanie undertook two post-doc positions – one of which was with the legendary Sir Paul Nurse. Emphasising the importance of your network, Melanie mentioned that neither of her post-docs were advertised positions. In fact, she approached Sir Paul in a pub and asked him for the opportunity, highlighting confidence is key in getting to where you want to be.
When she last presented in 2007, Melanie worked for UCB. In 2010 she became CEO of Syntaxin, before moving on to Syncona-funded start-up NightstaRx and finally joining BTG as CSO earlier this year.
The talent gap
Looking at change in the industry itself over the past eight years, biotechnology has driven a transformation across the sector and we have witnessed some wonderfully successful companies contribute truly life changing therapies. We have some ambitious targets for our industry – the BIA vision suggests a target of 130 more clinical stage drug companies and management teams in the UK, and 30,000 to 60,000 additional high skill UK jobs by 2025.
The successes in biotech of the past 15 years have run on the back of the large pharma companies’ investment in people. So with the decline of large pharma, where is the training ground for our next generation of industry researchers? Mid-size companies must focus on people and bring on the next generation of leaders. This need not be a depleting activity – in fact the investment in people often parallels great success.
Continuing the theme of the past eight years, over the same period, BTG has successfully transformed itself from an IP commercialisation company with fewer than 100 employees, with revenue under £30m and a market capitalisation of a few hundred million, to a fully integrated specialist healthcare business employing around 1200 people, with revenue over £400m with a capitalisation of approaching £2.5 billion. One of the key drivers of BTG’s success, according to Melanie, is the attention paid to people – the company spends time offering training and identifying those with ambition and potential.
The potential for medical breakthrough has never been so great; however the potential to lose our industrial science base has also never been so great. Companies invested in this industry must be creative and take responsibility for keeping young people in the sector and in the UK. The leaders of today were trained by the giants of the past – who is training the next generation?
Interested in future WIB events? We have more planned for 2016 – keep an eye on our events page for details