cover art for Beyond the Breakthrough featuring Tony Hickson

Tony Hickson is the chief business officer of Cancer Research UK, where he leads the Commercial Partnerships team responsible for commercialisation. He joins us on the podcast to discuss taking a very long view of shifting culture towards more entrepreneurialism and the importance of transparency around ethnic diversity and inclusion.

He also discusses the changes he has seen and the lessons he has learned over the course of his career to date, which included turning Imperial Innovations into a public company and eventually seeing it acquired by its peer IP Group.

Plus, Hickson shares why has loved sitting on the boards of PraxisAuril, Cambridge Enterprise and the Francis Crick Institute, and tells us why Apollo Therapeutics is the spinout that is among the most memorable for him.



Note: The introduction and end credits have been omitted and some sentences have been edited slightly for clarity.

Tony, welcome to the show.

Hi, Thierry.

To start with, can you give me an overview of Cancer Research UK and the Commercial Partnerships team?

As you are aware, cancer is a big burden on society. It kills nearly 10 million people every year. I work for Cancer Research UK. We are a charity – the US would refer to that as a foundation – and we have a very clear goal.

Our goal is to get 75% of people to survive cancer by 2034. Only about 50% of people survive cancer at the moment. So, it is quite a lofty goal, but it gives us a very clear focus and the public give us money each year as a charity, they donate to us through running marathons and legacies and events, things like that, and then we provide that money back to researchers, through grants and awards. We funded about £2bn worth of research over the last five years. Interestingly that is around 50% of all the academic cancer research in the UK. That is quite unusual because, in many other countries in the world, that gap would be funded by governments. So, the UK is quite unusual in that.

In terms of the Commercial Partnerships side, the reason we exist is because we want to do more than just fund high-quality research. We want to make sure something happens with that research. And it is not just about us wanting to do that, the public, we think, expect that to happen. They are donating their money because they want to see that research get translated into products and services that benefit cancer patients in the future. So, that is why we have a Commercial Partnerships team.

I imagine the Commercial Partnerships team is a fairly significant part of the organisation then?

It is an important part. It is a relatively small part of the organisation. The organisation employs 4,000 people. Now, the reason it has that many people is because we have so many charity shops throughout the UK. We have a very large retail arm, which employs a lot of people, many volunteers as well, helping to raise money for the charity. But we are a relatively small unit, but that is not to say, I like to think anyway, that we are not an important part of the charity.

Yeah, of course. Is the Commercial Partnerships group still structured like a typical tech transfer organisation despite being in a charity?

Yes. I work for a wholly-owned subsidiary, called Cancer Research Technology. I sit on the board of that and I run the Commercial Partnerships arm. The other part of Cancer Research Technology is our therapeutic discovery arm, and we can talk about that a bit in a minute.

And that is important to the charity. That unit has helped get 11 drugs to market so far – it is probably the stat we are most proud of. They are out there helping patients. And over the last couple of years, we have brought in around £180m of royalties that all gets ploughed back into cancer research and goes back to our university partners.

So, we think that is an important part of the charity and helping its mission.

In terms of answering your question directly, are we set up the same as a tech transfer organisation? Probably slightly differently and the reason for that is we are not a university tech transfer office focused on a single campus or a campus around us.

We are actually spread across the entirety of the UK funding research – and overseas increasingly. The way we have actually chosen to set ourselves up is along the lines of a distributed search and evaluation team. So, people spread out around the country, embedded in the cancer centres, embedded in the hospitals and universities, highly visible to our researchers.

They are the people out there spotting new ideas, going to lab meetings, triaging things, filing patents – the front end, really engaging with the scientists.

Then we have a core business development team back in London. They are the transaction specialists. They are the ones doing the deals. We have a new ventures team, they are structuring the startups.

Then the final piece of the puzzle is our post-deal and strategic alliances team. They are extremely important. One lesson we have learned is you must not drop the ball once you have done a deal. If you are going to form a long term strategic alliance with a pharmaceutical company, you need dedicated people. They have strategic alliance managers, so we need them as well to make sure we professionally run these types of things.

Actually, just two other things that might mark us out as unusual: we have a US arm, Cancer Research Technology Inc. That is simply a reflection of the importance of the US market to us in this biopharma world and oncology world. We have people on the ground in the US to market our technologies.

And then the final part is our Ximbio team. They are our team that do reagents. So there is therapeutics and diagnostics, they get a lot of the attention because they are big numbers or they involve well-known companies, but actually, it is just as important to get the small research reagents and tools that we are funding through our research, or byproducts of that research, out there into the oncology community as well.

We have a dedicated team. It is small, not for profit and it is almost run like a little biotech in its own right. It acts a bit like a sort of Amazon of research reagents. I do not know if it is the size of Amazon, but it does a fantastic job in getting these research reagents out of the lab and into the hand of other scientists.

What we are going to do actually is we are looking to expand that unit. So we have some exciting news coming and I will not steal their thunder, they are going to be announcing all of that at AUTM and AACR.

Amazing. I look forward to that. You mentioned it briefly, therapeutics. You have the therapeutic discovery laboratories, can you tell me a little bit about that as well?

That is the other half of CRT – this innovation engine of the charity. Therapeutic discovery labs is very important for us. We have the therapeutic discovery labs. We have a centre for drug development. We have other platforms such as the gene-editing platform and antibody platform, and all of that is there to help the researchers move their ideas forward.

If the market functioned perfectly, the biopharma companies and the venture capitalists will all just swoop in on our research once we finish funding the research and we would just facilitate the IP. But of course, there are ideas out there that are still too early. They are too challenging for biopharma to pick up, or perhaps they are a bit niche, maybe they are small rare diseases or childhood cancers that are harder for the market to engage in.

So, we have this almost in-house biotech that helps researchers to access both capital and access resources, pharma-quality, resources to move their ideas forward. It employs over 250 people. And again, actually, we are in a process of sort of relaunching that, it will relaunch in April to make a bigger splash on the global stage. We are very excited about that actually.

I should probably ask when you say a small team or a big team, perhaps you can give me some numbers. How big is the charity in general? How big is your team?*

The charity employs about 4,000 people, as I say, over 2,500 of those, I believe, are in the retail side, in the charity shops around the country. Then there is a research and innovation division, and they give out all the research funding and administer that £400m-plus that we are getting out each year. Within that is the Commercial Partnerships team, which is currently running around 55 people strong, about 15 of those are in the Ximbio group and the rest are doing all those things that I mentioned before – search and evaluation, business development and post-deal and alliance management.

If it was a TTO at a university, that would be a decent number of staff.

Yes, absolutely. But if you think about it, our research budget at £400m each year is equivalent to a very large UK university.

Yeah, of course. One of your recent initiatives, I think it was 2019 you launched it, includes the Cancer Tech Accelerator. Can you tell me a little bit of this as well?

Yes. So, the Cancer Tech Accelerator… I guess we spend a lot of time, especially in the world of cancer, talking about therapeutics. Obviously, we know we make a real difference there, but that is not the only thing we need to translate and move forward that comes out of our research.

We need to look at diagnostics. We need to look at AI. We need to look at data. All of these things, as technology converges, are going to be more important in the future. And the Cancer Tech Accelerator is a new joint initiative – it is between ourselves, the Medical Research Council, Capital Enterprise and Roche Diagnostics. We have come together to build this accelerator, to encourage our researchers to get involved in medtech translation.

It is a nine-month program. It has a three-day intensive bootcamp at the start, and then there is a nine-month programme split into three and six months units. They get a small amount of money, they get about £50,000 to move the idea forward.

But actually, it is access to expertise and facilities that we find makes the real difference to them. It has been through one cohort so far, and there is some really exciting projects in there that I will be surprised if they do not make it into a startup and raise significant capital.

I look forward to seeing more. You mentioned the £50,000 that you put into companies, you offer pre-seed and seed investment to spinouts and you have a partnership with SV Health to source larger sums of capital through their Impact Medicines Fund. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Yeah, so spinouts are obviously a really important area. We are seeing more and more demand and growth in spinout companies each year, perhaps as this new more tech-savvy generation of researchers begins to come through. We want to help these cancer scientists move their ideas forward. So we can do a startup in a passive way – the university can set it up and we can just make sure there is sort and milestones and things in there. Or we can actively get involved and have the ventures team actively get involved in helping form startups. We do both and it depends on the circumstances. Our new ventures team manage that process.

The seed fund is really interesting because it is an area that we have seen growth in recently. So for some time, we have had a relatively small seed fund and that is increasingly in demand, which I think is good because it suggests there is the deal flow out there to keep it going. So we are just now expanding that into a £30m seed fund.

The aim is that cancer research will put up £15m and we will aim to raise the rest from philanthropy. Then we can deploy that money into the early-stage ventures. The way we will do that is we will follow quite a well-known beaten path on this, which is we will have small pre-seed awards of £50,000 to £100,000, where we can quickly test an idea, validate it, try to answer some key questions, get a business plan pulled together pre-incorporation.

Then we will have the actual seed fund, which is run by an independent investment committee, and will invest typically somewhere between £500,000 and £1m in each project, ideally match with some money from elsewhere to help validate the idea. It can also follow into series A, just to help catalyse the series A round. But it will not go any further than that, because it is there to catalyse new ideas. We want to stimulate. Our job is impact-driven. We want to see these ideas get out there. This fund is not there to make money and deliver a return to the charity. Any returns it does make will be evergreened back into it, which is important for the philanthropists to see.

Are you not interested at all in a series A or later-stage fund then at Cancer Research UK?

Oh, we are very interested in it. We have formed over 60 startups now. They raised something like £800m alone last year, £2.3bn raised to date, and we have had 17 exits. Startups are an increasingly growing and important area for us. Having access to the right amount of capital to help move those ideas forward is very important to us.

What we actually have at the moment is we have a relationship with SV Health and it is called the Impact Medicines Fund. That fund helps to move forward some of these ideas by working with us. We put it together, it is £265m. The real value I think we see is the fact that they work very closely with us to help us, and they are like a company builder. So, even if they are not investing in things, they are looking at very early-stage propositions that we are showing them. They give us intelligence on what would they need to see in order to make it investment-ready. That is like gold dust to us, that is really valuable intelligence. We can use our seed fund and other sources, proof of concept funds, to help maybe answer those questions and get it to an investment-ready point.

Yeah, that makes sense. What is your view on the use of big data and AI in healthcare? I know those are big topics at the moment. Is that something that you are exploring commercially as well?

Yeah. I mean, the world is converging, is it not? Science is converging. We are going to see more of the biotech world joined together with the tech world of data and AI in the future. It is inevitable. It is already happening. The train has left the station, get on board. The cancer science world lends its itself very world to these tech worlds. We generate huge amounts of data through cancer, lots of multi-omics, genomics type data, lots of clinical trial data. These data sets are very valuable and useful to companies to apply their machine learning algorithms towards.

We are seeing a lot of interest in the area, not only in developing new, early detection techniques, but also clinical trial stratification, drug repurposing. There are lots of areas that AI can be used in the cancer world to really help benefit it. Other advances like DeepMind’s recent AlphaFold algorithm are really opening up new fields as well.

So I think there is a lot of excitement.

From my team’s perspective, obviously, that is exciting and challenging. We need to make sure we keep up. We employ a lot of very intelligent people with degrees in biology or PhDs in biological science, but we need to keep up with the AI side. So, we are starting now to hire people in that data science specialism, so that we can. We are starting to do some deals in that space as well, one example of which would be the Optimam deal. This is a database of breast cancer mammography images, that we helped to fund and develop. We now license them over 10 times, non-exclusively, to a number of different companies all developing new AI algorithms to help detect breast cancer earlier.

We are going to see more things like that in the future, so that is why we are gearing up for this whole space.

The other one I will mention is AI in drug discovery, of course, which is for the therapeutic discovery labs side of our organisation. That is an increasingly interesting area as well.

Yeah, I can imagine, especially, after Exentia had a phenomenal IPO, that is probably at the top of everyone’s mind as well because they seem to be doing quite well in that area.

They are. They are certainly hiring a lot of people, yes.

What is working well in your ecosystem and what are the challenges?

I would say our ecosystem is functioning very well. It is very vibrant. Oncology is an exciting area. It is despite the huge burden still seen as a hot area in terms of commercialisation and investor and biopharma interest. Other areas like neurodegeneration are becoming more interesting to those types of investors as well.

The biggest challenges in the ecosystem are the traditional ones – accessing capital, accessing talent and perhaps culture as well is a challenge.

How easy or difficult is it to attract money and talent? Do you generally source them from the UK or do you look everywhere?

If we start with capital in the UK environment, we have some amazing academic institutes in the UK. The UK biotech sector is certainly booming, accessing capital, I think, as a result of that has become less of a bottleneck in recent years than it used to be. And I am not saying it is all perfect, but the frothiness^ of the biotech market means there is a lot of capital moving around and we have seen generalist investors enter the scene, that traditionally was a space only for specialist investors.

As a result of that, we have seen some really toppy series A rounds, both in the US and in the UK as well. I think what is actually happening is we are attracting overseas investors into the UK because the valuation rounds perhaps are getting slightly overheated in the US and maybe in China. That is attracting them to markets like the UK and Europe for investment opportunities.

The whole AI thing we just spoke about as well is only adding to the sense of excitement around that area. So that has led to lots of scale-up and follow-on capital becoming available. I think there is still a gap and there probably always will be a gap at the very earliest stages of that pre-seed and seed investment stage because investors find it hard to make a return in that area. That is where governments and charities will always have a role to play.

You touched on culture as well. What are the challenges around culture in this area?

Culture, I think, is quite an interesting one. This might actually be internationally and there are differences as well. A lot of progress has been made in getting the culture of academia and researchers to really engage with translation.

But we did some analysis recently and we looked at all the people we are funding and how many of them are engaging with us in the sense of filing patents, invention disclosures, spinouts, startups, working with industry, and the number is about 13%. Now we do not have a benchmark, I guess, but we sense that is too low. We certainly want to see that above the 20%.

We need more of our researchers to engage with us. We have already said that the public want to see this research translated and it might be a bit of a generalism, but generally we are gonna focus on the younger researchers – the generalism being that old researchers are less likely to change their culture.

That is a generalism because I have seen octogenarian founders in my time – it is not impossible. But focussing on the younger generation is where we are starting because we want them to almost have the opportunity to try to do a startup early in their career. And even if it fails, learn from the experience, and go forward and have that sense of, I can be a great academic or researcher and I can be a great entrepreneur. They are not mutually exclusive. I can do both.

We set up a program called PACE, which is Promoting A Culture of Entrepreneurship. And we are putting money into this. The way we are doing it is we are funding partnerships between Cancer Research UK and various accelerators, mentorship schemes, business plan competitions, customer discovery journeys, all around the country.

The idea is that you do not give a busy postdoc an opportunity to opt out. It is either local, so they do not have to travel too far, or it is sector specialist – there is a partnership for AI startups, there is a partnership for medtech startups, there is a partnership for therapeutic startups. There is always an option for them and it is easily accessible for them.

I think the real challenge here is if you want to change culture, you have to do this for a long time. There is no point in doing this for a few years. So, this is a decade long project, at least, in the making, but then that is something that governments and charities can think that long term to make a difference. I think that is one of the beauties of working for an organisation like Cancer Research UK.

You do not have the almost natural limit of having researchers… especially if you think PhD students and postdocs, there is sort of a limit on how long they will stay in the university and then they will look elsewhere.

What is your view of the UK more broadly? Do you have any ideas about how it compares to Europe or the US?

The strength of our academic institutes is a real bonus for the UK, that attracts a lot of interest. We punch above our weight academically, given the size of our population, and we need to maintain that strength, that is a core backbone of this.

I am not advocating taking a lot of money away from basic research and putting it into translation. That basic research underpins all of this and it is vital we do that. We are learning lessons from the US, that sort of cultural piece, I think the US probably has a better culture. Equally, that probably exists in certain areas like the Stanford cluster and the Boston cluster, it probably does not apply in some of the fly-over states. Just like it is harder perhaps in some areas of the UK to get that culture in place. But I think we compare pretty well to the States. I think Europe, certain pockets certainly, compare and the other parts of it are catching up.

The only way is up, as Simon Bond once said to me.

How does your engagement fare when it comes to diversity and inclusion? Do you have those numbers?

EDI is something we take very seriously at the charity. In fact, our CEO, our COO and our CFO are all female, which is a good leadership representation. We are very transparent with our stats, we now publish them.

And actually just this month, we have published our first organisation-wide EDI strategy. We have certainly taken this very seriously, but as with lots of organisations, there is a lot of room for improvement. We can do better.

If you look at our pay gaps, our ethnicity pay gap is actually positive in terms of ethnic minorities getting paid more than non-ethnic minorities. The gender pay gap is still there. It is about 20%. That is in our published stats. We need to correct that, we are very aware and are starting measures to do that. If you drill down within my team itself, within the Commercial Partnership team, our proportion of ethnic minorities is about 20%, which I think is probably about right for the UK population.

The female-male ratio is pretty well balanced as well. We know we can do more. So we have been working really hard on the way we recruit people, trying to do more inclusive recruitment practices, making sure our staff have an EDI objective, doing more courses, trying some reverse mentorship. So there is a whole battery of different things we are trying internally because we are aware we need to improve this.

The other area of course is in funding researchers. It is not just our internal staff, we need to think about the research community that we are funding. We are also transparent. We publish our diversity data for the grant funding each year, so you can see exactly the diversity of the community that we are funding.

And there are a lot of schemes we have now put in place to try and increase that diversity. It needs to be increased. So we have a STEM scheme to encourage children to do science degrees. We run a Women of Influence mentoring program and we also sponsor a Black in Cancer initiative. To sum up, lots happening, we need to improve, and we are doing a lot to try and make that happen.

I find that quite interesting that you are thinking as far ahead, I suppose, as school children. You are really trying to raise a generation of researchers across ethnicities and genders rather than just being focused on the researchers that you have now, because yes, as you said earlier, it is a decades-long project to change the culture. So, that is beautiful.

You joined Cancer Research UK in 2018, you spent 16 years with what was Imperial Innovations then Touchstone Innovations and then eventually IP Group. What first prompted you to pursue a career in research commercialisation?

So, I started out working for healthcare companies. I worked for Wellcome and Abbott – big, large multinational corporations. I started off in the lab and moved into business development and licensing. And then I did a really interesting, a very fun three-year stint in a Johnson & Johnson-funded medical instrumentation startup. And that was great. I think with hindsight, it has allowed me to have some empathy for what startup founders are going through, but it was a great period of my life and I really enjoyed it.

And then I joined Imperial College’s innovations unit back in 2001, and that turned out by pure serendipity to be the start of an amazing journey. I think I was the 10th or 11th employee in a small organisation. Imperial College itself is an amazing place. It is this centre of multidisciplinary excellence.

So over that period at Imperial, I got to work on turbochargers and climate change and cryptography and facial recognition. You know, it is just an amazing using mix of different engineering and bioscience disciplines coming together. I really enjoyed the time there, I am very privileged to have worked there. But over that next 16 years, I was lucky enough to have joined a team that took it on a journey.

And that journey took us from being a standard tech transfer office into, I guess, what you describe as a fully integrated IP management and venture investing company. What we did is we did a private placement – we raised some money through that, tested the market and that worked out pretty well.

Then we did an IPO, listed on the London Stock Exchange. Over time, we then raised about £600m, which we invested back into startups initially from Imperial, but then expanded outwards into the community. And finally, that culminated in IP Group acquiring us in 2018.

What drew you to Cancer Research UK then? I suppose you had seen the journey of Imperial Innovations to its conclusion. Was it time for something new?

Yes, the timing was right. I was working for IP Group at the time and the new opportunity came up with Cancer Research UK. Like many people sadly I have lost close friends and family to cancer. One in two people gets cancer now. So, you know, it is not necessarily surprising.

The potential to work for an organisation with such a clear mission was a very much a draw to me, but what really sold it was the opportunity to reshape the organisation. It was clear that CRT was going through a transition and it was a real opportunity to get involved in some of these exciting projects.

So the PACE program, putting together and working with SV to raise the Impact Medicines Fund, reconfiguring out internal biotech organisation – they were all things I knew I would be able to get stuck into and help out with, and that was part of the attraction.

What has the experience been like so far?

Of course, I am going to say it is great. It is. Yes, it has been really good. If I am honest, it took me a while to readjust to working for a large organisation. The way large organisations move is not necessarily the most nimble and Imperial Innovations and IP Group are relatively small organisations. But once I got used to that, once you adapt you realise what an amazing place it is to work with real passion and clarity of mission.

That really helps get you out of bed every day. You really enjoy working for them.

How does commercialisation at Cancer Research UK compare to what you did previously or are any aspects that make it easier or more difficult to get research out the door?

It is very similar. At the end of the day, we are doing the same thing: we are looking at research, we are filing patents, we are doing licence deals, we are setting up startups. So, I am not sure that cancer research is any different to working in the university environment from that respect. Where it is different is because we are also a research funder, we have the opportunity to influence some of those things and to step in and to move some of those ideas forward and to use that firepower to move us forward.

I have already spoken about the structural differences in the way that we are set up and there are good reasons for that. But the other main difference is that we are clearly focused on one area. So we are only focused on cancer and tech transfer offices generally have to cover – I feel for them, I have been there – a lot of ground. And so the advantage of focusing solely on cancer is that we can forge very tight relationships with oncology companies and venture capital investors because we are focused on one area. We can curate those networks and manage to make sure we are always meeting with them. It is all about relationships in this game. It is about keeping those relationships up to date and well-curated.

Speaking of relationships, you are also lending your expertise to Cambridge Enterprise, Francis Creek Institute, you were director of PraxisAuril until the end of last year. How do these appointments add value to your work, or how do you give value to those other companies?

I sit on the board of Cambridge Enterprise, as an advisor to the board. Actually, I sit on the board with Lesley from MIT’s tech transfer office as well. We are both there to help what is already a very impressive operation at Cambridge University, just a bit of organisational advice on tech transfer and just add some general wisdom to the mix – they have a very impressive board there anyway.

It is also a two-way street, of course. I am seeing the way that Cambridge University does some things thinking, ‘wow, that is really great, let us borrow some of those ideas’. So we sort of feed off each other. With Francis Crick Institute, I sit on the translational advisory group and that is the group within the Crick that are looking to fund some of these projects to the next stage. There is an independent committee there. Obviously, Cancer Research puts £50m-plus into the Crick every year. It is the flagship institute funded as well by the MRC and Wellcome. It does some phenomenal science, absolutely amazing science going on there. So, yeah, great to see some of the projects that are coming through there.

The other one you mentioned was PraxisAuril, I have just come off the board – I rotated off the board after eight years. I absolutely loved my time there. PraxisAuril, for those that do not know, is the equivalent of AUTM in the USA. It is the training and professional development organisation in the UK for knowledge transfer specialists, it organises a conference, and it helps raise the profile of the whole community with government, other areas like that. So, yes, I sat on a board. I helped with training courses in licensing and venture development, helped with some of their strategic initiatives, helped run some seminars on data and AI, areas like that, and very much enjoyed that experience.

I think it is symptomatic of the way the community behaves. The knowledge transfer community is a real community. Everyone is there to help everyone else. You do not see the sort of rivalry or the hoarding of knowledge, everyone shares everything. It is a great profession to be part of.

As you said, eight years on the board of PraxisAuril, two decades in tech transfer in general now. What changes have you seen over the course of your career so far?

That is an interesting question because there has been a lot of change over the course of the career. Some things have remained very much the same, the way we do things like licensing and startups, some things have changed quite a lot. The fact that knowledge transfer in general now is viewed by governments and universities as being vital and something that should be supported and built on – it is no longer enough for universities to just educate and publish – that they want to see these ideas and the impact of them has played very well. The whole tech transfer and knowledge transfer profession has really upped its game and got it recognised.

The other thing that I would really remark on is this sort of evolution in the maturity of the sector with what I call lighter touch tech transfer – the ability to sometimes learn to relax and get out of the way. And other times to intervene, to help make something happen. That is really nice to see. We have seen serial entrepreneurs and people that begin to develop now. We would like more of them, but as they begin to develop, you have to recognise they know what they are doing so that the job of the tech transfer office is to package up the IP and get it over to them as fast as possible – let them do their thing. For many years, we had a one-size-fits-all type model in many universities around the country, and now we are seeing much more flexible models emerge.

One of those, whilst I was at Imperial, I helped set up something called Founders Choice that Imperial set up. It is just a nice idea. It is the example of that lighter touch tech transfer. You have a comprehensive support package. If you need the help, the university will take more equity for providing that support.

Then you have a much lighter touch package where the university takes only a small amount of equity, gets the IP over to you but still gives you some support – it is not zero support. It allows you to choose between which route you want to go down. I think the academic community really appreciate that. And what is interesting is several years later you still see both the models being adopted, it is not just everyone lurches to one or the other. And by the way, that is not the same as the opt-out that you see in universities like Karolinska and Waterloo, because you are not opting out of the tech transfer system entirely. You are still in it, but you are just choosing – you have more choice, more flexibility over the level of support you get.

Was it 10%, if you take the lighter touch one in Founder’s Choice? They are all smart people, I think an academic will know if they need much more support or if they do not. So, it makes sense that both would still be around.

Is there anything that you would say to someone starting out in this profession today, any advice?

You are going to struggle to find a more rewarding job. Honestly, every bit of that is true. If you are interested in science and business, there are not many jobs more rewarding than working in tech transfer or tech licensing. In one day you can meet with incredible intellectuals, incredibly stimulating, sometimes challenging, but incredibly interesting people.

You could file a patent, offer financial terms to someone, negotiate the valuation of a new startup. And there are not many jobs where you get such variety and such volume of deal flow mixed together. If you work in a very large company, you might work on one deal for a long time and, yes, it might have lots of nodes on the end in terms of deal value, but in tech transfer, you will work on lots and lots of deals in a whole variety of different areas. That makes it incredibly attractive to people to do that. I sometimes wish almost that we could almost – it is probably a really bad thing to say – but we could make all of our scientists do national service in the tech transfer unit because I think it would give them such, such incredible experience they would take forward in their academic careers.

As you said, around 60 spinouts, 17 exits. Are there any portfolio companies that you are particularly proud of or that you would like to highlight for another reason?

It is really hard. I have been very lucky and I have been exposed to some really great companies over my career so far.

If I had to single out an example, I would probably choose Apollo Therapeutics. It is not necessarily a classic portfolio company. It brought together three what are traditionally fierce rivals in the university sector – Cambridge, Imperial and UCL – who recognised they had a common problem and that they needed critical mass to defeat the sort of attrition curve of therapeutics that we see.

It created an entirely new model. There was no agreement we could pull off the shelf, it had to be entirely bespoke and it needed everyone to pull together on both sides, on the pharma company side and on the academic side. And it is great to see that turned now into a company with a portfolio of over 20 drugs. It has raised over £100m and is still working closely with new ideas coming out of academia.

That is a very worthy choice. That is not one that I would have expected you to say, but now that you have said why it totally makes sense. That almost brings us to the end of this. Is there anything else that we have not covered you want people to know, or something you want to stress perhaps?

The only thing I would stress is of course these are not my achievements we spoke about today. All of us in tech transfer are professionals standing on the shoulders of those that went before us. All of these deals we do now, the royalties that are coming in are the work of our predecessors and are the result of teamwork, incredible teamwork, amongst the community.

It is not lip service to say this is a real team sport. In this profession, you have to have the academics lined up with the search and evaluation people, the business development, the deal-doers afterwards, the legal support, it takes everyone working together to do this, to make sure something happens. So, I am very proud of the way your profession really does this and takes such a long term view of it.

I think those are very good closing words. Tony, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy day to join us, it has been a real pleasure.

Many thanks, Thierry, I enjoyed it. Thanks.

Thierry Heles

Thierry Heles is the editor of Global University Venturing, host of the Beyond the Breakthrough interview podcast and responsible for the monthly GUV Gazette (sign up here for free).