Harriet Fear, MBE is CEO of One Nucleus, the largest international membership organisation for life science and healthcare companies in Europe, based in Cambridge, UK. We had a chance to get some insights from Harriet ahead of the upcoming ON Helix Conference.
Harriet Fear, MBE, CEO, One Nucleus
Cambridge is regarded as one of the most successful entrepreneurial ecosystems in the world, and a hub of life sciences activity. What do you think are the key factors that have contributed to this success?
Harriet: It is! I think there are many contributing factors to any sort of success, and often no blueprint that means that a ‘one size fits all’. Something that may work brilliantly in terms of growth in one sector or country, won’t necessarily translate in another.
Looking at the life science ecosystem here in the Cambridge region, I would suggest that the key factors in its success to date and clearly into the future, given the current growth trends, are: world class science and good access to that world class science; a deeply engrained entrepreneurial spirit; people who have been there and done it, formed companies and know what works and what doesn’t – happy to give back their time and energy to new and emerging companies; the proximity and excellence of the University; investors who understand the sector locally and who are prepared to back potential. All these make for a heady mix.
Ultimately I think it boils down to people – who create the environment – and as serial entrepreneur Andy Richards is often quoted as saying ‘Cambridge is a safe place to do tricky things’, or words to that effect!
What do you think are the UK’s greatest strengths as a life sciences industry, and what does the UK need to do better?
Harriet: I could write at length in response to what the UK’s strengths are in the sector! But I’ll try to be concise.
I think one needs to first take a look at the broad UK business environment – it’s easy to do business here. It’s the world’s 5th largest economy, it’s fast and easy to set up a business, there is sensible regulation and labour law and the statistics stack up favourably compared with other markets. For example, we have the Patent Box (a lower corporation tax of 10% on qualifying products), our much appreciated R & D tax credits (up to 46% back on spending for small and medium sized enterprises), and our corporation tax is the lowest rate in the G7 and G20 at 20%.
So I’d wager that these are very strong foundations. Looking specifically at the sector, we have world class talent and ‘human capital’ with 4 of the world’s top 10 universities for clinical and health sciences, a highly flexible workforce of over 180,000, Research Councils investing £3 billion in research each year and Research Charities funding over £1 billion of health research each year.
Layer on top of that an infrastructure platform worth multiple billions (unparalleled data with the 100,000 Genomes Project; the UK Biobank with half a million participants, and to the MHRA and EMA as well as NICE), plus our own dedicated Life Sciences Minister at the heart of HM Government and the world’s largest healthcare system, that makes for a heady cocktail of excellence.
Love it or loathe it, we can’t get away from the fact that the NHS treats almost 1 million people daily and offers cradle to grave healthcare for over 60 million people. On my travels internationally, this alone is something highly coveted by many of our international collaborators and potential partners.
What do we need to do better? Listening to our members needs and interests. The unlocking of funds is always paramount, so there is a need to continue to do what the sector can to showcase to investors (both specialist and generalist) that the sector is worth backing. There is also much to be done to catalyse the speed of the uptake of innovation by the NHS – this is something I know is a particular passion of our aforementioned Minister, George Freeman MP. More locally here in Cambridge, there is a monumental task required to improve the infrastructure of the region (in terms of transport and provision of affordable housing, in particular).
The good news is that there are many very committed people both within industry, local and national Government spending much time on these important issues for our local and national future.
You’ve had an interesting career path, transitioning from public service into leading a peak body championing businesses in a scientific industry. What lessons do you have for our Leaders of Tomorrow who may be looking to take their careers in new directions?
Harriet: I think my one major piece of advice is: don’t be constrained.
Don’t constrain yourself – if you genuinely feel you have skills, knowledge, potential and or all three to achieve something, don’t be put off. Have a really good go!
I started work when I was 17, didn’t go to University and adopted the approach that if you work hard and do your best, good must come of it. I’ve had some knock backs along the way and as well as some lovely successes, a few failures too – and I like to think that with those failures, I’ve learned and become a bigger person as a result of going through them – making sure to be flexible, open to change, open to feedback and open to learning along the way.
I said ‘don’t constrain yourself’ – another way of looking at it is don’t deselect yourself. I’ve met many young people in my time at One Nucleus, PhD’s and Postdocs who start their sentences with ‘I couldn’t possibly’ or ‘I don’t think I could do X even if I wanted to’ – if you have a passion for a particular area of work – go for it.
I don’t mean randomly or blindly. It’s vital to do your homework, get good training, take advice from those who have been there and done it, get yourself the strongest set of skills you can to put yourself in the best possible position – and then go for it. And there’s nothing wrong with the odd knock back or failure. If that makes you stronger, good. It’s all part of life’s rich pattern.
Do you think that the current leaders in life science are doing enough to nurture the next generation – and what would you like to see more of from both current and future leaders?
Harriet: I’ve been extremely impressed with the time and commitment shown from current life science leaders in nurturing the next generation. Whether it be their support for Global Biotech Revolution and the GapSummit, or for the OneStart competition, for Innovation Forum or for Pitch at the Palace (the latest one of which had a life sciences focus), current leaders are doing a great deal to pass on their wisdom, nurture and mentor emerging leaders and companies.
It’s great to see and I definitely think it is one of the reasons the UK is as strong as it is in this sector. One of the best compliments that can be paid is to copy – as we all know! And when the first GapSummit was held and Bahija Jallal, Head of MedImmune took part, she told me that it was as a direct result of seeing that that she wanted to have a Future Leaders conference running alongside the first Regional Biotech Forum conference that MedImmune/AstraZeneca hosted in Gaithersburg in 2015.
What is the biggest “idea worth sharing” from past ON Helix Conferences? What are the key challenges for translational research for Leaders of Tomorrow embarking on new ventures?
Harriet: So, we have our annual Translational Research conference known as ON Helix taking place on 27/28 June at the Wellcome Genome Campus. Now in its 4th year, it attracts a capacity audience and we are thrilled that this year we have keynote speakers from the US, the Crick, the NIHR, MedImmune and MRC.
It’s hard to narrow it down to one idea worth sharing. I like to think that the 300 plus crowd generates lots of brilliant food for thought and that ON Helix is a real showcase of how to translate your early stage inventions and ideas into innovative health treatments (new medicines, novel biomarkers, useful medical devices or improved medical practices).
We have a very strong focus on case study examples. As a non-scientist my very simple view is that one of the best ways to impart interesting, compelling and useful ideas worth sharing is to bring stories to life with real examples of how people have been there and done it. At ON Helix you will hear from young and emerging companies, who are doing thrilling things in an unconventional way, along with much more established organisations who have learned from the school of hard knocks!
Thanks, Harriet! We hope ON Helix goes great!