John Okyere

John runs Crossgen, which makes tools for gene expression. He says that, "Explaining a new idea to someone in the commercial sector can be difficult. Often they say ‘no’ because they don’t understand it. This can be helped with effective communication..."

"I have always been interested in cloning and genetics. The topic of my doctorate was molecular genetics, and I studied at Nottingham University following on from my Masters. I focused on tomato genes, and the creation of ‘genetic maps’. Map-based cloning was used to isolate the genes of interest. Skills I developed during my doctorate included mapping using hybridisation techniques relating genes to their chromosomes, and the relationship of genes to other genes. Ultimately this enables the segregation of genes in a particular population to their chromosomes.

"From then I went on to do a postdoctorate, working in a different area called ‘gene expression’. This was looking at how genes are switched on or off, when and how this takes place, and by what chemicals. This was done using arrays of genes on a glass slide challenged with samples of chemicals, and observing their subsequent behaviours. I developed ideas for a business during my postdoctoral study, using these gene expression techniques for applications with remote or ‘uncharacterised’ species. Having tried this with plants, we were successful – therefore we decided to apply it biomedically to humans and animals. This idea gave birth to CrossGen, which started trading in 2008. Essentially we create tools for gene expression studies in uncharacterised species. We mostly work with medical and veterinary companies interested in using this technology in their drug treatment programmes. We have five employees including scientists, management and accountants, many working for us on a fee basis.

"As a postdoctoral researcher, you have a number of options. One was to stay in academia, but this route didn’t look favourable at the time. Because there was confidence in the business application of the work we had done, it seemed like the most viable career option. If I was a fully established academic at the time, I think I would have found it difficult to leave. In my experience it is virtually impossible to leave your academic career and go into industry. There is a lot of stability which is difficult to leave behind, and it can seem too risky for most to go for an entrepreneurial career.

"There have been a lot of challenges in that it is a very lonely pursuit. Explaining a new idea to someone in the commercial sector is very challenging. Often they say ‘no’ because they don’t understand it. This can be helped with effective communication. Enjoyable aspects include being your own boss, and the kudos of taking something that started in academia and seeing the results of it for clients.

"In terms of technology development, I have drawn on my experience at doctoral level quite significantly. However, you have to develop a network of other professionals which promotes business skills and commercial awareness which doctoral students sometimes don’t develop. Meeting people with this experience is very important for new doctorates."