"Since my school days, I have been interested in the science behind medicine rather than vocational practice, and my interest in pathology research grew during an undergraduate pre-clinical sciences course in cellular pathology at Cambridge. I undertook my doctorate in molecular biology at the Institute of Cancer Research in London, funded through a clinical training fellowship with the Cancer Research Campaign (now CRUK). The aim of my PhD was to investigate BRCA2 one of the inherited breast cancer genes, and I learnt a wide variety of molecular biology research techniques, focusing on gene targeting and cloning techniques in plasma and bacteria, and techniques to investigate the function of this gene in cell lines.
"I also developed rigour in scientific analyses during this time – the formulation of hypotheses, intellectual analyses of experiments, and publishing data in peer-reviewed scientific journals. I undertook postdoctoral work at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, where I focused on comparative pathology (or the comparison of animal models with human diseases). I was eventually asked to set up a pathology research lab at the institute, which grew exponentially. Following on from this success we became involved with scientists in America and Europe.
"When I was made redundant, due to academic restructuring in Cambridge, I then chose a move into industry – I wanted to utilise both the scientific and molecular skills I had learnt. A lot of this involved contract work with organisations working on clinical trials. Due to the high attrition rate in drug discovery, and the fact that a lot of drugs were coming ‘off-patent’, there was a lot of interest in developing smarter ways to develop new compounds and clinical diagnostic tests. This required people with clinical as well as scientific experience, and I started thinking of ‘taking the plunge’ into setting up my own business. I had gained experience in setting up a lab from scratch and running a team at the WTSI, and so I founded Pathology Diagnostics Ltd in 2008. We now have six staff in Cambridge, and are in our third year.
"Challenges have included learning how to be an entrepreneur. I think you have to be born with the right traits to run a business – self-belief, ability to take risks and, above all, determination. I love the independence it has brought me, and the fact that I can choose how to grow and resource the company. In terms of applying the skills picked up during my doctorate, I use the scientific skills all the time, especially those associated with experimental design and scientific strategy. Other skills have been important too, such as business planning and networking, but Cambridge also importantly has a lot of agencies available to help new businesses, including at the St John Innovation Centre where we are based. ERBI (the Eastern Region Biotechnology Initiative) and the East of England Development Agency were extremely important in helping us get established.
"If I had to advise others, I would say that you need to talk to as many people about your vision and business plan as possible. Also, in the current climate, you have to be careful not to overextend yourself. I would say, if you are thinking of developing a product, you’ll find the next two years very difficult. Be careful to establish a good team, and think of an exit strategy."