Professor Steve Howdle
"Having done my undergraduate degree in chemistry in Manchester, and while thinking about my next move, I saw a captivating lecture from a Nottingham Professor. There was only a small audience and I met the lecturer afterwards, and grew keen to do my doctorate at Nottingham.
"My work involved the use of cooled liquefied gases, in conjunction with spectroscopy, to observe chemical reactions. We were looking at transition metal carbonyls, hitting them with UV light and seeing how they reacted and fell apart. The cool environment slowed down the reactions and enabled us to get to the point where we could understand the processes better. A relatively new area – supercritical fluids – has been the focus of my research for the last 20 years. I did have opportunities to leave Nottingham, but what we have been doing here is so exciting! At an early stage, BP gave us significant money to carry out exciting new research – and that was a clincher! My wife also has an enjoyable job, so I have ended up staying in the area despite other opportunities.
"Myself, a colleague and a research student won the UK Research Council business plan competition in 2002, winning about £25k – which was used to start up. With some virtual space at Biocity, it went from there. We brought in our first tranche of venture capital funding in 2004. I was the front man, I was responsible for going to pitches and presentations, and we convinced a number of people to put money up. We now have around 11 people working at Critical Pharmaceuticals in Biocity.
"The company Critical Pharmaceuticals was spun out from the School of Chemistry at Nottingham, focusing on this area of supercritical fluids. The opportunity arose because my career moved into making new materials in high pressure carbon dioxide, in particular the modification of polymers. Some polymers melted at a very low temperature in CO2, and we realised that this was potentially very useful for adding materials which were thermally sensitive. The basis of Critical Pharmaceuticals is that proteins are very important modern medicines and are thermally sensitive. We had the idea of mixing proteins with a polymer to create sustained release devices with high protein activity. Since many protein-based therapies require daily injections, a sustained-release product would be very valuable, allowing once weekly injections and overcoming the need for repeated trips to specialists.
"Challenging aspects have included the raising of finance and keeping the company sustainable. There aren’t any easy wins. Before starting we had to develop the technology to the point where people really agreed with us that the product was fantastic. Having said that, I have enjoyed the challenge – and although life in a young company is never totally stable, there is a lot of interest in what we are doing, and things are looking good.
"Developing contacts has been extremely important in developing the business. Pitching successfully to a wide range of people is vital. The structure of what I did at doctoral level wasn’t that relevant, but the doctorate teaches you to think on your feet and to think laterally.
"My advice would be to have a go at one of these business plan competitions, and don’t be afraid of new directions – be prepared to do things which are outside the immediate realm of what you are doing every day."