"I always had an interest in plant microbiology. During my first degree, my supervisor gave me some recommendations as to where there were available opportunities to pursue doctoral study – and I subsequently got a place. My doctorate was on environmental microbiology, and I was specifically investigating the movement of ions and water in and out of plant roots, having implications for drought resistance and the take up of nutrients. I really enjoyed the doctorate – it was very interdisciplinary, and I got to study some physics too which I really valued. After finishing my doctorate in 1997, I went off to pursue postdoctoral research at the University of Portsmouth in a similar area. This I did for about nine months, before moving back to the University of Surrey for three years. Both satisfied my core interest in plants and microbial sciences.
"After my postdoctoral research, I became more interested in commercialising technology – especially around detecting certain properties of soil. The decision to commercialise followed years of being interested in the prospect of science commercialisation. I had always liked the thought of the greater excitement, more varied opportunities and greater earning potential by doing this instead of academia. I am now heading up my second university spin-out, which is commercialising micro bioreactor technology. We work on the early identification of drugs that are likely to fail, thus potentially saving drug companies a lot of money. Zyoxel was born in 2009, and employs four full-timers and four part-timers.
"I have really enjoyed the excitement of creating something from nothing, of creating commercial value. There is so much diversity on the job. I enjoy the independence and the control you have – if you screw it up it’s your own fault! I also love the excitement and risk associated with running a business. Difficulties often include dealing with the unexpected. Stuff hits you from where you least expect it, so it’s extremely important to react and adapt. Another problem is money and running out of it! As a scientist there is a danger of losing sight of practical considerations. You can instead get wrapped up in the science to the point where you don’t spell out its value.
"I find that my experience as a doctoral researcher has helped. The advantage of having been a scientist is that you can get totally involved in the science – however with this you risk a lack of objectivity. For small start-up businesses, you do need a CEO with a science background, and someone with commercial experience too – especially in the area of selling things. A lot of this came about because of the YES scheme run by the BBSRC, which focused on young entrepreneurs – and which is effectively a national business plan competition for biotechnology scientists. It is very important that we continue to give experiences and chances to postdoctoral students to try other things – it can no longer be assumed that you will just be an academic.
"The advice I would give to those interested in starting up a business is, the younger you start the better. There is a risk that academia is too safe and secure. If you surround yourself with people who look after you and guide you, this can be a good thing. When you’re younger you have fewer preconceptions and more energy, which can be very productive."