Paul Thomas

Paul completed his doctorate in plant ecophysiology. Deciding to follow an entrepreneurial path Paul has set up and is Managing Director of his own business growing and selling truffles.


The following text is a transcription of a career story collected by interview.

My name's Paul Thomas and I run a company called Mycorrhizal Systems Limited. Mycorrhizal Systems grows a type of fungus called truffles, so we set up plantations across the world to grow this fungus.

Truffles are very expensive and they don't, in fact they don't look too glamorous, despite the expense which is attributed to them. This is a dried sample here, so it looks probably even worse than a fresh one but they're worth typically, the European species, around about a thousand pounds per kilogram

My whole life I've gone out and collected foods from the wild and that included mushrooms and through going out and collecting mushrooms, and reading about identifying them and cooking them, I read that truffles grew in England, but I couldn't find any.

They've been eaten, you know for hundreds and hundreds of years. We've got recipes from the Roman times - I was reading one just yesterday for dormouse and truffle soup, a Roman recipe.

I did a PhD because it's what I wanted to do, and I was just very geeky and very obsessed by single areas of biology. Probably about half way through my PhD - my PhD was going reasonably well, I had published, already just two years in and so I had a lot of my data there ready, to complete by PhD really - at that time I wanted to stay in science. I wanted to be a researcher and stay in science and then I started looking at this truffle thing, ‘cos I was going out collecting mushrooms and started reading about truffles, how they're grown, what's involved in it, and because I was doing a PhD I had access to web of knowledge and you know all the online resources and I started to look at bit deeper into the science of it and then over a series of a period of about four years developed a way to grow them.

And it just kind of spiralled out of control. I got very, very into it and, and that just slowly took over, towards the latter half of my PhD I guess, and then I submitted an application to get a grant to get going. I was given a grant which gave me encouragement to keep going and yeah and that's how I started.

And then I finished my PhD and started the company. I think since I started the business I've made probably a very large number of mistakes and I'm sure I will continue to do so. But I think the important thing is to learn from those mistakes. And myself, as well, I've always been quite a, quite driven and quite dedicated so I don't normally get set back too much when set backs like that occur. But it has happened, for example when I first started the business I saw a business consultant who suggested I go in a certain direction, which I wasn't really happy about and we tried it and it was pretty disastrous for a few months and we flipped back to what we were originally doing. So.., so those kind of things do happen but, and I'm sure they will continue to happen.

I find running a business is an incredibly free position to be in. You can go off and pursue goals in various different areas and basically do what you want to do.

I think a PhD actually is incredibly valuable to myself as an employer. You can have them doing the research side all the way to the completion side, um, yeah I think a PhD brings a huge amount of transferable skills and I think, as well, a lot of PhD students are actually quite creative, because when you're designing experiments and running lab experiments and running away with ideas trying to work out what things actually mean, I think it can actually be quite creative so, I think there's definitely room for that in a PhD.

Essentially with the technology we develop, we're developing which is always growing and developing because we've got this large amount of research sites, what we've done with the overseas businesses, so for example, Australia, New Zealand wherever, we've set up those companies by licensing our IP to them, so we're always giving them the knowledge and the support in exchange for an equity share in, in that business. All, all our growers in the UK, so everyone who's growing truffles with us, what we do is we supply the technology and expertise and get them set up, and then we have a share of the yields. And what we've done is, we've set up kind of a large co-operative so everyone, hopefully, will distribute their truffles through this one big co-operative, so we get a higher premium for the product, ‘cos once we've got significant volume we can really create serious brand and get a premium for that. So it's all pretty much sold through one big co-operative and everyone engaged in that is what we call a partner.