Ed Ralph

Dabbling as a CMO, CIO and COO

Ed first shared his career journey in 2014 and his story came from our What do research staff do next? project, investigating the careers of research staff who moved from research posts to other occupations and employment sectors. Ten later years later, we were delighted to catch up with Ed once again, to find out how the last decade has panned out for him.

"After about 15 years at Abcam it was time to move on and between the years of 2014 and 2018 I spent some time in various roles heading up marketing, technology and operational functions in various businesses.  

Each of these roles were introduced to me via connections I had made over the previous decade which highlights the importance of developing and maintaining a network - simply nurturing relationships with the multitude of people you come across.  

The last of these roles, as the Chief Operating Officer for a vehicle tracking business (yes a far cry from lab research) I leveraged my background in technology and marketing and broadened my experience in sales and operations.  

Enter Salesforce, the world's largest CRM platform - I had tinkered with this in the past and at this latest company I decided to bring it in to replace their ageing business systems.  It did most of the job but interestingly, despite being a world-leading system, there were holes, but luckily holes that could be filled with 3rd party apps developed specifically for the Salesforce ecosystem.

Which takes us broadly upto the present time - after leaving that last role I decided to relax and take my time deciding what to do next.  During this period I looked for something to keep me occupied and I remembered the Salesforce ecosystem for developing 3rd party apps.  The hole I had filled in that previous role used an app that didn't do a brilliant job so I decided to create a better one.  Six months later I had published an app on their marketplace and customers were downloading and installing it in their own implementations of Salesforce.  Using customer feedback I developed the app further, set up my own limited company and after 12 months I had sold hundreds of licenses - it appears I didn't need to find a job..."

Thanks so very much for sharing your story update with us.

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Research staff experience

Ed RalphFollowing my first degree where I took Biochemistry at the University of Southampton, I went to pursue a PhD at the University of Sheffield. My research centered on the characterisation of an oxygen-sensing transcription factor in E. coli called FNR which upregulates the expression of genes in anaerobic environments. It was a productive few years where several pieces of my work were published in journals such as PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) and The Journal of Biochemistry.

During my doctorate I attended a week-long residential GRADschool. This was great for getting a glimpse into roles and opportunities in the outside world, and learning more about what I had to offer. For example, it was the first time I’d come across the personal development tool MBTI, an instrument that defines personality type (I’m an ENTP by the way…)

In 1999, having completed my PhD, I took a postdoctoral position at the Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Cambridge where I looked at protein-protein interactions on a novel biosensor they were developing. It was during this post-doc that I attended a local seminar series (intended for MBA students) where local entrepreneurs talked about their start-up companies. One presentation was given by Jonathan Milner, a former research staff from a laboratory downstairs from me, who had started an online company supplying antibodies to research labs. Excited by the prospect of combining my passions of the internet and science, I followed up with him about working for his start-up. Expecting a possible scientific role I was surprised when he offered me a role as their website manager – a role that clearly would see me leaving the laboratory.

My thought process at the time was that there was a fork in the road which went three possible ways:

  1. Continue in academia, get a couple of post-docs under my belt and then go for a fellowship and try to build a research group. This would probably mean balancing lecturing and growing a research group
  2. Leave academia and go into industry as a researcher – working for a biotech company where I would be a staff scientist doing something with a more commercial bent
  3. Leave the lab altogether...

Fairly quickly I realised that I didn’t want to be a lecturer and try to build a research group. I was put off by stories of the difficulty faced in the early years where researchers would be frustrated by having to spend most of their time writing grants to secure money for their lab – an ongoing job for most group leaders.

Biotech jobs were available: around the Millenium Cambridge was rapidly growing into ‘Silicon Fen’. However, these lacked the excitement of change and challenge (remember I’m ENTP).

Joining Jonathan’s company, Abcam, was therefore the logical outcome; it offered career challenge, the opportunity to learn something completely new whilst leveraging my scientific background, and the prospect of being an early part of what could be a very successful company.

Transition to new career

As the seventh person in a fast growing company it was necessary to ‘wear many hats’ and adapt to constantly changing circumstances. My early role was the management of the company’s ecommerce website and much of the learning was on the job; and we quickly realised that to implement all the things that we wanted to do I needed to learn how to write code. During my doctorate I’d been the webmaster of the university mountaineering club, so I had a crude understanding of HTML and some programming languages. Within six months I’d taught myself how to code, writing functionality for the website and the back-end systems that supported our business.

Whilst still looking after the main website, I began to build systems to manage the incoming orders, our stock and inventory, customer database and more. We had hired a senior technical director who had a great understanding of how systems could be used to support a business and we began to hire more programmers and with support and mentorship from the Technical Director I found myself running the software development team as the Head of IT. I had moved from being a bench scientist to a combination of programmer, system administrator and manager.

Role shifts

By now we were perhaps a hundred people and in 2005 we listed on AIM, one of the markets of the London Stock Exchange. We had successfully turned a tiny start-up company into one of Cambridge’s most successful biotech ventures, and we were still growing incredibly fast and setting up offices around the world.

Fast forward a couple of years and a key member of the management team who led our marketing function left the business, creating a gap in our organisation with respect to our online marketing and eCommerce. I took the opportunity to create an eCommerce function which specialised in digital marketing. So I became Head of IT and eCommerce, a role that spanned both technical aspects of IT and marketing capabilities in eCommerce. Our Technical Director had moved over to a broader role of Chief Operating Officer (COO) and this particular career track for me culminated in adopting a senior role in the organisation as the Chief Information Officer (CIO). This was a fabulous role, as I had the scientific background to understand where the business was going strategically, the technical resources to create the functionality we needed and the control over the eCommerce website which was the biggest marketing channel for the business.

Following further years of growth, the opening of several more international offices and the acquisition of several companies the business had grown a hundredfold (in terms of people) compared with when I joined. No business can go through that level of growth without having to adapt and change shape, and one of the things we did was reorganise ourselves so that the website was controlled by the marketing function. At this stage I had a tricky decision to make – did I carry on as CIO and manage the IT function or go with eCommerce to Marketing? I knew at this point, as before when I left the research lab, that if I moved to Marketing, I would be taking a fork in the road: that might be the end of my career in IT. Given that during my whole time at Abcam I was responsible for the website, I couldn’t quite let it go and the challenge of focusing purely on digital marketing pushed me down the marketing route. Much of what I had learned over the years was applicable so it wasn’t an entirely new role, but there were new elements and a new boss!

Other career experience

From 2011–2013 I also took on a role with Cambridge company Red Gate Software as one of their 'Council of Advisors' (equivalent to board membership). This was a useful chunk of external experience, advising the leadership of a different company. Experiences like these invariably work like stepping stones, opening up other, often unexpected opportunities.

Six months later such an opportunity presented itself when I was asked to join the board of directors of fresh start-up Axol Bioscience as a non-executive director. This marked the beginning of the latest turn in my career which would take me back to the roller coaster world of start-ups...

Current job

In autumn 2014 I took the huge step of leaving Abcam, however, retaining all the key ingredients from before: a start-up company, life science and digital marketing. I’m now the Chief Marketing Officer for Axol Bioscience, an innovative company specialising in the development and supply of human cell culture systems used by R&D centres across the world. It’s back to ‘wearing many hats’ and employing ‘growth hacking’ techniques to grow our brand. Interestingly I will be doing a stint in our laboratories to learn more about how we produce human neurons from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC), so it looks like after fifteen years I’ll be donning a lab coat again…

Competencies old and new

My experience as a researcher has been invaluable as a reference point for almost everything I’ve done with respect to understanding our customers – it has enabled me to speak on the same terms as our scientists, our product managers and our executive team.

Whilst I tried to do project management during my research, I like to think I’m rather better at it now :) Other competencies I’ve had to learn include managing people effectively, understanding what strategy is and how to use it to guide the day-to-day activities of a business, what a P&L is and do I build (systems) or buy (systems)? Digital marketing has evolved a long way since 2000 and I’ve had the luxury of professionally growing up with that from the earliest days when Google was still unknown.

Reflections on my career path

What do I wish I’d known when I was research staff? The sheer multitude and number of different roles that are available to people that have a research background. As a researcher you might meet only a sales rep from a biotech company. That’s just the tip of the iceberg – within life-science companies there are many roles in marketing, sales, innovation, R&D, manufacturing, operations and customer service that require a life-science background. Most people in research have no idea that these roles exist and my wish would have been to have had a better understanding of the potential career landscape.

Suggestions and advice

If you love doing research, publishing papers, getting grants, etc, then keep going. We need people like you. If you’re thinking of doing something else, don’t despair – there are lots of roles out there that need your skills.

https://www.linkedin.com/in/edralph