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The Secret of Success in Chemistry Start-Ups

By: , Posted on: February 18, 2019

An interview with Dr. Andy Chapman

Dr. Andy Chapman was a 2011 finalist of the Reaxys PhD Prize. He graduated from the University of Bristol in 2012 with a PhD that focused on organometallic chemistry and catalysis, which continued to be his focus through a post-doctoral project under Professor Piet van Leeuwen at ICIQ in Spain. After this, he joined a small start-up based in London, where he put his organometallic training to practice working on new catalyst technology for turning CO2 into plastic. He then moved into an academic position as Senior Lecturer at Kingston University in London. In 2017, he made the decision to move back into the industry, first as CSO at Ziylo, then later adding co-founder and CSO of Carbometrics to his résumé. He’s enjoyed considerable success and remains very much a scientist despite the business obligations that come with his position.

We met with him to discuss his career, particularly his experiences at the two start-ups. He shares some fascinating insight into what’s important for success in establishing a start-up company.

You’ve managed to move between academia and industry during your career. What were the challenges of moving between those two research environments?

The primary challenge is moving at all!

It seems to be incredibly difficult to get an academic position in the first place. Like most of my peers, I had a successful PhD, had done two postdoc positions and had a great publication record. I think the reality is that there are far more candidates than there are positions, and all the candidates are great. Also, the hiring process in academia seems to be erroneously weighted toward publication records. If I wanted to move back again, it would be hard, because I haven’t been involved in any academic publications for a while.

When you are lucky enough to get a position in academia, the next issue in my view is making it work. In my case, I was successful with a couple of grants for equipment, but I could never get any ‘real’ money for a research team. It was difficult to fit in the necessary amount of research alone around teaching obligations.

My experience of the industry, if you can call it that, is totally different and probably not representative because both times, I worked at start-ups. I do think the start-up environment is very much more my scene, but only partly because the version of academia I would have wanted to have — funding, students and time to do research — didn’t materialize.

Is that why you made the decision to move to Ziylo in 2017?

It was certainly part of it. I also realized that I just didn’t want to do research for the sake of it. I wanted to work on applied problems that meant something to me, and not be so focused on the publishability of the research. Some colleagues in academic positions do manage to have it all, with applied problems and the right money for what they want to achieve, but it wasn’t like that for me.

Chemistry researchers in a lab

I was also very keen, for a long time, to shift away from organometallic chemistry and catalysis. I’ve always been drawn to biology and biochemistry. When the opportunity at Ziylo came up I knew I had to try it. It was also a factor that the instant I met the team there and learned about the technology, I knew it was going to be great experience whatever happened.

Tell us a little about the decision to found Carbometrics in 2018.

Novo Nordisk brought Ziylo so they could have full access to the technology, specifically to develop glucose-responsive insulins with it. However, from the beginning, we knew that our glucose-binding molecules have great potential for making very accurate and long-lasting glucose sensors. Therefore, during the sale, we negotiated a license for non-therapeutic use for the technology and founded Carbometrics to pursue these ends. However, we are also committed to working with Novo Nordisk to further develop the glucose-binding molecules for their application, so this remains a major function of the company.

What are your duties as CSO?

In a start-up, CSO covers a range of duties: from building labs and buying furniture through running the research and development! I also naturally steered into a business development-focused role and have continued to be very involved in sourcing, establishing, maintaining and capitalizing on partnerships.

Do you believe that being a Reaxys PhD Prize finalist helped you in your career?

Absolutely. There are not many ways you can stand out from the crowd of fantastic PhD graduates coming out of UK universities. A great validation for your papers is to show they were a candidate for the Reaxys Prize. Of course, a better way would have been to win it!

Are there any specific opportunities that you had because you were a finalist?

When I was in academia, certainly. I had made some great connections through the network that were vital for me.

What advice would you give someone wanting to found a company after their PhD?

Don’t rush into it but don’t be put off either. It’s not rocket science.

That said, try to be truly objective. Sometimes we are terribly subjective when thinking about the value of something we’re so attached to. Just because the science in your idea is amazing, and even really unique, and you’ve spent years working on it… it doesn’t mean anyone wants to buy it. You should really take some time to check if what you have will get the right market attention.

Personally, and I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant, but our experience as young scientist–founders is that technology is the most important thing. It is a big commitment to know enough chemistry to truly understand all the pros and cons of your technology and see opportunities for it to fit into a particular application. After that, finding the people that might be interested and dealing with them is not the same kind of effort and commitment.

I must say that intellectual property and regulatory law should never be trivialized. We might wish they were more accessible to laypeople, but the fact is that they are not. They are absolutely critical to get right. We focused a lot on the legal side of things — we brought in expertise when we needed it. We kept our full-time staff as lean as possible and had consultants and lawyers to help with the legal side and the eventual acquisition. This is 100% worth it if you really are going to sell the company, but it is obviously a costly fuse to light if it doesn’t go through.

Dr. Chapman, thank you so much for your time.

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