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29 July, 2015 - 11:11 By Tony Quested

From farm to fame, Cambridge’s ‘cereal’ life science entrepreneur

Professor Chris Abell, co-founder of Astex Therapeutics

Brought up on a farm in Yorkshire, Chris Abell has proved true to his stock by ploughing fertile territory as one of Britain’s most successful life science entrepreneurs. He is most assuredly down to earth.

As co-founder of the globally respected Astex Therapeutics, Akubio, Sphere Fluidics and the exciting young venture, Aqdot – all from a springboard within academia – Professor Abell is also one of Cambridge University’s most assured ‘Dontrepreneurs.’

He has been a Professor of Biological Chemistry at the university’s Department of Chemistry since 2013 and is also Todd-Hamied Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge.

His first foray into the world of business came In 1999 when he co-founded Astex, which used fragment-based drug discovery technology to discover cancer therapeutics, with Sir Tom Blundell and Harren Jhoti.

The company’s research efforts focused on utilisation of a proprietary drug discovery engine branded Pyramid. Astex also solved the structure of two key cytochrome P450 isoenzymes involved in drug metabolism, 2C9 & 3A4, which the company felt would help optimise the pharmacokinetic properties and safety of its lead compounds.

Astex’ first drug candidate, a cell cycle inhibitor, entered Phase I clinical trials in 2005. Since that time the company has created eight drugs that have progressed into the clinical stage of development. In September 2013, Astex was acquired by Japanese giant Otsuka Pharmaceutical for around $900 million.

In 2001, Chris co-founded Akubio, which developed biosensors for detecting bacteria and viruses; it was acquired by Inverness Medical Innovations in 2008. Then, in 2010, he co-founded Sphere Fluidics to develop microdroplet technology and two years later Aqdot, a company developing a new microencapsulation technology.

If you’ll forgive another agricultural pun, Professor Abell has never forgotten his roots as a scientist first and foremost – albeit a highly entrepreneurial one.

Take a deep breath and consider this statistic: He has so far published more than 200 papers. And his research interests cover a broad church – vitamin and amino acid biosynthesis as targets for the rational design of antimicrobials; fragment-based approaches to enzyme inhibition; bacterial and plant riboswitches; reactions in microdroplets; and biological nanotechnology. Enough to keep him occupied!

Chris had a high work ethic from his youth. He says: “I was brought up on a farm in Yorkshire so understood how a business works from an early age. Forming my own business had been an ambition for several years before a real opportunity arose. My main motivation – frustration – was that I wanted to do more ambitious science than was possible with standard research grants.”

Chris was a Reader in the Department of Chemistry, Cambridge, carrying out research in mechanistic enzymology and was about 40 when he and his co-founders “made the decisive move” by forming Astex.

They secured funding from Abingworth and Oxford Bioventures (working together) and Chris observes: “We were fortunate to be starting a company in the late 1990s.

“The due diligence process certainly seemed to go on for a long time. Each successive fund raising was stressful. Fortunately for me, Harren as a founder and the first CEO dealt with most of the issues and many frustrations. It helped that we made some excellent early recruits and were very thoughtful about what we did.

“I have never regretted being involved in Astex. It is a world-leading company with great employees. I have been particularly pleased by the way Astex has combined commercial success with high quality science, much of which has been published very well.

“There were several times in the evolution of the business when it seemed the fate of the company was too far outside areas I considered my comfort zone. These mainly related to financing.

“But the founders had each other to lean on when times got tough and we also received a lot of support from some key individuals in the industry as consultants and/or non execs.

“Harren and Sir Tom were highly experienced. Harren previously worked at Glaxo Wellcome and Sir Tom, who chaired the Scientific Advisory Board, was also Professor of Biochemistry at Cambridge.

“The outcome of our combined efforts has clearly been excellent. Astex has eight compounds in clinical trials and is recognised as world leading. It was recently purchased for over $850m and all the co-founders have maintained their involvement with the company.”

Chris remains a director of Sphere Fluidics and is chair of the Scientific Advisory Board at three-year-old Aqdot, which is based in Pampisford and specialises in microencapsulation. 

He is proud that “each of these companies has arisen in some way out of the research we are carrying out in the university. Each company has been quite different – but the stress around fund raising does not change.”

He acknowledges that, given his time again “there are numerous ways in which one might do things differently, but I am quite happy where I am now. 
“It would have been great to float Astex after six to eight years but the markets at the time precluded that.”

Chris is already inspiring new entrepreneurs, occasionally in a more direct way than others. He says: “I recently encouraged one of my PhD students to co-found Aqdot. She is very talented and already knew a lot about what was involved through her involvement with CUTEC.”

Looking at the environment in the UK for founding new enterprises, Chris believes attitudes and systems governing funding need to be revised. He said: “I have found investors take a rather simplistic view about types of companies. For example, they do not seem sufficiently sensitive to different ‘service’ models. There also seems to be a shortage of investors who will come in at the £1-2 million range.

“There is often talk about whether enough of our entrepreneurs are sufficiently ambitious to scale their companies as we did with Astex. I disagree. There appears to be a systemic weakness in the system and I think the problems are in part due to the funding mechanisms available. Most entrepreneurs I know do not lack ambition.”

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