David Haddleton, founder of Warwick Effect Polymers, has won the 2004 Chemistry World Entrepreneur of the year award. Karen Harries-Rees reports

David Haddleton, founder of Warwick Effect Polymers, has won the 2004 Chemistry World Entrepreneur of the year award. Karen Harries-Rees reports

David Haddleton, chief technology officer of Warwick Effect Polymers (WEP) and chemistry professor at Warwick University, UK, likes to make sure things happen, ’especially if someone says you can’t do it,’ he says.

This enacity has helped him through the difficult process of starting up WEP, for which he has won the 2004 Chemistry World Entrepreneur of the year award.

Haddleton loves chemistry, although he came to it by chance. ’My brother was so good at maths, I decided not to follow him. So I chose chemistry,’ he says.

After completing his PhD in organometallic chemistry in 1986, he began a post-doc funded by ICI in Canada. While he was here he decided he wanted to work in industry. A well-timed beer with a visiting ICI scientist landed him a job as a polymer chemist at the company’s site in Runcorn, UK.

At the time ICI felt that the UK wasn’t strong in polymer chemistry, so it sent Haddleton and some of his colleagues to the University of Southern Mississippi, US, for a year, to train in the polymer department. The experience was fantastic, says Haddleton, who admits the high points of his career are all the new things he’s done.

From here, he returned to Runcorn and worked in a group of about 20 developing polymer synthesis for various business groups. He also started work on controlled polymer synthesis, in particular anionic and group transfer polymerisation. Things were going well, Haddleton was enjoying his research but then ICI spun off its bioscience business into Zeneca and he ended up in Zeneca Specialties. As Zeneca was primarily a pharma company, he couldn’t see much in the way of job opportunities for a polymer chemist.

He was also aware that to rise up the ranks in industry he would need to spend time at a plant or in marketing and work overseas, none of which he was keen to do. With three young children at home, Haddleton wanted control over any decision to move. He also knew that whether or not his research continued would be a business decision. Although his work did prove to be commercial, at the time ’I thought my work might be considered a bit esoteric by the business managers,’ says Haddleton.

His close friend, Tom Davies (now on WEP’s advisory board) decided to make the move into academia and took a job at the University of New South Wales in Australia. Haddleton also became interested in a job in academia. So, when a job was advertised at Warwick, he was interested. He began working there in 1993.

At Warwick he was able to continue his research, funded by Avecia (previously Zeneca Specialities), into controlled polymer synthesis. Haddleton says he found it relatively easy to secure funding from the EPSRC and industry, partly, he says, because of the EPSRC’s iniative for innovative polymer synthesis but also because of his industry background.

’Six years in ICI was one of the best qualifications for being an academic. It was a great advantage. The Warwick polymer group has always been quite large and its success is a direct consequence of industrial experience.I had an idea how industrialists were thinking, while many of my academic colleagues saw industry as having plenty of money to fund academic ideas, rather than to fund a source of new products. Companies invariably need something in return for funds - milestones and deliverables or intellectual property. If you meet your milestones, then you have more chance of getting additional funding. I have always tried to treat funding bodies as customers,’ he says.

Haddleton’s polymer group grew to 10-15 people and over about five years he had built up sufficient research income and was providing enough high quality output to be promoted to professor.

The research into anionic polymer synthesis was challenging and required ultra-pure reagents and very low temperatures. A student’s accident in the lab while cleaning a solvent still, which resulted in severe burns, sparked Haddleton to switch his research to living radical polymerisation. ’I thought that’s enough, there is plenty to do that is safe and interesting,’ he says.

His team developed a process to design polymers with specific properties and Haddleton recognised its commercial possibilities and persuaded the university to file patents. ’It was very receptive, as it has always been,’ he says and the university invested approximately ?60 000 in protecting the intellectual property before WEP was established.

Working with industry created some interesting problems. Haddleton wanted to employ someone to work on contracts but couldn’t unless he could guarantee the salary for at least 12 months.

At about this time, the university set up Warwick Ventures and Haddleton was one of the first to knock on its door. With its help, he secured a grant from Mercia, a fund set up by West Midlands universities under the government’s University Challenge seed fund scheme, to underwrite the salary and the university began trading. It made a profit in the first year.

But being a university trading activity was difficult. The university kept the profit. ’It was not possible to reinvest in the activity which was essential to ensure continued success,’ says Haddleton. Also, the lab space was leased from the university but it was the department that was suffering from lost space. Younger colleagues were supportive he says, ’but not always the ones who could make a key decision’.

’At the time I was among the largest grant holders and most prolific publishers within the department. I was determined to ensure I remained a positive contribution,’ he says.

He was reluctant to take a sabbatical because he doesn’t think universities are 100 per cent sure yet whether spin out companies are a good thing or not. For this reason, he feels that academics wanting to become professors should make sure they are confident of their university’s attitude before they consider starting a company. ’In certain cases, it could seriously damage your promotion prospects,’ he says.

It was important for the company to get out of the university, as it was restricting how it could do business. Weekly chats at the touchline of his son’s football matches with friend Phil Stern gave him the information he needed. Stern, from Warwick University’s business school is now one of WEP’s directors.

Using a business plan that he and Adam Jarvis (one of WEP’s founding employees) had entered in an EPSRC competition he approached Oxford Technology Venture Capital Trust which was interested in funding the company. Other contributions came from a US business angel and Michael Penington, who is now WEP chairman, and Mercia.

With this ?360 000, raised in December 2002, Haddleton and his new team leased and equipped a building on the science park. He is proud of the company’s premises and the team has put a lot of effort into creating a pleasant working environment.

In April 2003, WEP moved in. This was a turning point for the company, setting it on a more serious footing. At this point, Haddleton was chief executive officer (ceo), chief technology officer (cto) and chairman, as well as a full-time professor at the university.

Shortly after, during a board meeting, Haddleton was replaced as chairman by Penington. He says it was a shock at first but thinks it was a good move. ’I never started the company as an exit route from academia. I love being an academic and I like my job.’

With the company growing and Haddleton’s desire for it to grow faster, not least because of his equity stake in it, he decided the time had come to appoint a ceo. ’It needed more management than me just popping over...I know my skills are in innovative polymer chemistry, not growing a business,’ he says.

Also, a condition of the second funding round was to have more professional management. WEP raised ?470 000 in November 2003 to strengthen the team and to use as working capital. The company appointed Fergal O’Brien, from DowPharma, to head up the company in May last year. Haddleton is now the cto and is still contracted to the company one day a week. He is responsible for all the technical aspects of the company and is fully involved in all projects.

But as the company grows, Haddleton acknowledges that it will eventually need a full-time cto. Keen to remain in academia, Haddleton doesn’t feel threatened by the company he started moving away from him.

’There are some people who want to stay in control, but I’m happy to delegate.I hope they will keep me on as a consultant and fund my research group, but if they want to fund someone else, then it is my fault for not delivering as well as I could.’

Haddleton has proved himself to be a successful entrepreneur but he is not on the look-out for the next company to start. As others gradually take over his roles at WEP, he says he won’t be thinking what company next. ’But if the opportunity arose, yes we would spin out another company.If I see something with potential I want to try to maximise that potential,’ he says.

But Haddleton is unlikely to rest on his laurels. ’One problem with being an academic is that if you can do the same job for 40 years, it can get quite tiresome, so it’s good to have new learning opportunities.If it’s not another spin out company then it will be something else - maybe more management in the department or consulting,’ he muses.

Warwick Effect Polymers

Warwick Effect Polymers (WEP) was founded by David Haddleton in April 2001 to commercialise the transition metal mediated living radical polymerisation technology generated by his research group at the Unversity of Warwick, UK. The company’s goal is ’to be the provider of choice for advanced polymer technology, particularly to the healthcare and speciality chemical industries’.

Using the technology, it can make new types of polymers under mild and undemanding conditions. Multi-component molecules, which were either difficult or impossible to prepare by other polymerisation methods, can be designed and synthesised. The process is oxygen sensitive, ’but that’s no great disadvantage’, says the company. Also, the catalyst is not recycled but WEP has patented technology to develop an immobilised catalyst should the economics permit.

The company has been in its own premises since April 2003 and it now has a full-time chief executive officer, Fergal O’Brien, who joined the company in May last year from Dowpharma (previously Chirotech) where he was business development director.

WEP’s strategy can be split into two tiers. Firstly, it designs polymers for customers, primarily in the personal care market. For instance, Unilever is currently testing a triblock polymer for a hairspray/gel that will hold in humid conditions but still wash out. WEP licenses the technology to the customer, while the customer patents either the polymer or the end-product.

The company plans to use income from this work to fund the second part of its strategy, which is to build its own portfolio of novel polymers as alternatives to existing polymers used in the pharmaceutical industry. The first of these is PolyPEG, a new PEGylating agent for conjugation to proteins, peptides and small molecules. It has been successfully conjugated to a range of model proteins, including insulin, lysozyme, haemoglobin and calcitonin. This product is competing against those from companies such as Enzon and Nektar, which also produce PEGylating agents.

A third round of funding, totalling around ?1.5 million is currently being finalised. This will enable WEP to employ two biologists and three more chemists as well as additional sales, marketing and administration support.

The funding should see the company through the next two years, by which time it should be in a position to make a decision on whether to fund the company from profits, or to go for bigger plans and more funds, says O’Brien. This depends on how its pharmaceutical business develops.

WEP is lucky in that none of its backers is pushing for a swift exit. ’The shortest is nine years,’ says O’Brien. He anticipates the company will be floated or bought within the next five to seven years, with a trade sale being the most likely, but again this depends on how the products develop. With the company’s strategy split into its two separate areas, it is possible that a company would be interested in buying the industrial contract design side, leaving the pharma operation to go it alone.

Before any of that can become a reality, the most pressing challenge ahead for the company is to ’get our capability and what we can do over to customers. The key danger is that we’re not taken seriously and we miss the boat,’ says O’Brien.

Company data


David HaddletonWarwick UniversityMercia FundOxford Technology Venture Capital TrustMidven Advantage Growth FundThomas NeenanMichael Penington


2500 sq ft of laboratories on theUniversity of Warwick Science Park


Chairman: Michael PeningtonChief executive officer: Fergal O’BrienFounder and chief technology officer: David HaddletonVice president, business development, US: Thomas NeenanAdministrator: Maxine HaddletonFour PhD chemistsTwo non-PhD chemistsTypically two students on six- or nine-month placements

Curriculum vitae - David Haddleton


Lives in Kenilworth, UKMarried3 children, all age 12


1980-1986 University of York, UK


1987 University of Toronto, Canada1988 Secondment to University of Southern Mississippi, US1988-1993 ICI/Zeneca senior research scientist1993- present University of Warwick, UK2001-2004 chief executive officer, Warwick Effect Polymers2004- present chief technology officer, Warwick Effect Polymers


2004 Lord Stafford Award forbest university spin out companyEditorial board, Chemical CommunicationsInternational editorial advisory board, Soft Matter


Football: West Bromwich Albion Family life