Bibiana Campos Seijo talks to scientist, philanthropist and serial entrepreneur Chris Evans

Chris Evans is credited with having helped create the UK biotechnology industry and is the founder and chairman of Excalibur Fund Managers (formerly Merlin Biosciences) and Excalibur Group. I first saw Evans speak in 2008, right at the peak of the credit crunch, when he delivered a passionate, opinionated and controversial speech that caused quite a stir. I recently met him again at one of the events organised by One Nucleus, the UK membership organisation for international life science and healthcare companies and had the opportunity to talk to him in person. A few years on, his passion for the industry remains undiminished and we discuss politics, his companies and his plans for the future. The conversation is lively and peppered with references to two of his favourite things: rugby and Guinness. A man after my own heart…

You have been referred to as ‘Europe’s leading biotech entrepreneur’ and a ‘self-made multimillionaire’. Are these labels that you are comfortable with? 

[Laughs] You either are what you are or you are not. I’ve probably created more companies and now have sold more than anybody else in this industry. If there are a lot of categories in biotech, I’ve probably done a bit more than everybody else. That is the bottom line. You don’t float 20 different companies in five different countries and different stock exchanges that easily. Floating a company is quite hard!  

We’ve involved hundreds of investors and raised £2-3 billion to put into things and there are 4000 lab scientists in these companies working away. I’ve never really sat down and analysed the machinery around me but it is quite significant. So I’m happy with it. 

In the past you have expressed strong views about the different management styles between the UK compared to the US. Do you still hold those views?  

Whether you like it or not, the Americans are better sales people than we are. They just are. They have the style, the speed and the panache. You have to see through the bad ones - there are some brilliantly confident presenters and what they’ve got is rubbish. But the really good guys who have good ideas frankly leave our management teams standing. That is the view of a lot of international investors from the Middle East, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc. If you get a group of people who are just investors and want to make money, their views are exactly the same as mine. When I meet these guys, they ask me: ‘Why are the British teams not as energetic and racy as the Americans?’ The Americans suck you in, they grab you with the idea but we are always a bit more hesitant and cautious. It’s a cultural thing.  

Obviously the US is a far bigger country but we also don’t have as many of what I call ‘scientific entrepreneurs’: scientists who know a lot about commerce and money. You don’t see very much of that in the UK. There is a whole lecture on its own about the cultural characteristics and how they differ.    

[Americans] seem to be more experienced as well. You have a mix of people in the UK. Some come out of big pharma, drop into biotech and think they know what they are doing but that is not necessarily the case. And then there are guys like [chief executive of Ablynx] Ed Moses, for example, who have gone off and done their own thing successfully. They come back on the circuit, they have learnt a lot and they are very confident; they know how to present and raise money. But there are not that many of them in the UK.  

It’s a big world out there and we need to compete head on with the Americans and be as brave and bold as they are. The investors are also a lot bolder in America and they will put a lot more money in things that are risky and really go for it, while in the UK we won’t. 

As a philanthropist, and the chair of the life sciences panel for the Welsh government, you have very fruitfully turned success into influence…

That one is interesting, the Welsh one. The biotech sector is a bit disparate in Wales so I was asked: ‘What can you do?’ When I first looked at it I thought: ‘This is going to be a lot of hard work and there is no money in it for me.’ But I’ve come up with a four-pillar strategy with my panel and it is extremely bold. It’s taken me a year to figure it all out and now we are going to start implementing it and tell the world, particularly the Welsh public: the life science sector, the media, the university base, the small and medium enterprise base, etc. I plan to drive it for the next five years because I actually want to implement this and it could be quite fun. I really want to get Wales up there in the world so people in San Francisco or Hong Kong say: ‘Have you heard about Wales? There is stuff going on there.’ 

And to do that you have to do something that is exciting. So, yes, that is interesting but I need to turn my influence into action and the action has to produce results. 

Have you ever thought about going into politics?

No. I get dragged and immersed into that world but I don’t think I have ever been interested. The first prime minister who asked me to come in and tell them what was going on was Margaret Thatcher, after we got the Best New Business in Britain award in 1989. That was my first accolade and it really took a while to sink in. My little biotech start-up company had won after beating everyone - and they had thousands of business plans from all industries. I was terrified of her.  

Then I worked with John Major and then Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. I’m not engaged with David Cameron’s cabinet as much as I was with the other prime ministers because I haven’t had the time.  

But it is not politics, you just deal with the power. And they are the power. So it doesn’t matter who it is, you go in hoping to change things for the better and if they are willing to do this and back initiatives we need to talk to them. I’ve done tonnes of that but I’d rather watch the rugby with my friends [laughs]. 

Merlin Biosciences and Excalibur are the names of two of your companies. What’s with the theme?

The theme started here in Cambridge back around the Christmas of 1993. I had just floated Celsis for £60 million, was about to float Chiroscience for £100 million and a journalist, Judy Bevan, came to interview me.  

She did the whole back page of The Daily Telegraph and ‘The Welsh wizard of bioscience’ was the heading. The ‘Welsh wizard’ stuck and the media kept using related words like wand, magic, alchemy, etc. I took ‘Merlin’ as the natural extension for wizard and Excalibur represents the sword in the stone and it evokes something strong and of substance. 

I do have other companies named around this: Arthurian, Lancelot, etc. Do I have Camelot? No, I don’t! [laughs] But that is probably the end of the theme.

A clinical approach to pharma

Last October news leaked to the media that Evans was ‘plotting to launch’ a major drug development venture, NCPharma. At the time he declined to comment but he now reveals it all (all that he can, of course). 

1. What is NCPharma and what is the rationale behind it? 

NCP is a new pharma company specialising only in clinical development, ie no research, no scale up, no manufacture, no sales, no marketing, just thorough clinical development from pre-clinical to Phase 2b. It will rarely do Phase 3. 

2. Why should it succeed where big pharma failed?  

NCP will succeed because it is planning to run a very large clinical development pipeline (possibly more than 50 drugs at once) through its own highly efficient clinical trials model designed to to pick winners and ruthlessly kill stragglers. The board and management team led by Rob Armstrong, chief executive of Chorus at Eli Lilly, are of exceptionally high quality and immensely experienced. The company has vastly lower overheads than any other major clinical development company and is focusing all its skill, experience and cash on this crucial area of value inflection from Phase 1 to 2b. 

3. What’s in it for big pharma? 

Big pharma can partner with NCP and park mutually-agreed, high quality drug compounds with NCP for highly efficient clinical development. NCP completely funds all of the clinical trials at its own design and risk and will agree, in advance, the commercial terms to offer back first rights of the successful products to the originating big pharma partner. NCP takes up all the risk with its own substantial cash resources. Big pharma gets to offset the risk from its balance sheet but can dial back in to pick up the winners later. 

4.   When will it go live? 

NCPharma is not expected to go live until June 2012.

Ahead of the interview, we asked readers to propose questions for Evans. I selected two and here are the answers. Thanks to Akshat Rathi for his suggestions. 

1. What is your advice to young entrepreneurs?  

Just go out and do it! Believe in yourself but know your stuff. I’ve recently taken on my youngest ever ‘wannabe entrepreneur’. He is only 18. And prior to that I built up a business with a young entrepreneur who was 23, but the business has nothing to do with biotech. It is a bushcraft company so it is about teaching kids the skills of bushcraft away from digital technology and the classroom. I took it from £50,000 to £1.2 million revenue last year. This year we are aiming for £2.5 million and to have 52,000 kids in the camps.  

2. What is your driving force?  

The motivations are linked for me. If somebody said ‘You can do this for the next 50 years but we never want you to be public, never want you to work on a product and we never want you to have a success but we’ll give you £10 million every year,’ I’d be bored out of my skull.  

I love the products and what it is we are trying to do. Then out of it comes ‘the thing’: the glass phials, the little bottles, etc. It is not science for the sake of science: we make a bottle to inject into the patients and make them better. If patients get better, we can produce millions of these bottles and make a lot of money. I’m interested in the money and taking my share because I feel I deserve it as I took the risk from the beginning. It’s good to sit down with a pint of Guinness thinking ‘We developed these products, helped these people and got money out of it.’ But if you eliminate one or the other there is no motivation. It’s not just the money. It’s the excitement of 
the breakthrough.