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Collaborate to innovate

Posted on 20/07/2017

Why having the right team of people makes all the difference.

For award-winning scientist and infocus: Women in Innovation senior business mentor Fiona Marshall, versatility is key.

As Founder, Director, and Chief Scientific Officer of Heptares, Fiona Marshall oversees the development of transformative new-generation medicines. She has been actively involved in mentoring women for most of her career in science, and is one of 22 senior business mentors supporting the infocus: Women in Innovation programme. She explains the value of having a strategic and versatile approach to entrepreneurship.

As an entrepreneur, what helped you most and what were the greatest challenges to overcome?

“I started off with a science degree and a PhD (Bath Biochemistry and Cambridge Neuroscience), but decided early on not to continue in academia but move to industry to connect more quickly through to applications of science to medicine. I joined Glaxo in their Neuropharmacology group. A reorganisation while I was on maternity leave forced me to change direction to work on molecular pharmacology of receptors – which is the area I have focused on since and provides much of the foundation of Heptares. My next career step was to leave GSK due to the extensive international travelling that was required, which was difficult to balance with a young family.

Trying to juggle family and career lead me first out of Pharma to Biotech (Millennium Pharmaceuticals), and then to working as a consultant with a range of small companies and investors. This gave me the training to start Heptares once my children were slightly older. So the greatest challenge was juggling career and family. After setting up Heptares, the biggest challenge was raising sufficient investment to allow the company to demonstrate the value of the technology to discover drugs and take them through to the clinic.”

“I have been very impressed by the exciting ideas and enthusiasm I have encountered in all the women I have met who have applied to the Women in Innovation programme. I hope that by sharing some of my own experiences, but more importantly just providing encouragement and a sounding board, that I can help other women to grow their own companies and achieve their goals and dreams.”

What are the key things that start-ups need to consider when trying to get their innovation to market?

  • Have a clear business plan all the way to market, including at least one back-up plan in case things don’t work out as you expect or hope
  • Make sure you get the right team of people together with all the skills and expertise you need to see the innovation through to market – some of this can be inside the company and some accessed through external advisors and partnering companies
  • Don’t give away too much too soon, even though it may be tempting.

How can we encourage more girls and women to work in STEM industries?

  • We need to start with improving the teaching of STEM subjects in schools to engage the interest of girls early on. I think clearer demonstration of applications of STEM subjects to areas of direct relevance to girls is one aspect of this.
  • There need to be far more female role models involved in STEM activities, both in real life and in fiction and films – a female Dr Who is a great example!
  • We need to incentivise STEM employers to continue to encourage and promote female staff at all levels

What is most likely to foster greater UK innovation and close the gap between idea and product?

A number of incentives, including work done by Innovate UK and tax incentives for new entrepreneurs and investors, have helped increase the number of UK tech start-ups. The next stage is to make sure that longer-term capital is available to grow these seed companies; to enable them to take their ideas through to market – preferably by growing more UK-based global companies. Encouraging close collaborations between UK universities with small and large companies all the way through this growth curve is also key. In the Healthcare sector, closer engagement of the NHS with scientists and clinicians in academia and industry would also foster innovation and provides a real opportunity for the UK to be world leading.

What outcomes are you hoping for as a result of your mentoring work with Women in Innovation?

“I have been very impressed by the exciting ideas and enthusiasm I have encountered in all the women I have met who have applied to the Women in Innovation programme. I hope that by sharing some of my own experiences, but more importantly just providing encouragement and a sounding board, that I can help other women to grow their own companies and achieve their goals and dreams.”

-Interview by Katharine Rooney

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