Red Adair! His claim to fame was capping and extinguishing oil well blowouts, which is a ridiculously dangerous thing to be doing. You can imagine the hold a Texas hero like that had on the imagination of a young British boy. Not only was he extraordinarily brave, but he was just brilliant at what he did. He bragged that none of his men had ever been seriously hurt while working for him, and he himself died of natural causes when he was nearly 90 years old. What a combination: nerves of steel with a dedication to doing a hard thing exactly right. Nothing better than that.
I think so. I’m not usually described as risk-averse; I like to take on the unsolvable problems, anything with a challenge, and I know I am never happier than when working without a net. And, like Red, I make it my business to protect those who work for me.
I’ve been lucky enough to love every job I’ve ever had. Loving your job gives you a freedom of thought, more space to excel. And these last six years at Dark Horse…I’ve loved that work even more than anything I’ve done before. As I remember a quote by San Francisco 49er Jerry Rice, “…the harder I work, the luckier I seem to get.”
You've been ahead of the curve in cell and gene since the beginning. Tell us about that.
My Ph.D. was in vector manufacturing and virus production back when this was an obscure thing to be working on. It’s a little bizarre, actually, to be in today’s C> field with a doctorate in that from back in the ’80s. I suppose it makes me look prescient, doesn’t it? (I wasn’t!) Then I landed in the Bay Area in the ’90s at a company with gene therapies that were running into manufacturing difficulties. The chief exec saw my résumé lying around and that’s how I found myself dropped into a project with a focus on CMC (Chemistry, Manufacturing, and Controls).
In 2014 the clinical data from trials that would ultimately yield Kymriah and Yescarta came out and were absolutely stunning. It was a “holy sh*t” moment for me: the field was coming of age. One doesn’t always remember the opposite of an experience but oddly, I vividly remember choosing not to sit down and map out the details of my practice-to-be. I just followed my nose, as they say, and it unfolded in front of me. A friend recently asked if I ever could have foreseen where we are now, though—with offices in the U.S. and in London, 130+ clients, dozens of brilliant employees, crushing every goal we set for ourselves—and the answer to that, really and truly, is “yes.” This is exactly what I expected to happen (and, spoiler alert, I can picture our next steps just as well).
I had CMC experience and C> experience and therefore I was specifically positioned to build a consultant practice where these two coincided. The field has a history of doing a poor job focusing on CMC problems, which have a habit of not being CMC problems. Often those are regulatory, quality, financial, or facility problems, and getting to the root of these issues requires deep experience. I had met many a future “Dark Horse” while working in industry and over time I’ve snapped those experts up to form the only global practice focused exclusively on cell and gene therapy.
My mother used to say, “Always do your best. You can’t do more,” and I routinely borrow that phrase from her. I’m looking for passion and commitment to the work, and I also want our Dark Horses to lead fulfilled lives, for everyone who works here to be fully three-dimensional. My team should love coming to work and also love everything they do and are outside of the office. It’s striking how many of our Horses have impressive achievements even outside of their enormously accomplished work lives.
No question. High performance is what I’m looking for, independent of location or level. Cell and gene therapies are staggeringly complex and I look for deep technical expertise regardless of where in that field our subject matter experts originated. Individuals at this level of skill work well together because when you’re that good you don’t need to play politics and you don’t find yourself in an ethical grey area. You work together and get it done, precisely right. On a related note, I’m a super-delegator, so I like to hire people who enable me to empower them.
In addition to the extraordinary skill each and every one of our people bring to bear? We had a telling experience at a retreat back in pre-pandemic days. We had an academic psych professional in to administer a personality test on contrasting value judgements, looking at autonomy/equality, sensibility/rationality, blah blah blah. And then we look at the results, and nearly every single person is in the cross-hairs. Just right in the center. I realize: of course, this makes perfect sense. We’ve got a team of consultants who are successful, in part, because they can empathize with any quadrant. It’s so clear when you see those tendencies in the aggregate.
Oh, yes. Katy Spink and I were the furthest two individuals from the center. One of us was firmly in the top left quadrant and one in the bottom right quadrant. If your executive team is going to be made up of only two individuals, as we currently are, you benefit from playing to your differing strengths. We balance out, challenging one another in all the ways that a good business partner does. It means that together, we can see the full picture. And then we have at our disposal an entire team of individuals who are perfectly equipped to land wherever we need them to on a particular project.
A mix of things. My father, who died shortly before I founded Dark Horse, became a banker after a storied career as a fighter pilot in the RAF. He viewed my interest in science as quaint, always asking me when I was planning to get a proper job where I’d wear a tie to work each day. Once I knew I was going to make the consultancy happen, I decided I wanted the differentiation of a name outside of the typical biotech terms. My father’s second career was at Lloyds Bank and the staff magazine with the eponymous Black Horse logo was typically left lying around our house. Add that subconscious pull to my drive to honor my father in some fashion and combine it with my conception of the cell and gene therapy field as a true “dark horse” (a lesser-known element that arrives in a position of prominence)…and the name chose itself.
I’ve always been a fan of Jaguars and the classic color for them is the British racing green that’s used on Jaguar formula cars. That had to be it.
<ed. note, redacted: multiple Jag-owner jokes, several paragraphs of detail about restoration details, including the engine and the chassis and the bonnet and inertia and the shape of the car and the speed of the car and how it feels to drive the car. To quote our leader, “blah blah blah!”>
I grew up in a regimented environment (third-generation military family), and then I went to boarding school by way of a scholarship; we were not a wealthy household. Something I’ve retained from my experience at Brighton College is the awareness they instilled in us of the privileged education we were there to receive. We were all expected to serve, whether that be the armed forces or the ministry or what have you, and to this day I feel that responsibility. I have striven to make my life’s work my service. Every time Dark Horse helps better the safety or efficacy of a cell or gene therapy, or improves its chances of reaching the patient quickly, we’re making a difference. I’m proud of my team, each of whom take that responsibility as seriously as I do.
Looking back, it’s possible to see a life in which everything lined up and played out (considering the straight line from my Ph.D. to where I am today) but my life is just as easily viewed as a pinball bouncing wildly around in the machine. I was a cadet and marksman in the RAF; I was a sports teacher in a very English boarding school; I lived in Africa several times, working in the blood transfusion service at Zimbabwe’s Parirenyatwa Hospital as well as at the UZ Crop Science department; I spent a year in music school, and so on. In so many ways I was a drifter with no plan and no focus. And then, once I found cell and gene therapy, I suppose everything sort of fell into place. The answer to the question may be that I became a scientist somewhat by accident but that once I found it, I had no interest in changing course. Even in the lean years of the field, the almost infinite potential kept me hooked. Cell & gene is infinitely fungible, infinitely expandable. And it saves lives. It’s the perfect place to be.
“I like to say it’s only cost me $5k to restore this beauty. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!”