Sam Blackford

Pre-DHC expertise?

I was a lab-based stem-cell scientist and academic.

How does your background differ from what you’ve been encountering at Dark Horse?

With a background as a lab-based scientist, I’m attuned to how academic science is performed, hurdles you need to jump to get into a journal, etc., and now my experiences are broadening incredibly quickly because the challenges and considerations to work through in nonclinical development are very different.

In my previous world, I knew how to handle each step along the way. For example, as academics we’re trained how to write up our projects into a manuscript and get it published. But I didn’t know how to deal with various agencies or the correct steps necessary to take a laboratory success and move it towards GLP/GMP compliance.

In many ways it’s a natural next step for me because I understand the drivers and challenges of the academic experience, and now I can step in to pinpoint the regulatory steps necessary for an efficient benchtop to bedside journey…work towards the most accurate identification and definition of product and safety profiles…identify the most appropriate models, and so on. There are stages of evolution to each development step and each product and getting insight so early in the process is truly a privilege.

As a strange but fortunate coincidence, I found that some of my experiences in academia were directly tied to certain cell therapies that I encountered with some of my earlier clients. I was able to side-step into a new role where I could use my fresh understanding. There are clients who want to work or are working with cell lines that I have hands on experience with.

A common driver for a scientific career is the opportunity to see a translational outcome of one’s work, and ideally to see that outcome benefit others. At Dark Horse I get the chance to help others realize that dream.

And what was your driver for a scientific career?

I’ve always had a strong interest in understanding how things work: stop-motion animation, for example. Going through school and getting exposed to biology piqued that interest in terms of the systems of the body…especially the brain. I ended up studying medical neuroscience at university, which had a clinical focus. A typical route from there might be into psychiatry or other neurological specialties.

One important way that I learned how things worked was by learning how those same things break. That applies in biology as well. Learning about organ systems is strengthened by studying disease of those systems…that’s what leads you to a translational spark: how to learn to treat, fix, cure.

During my education, I started getting exposure to the stem cell field. The Obama administration had recently overturned the ban on stem cell research so there were regular stories in the news about the possibilities for treating spinal injuries and certain types of blindness.

The field was so obviously fast-moving that it captivated me, so I began to consider the possible therapeutic avenues and eventually ended up with more specialized training that culminated in a Ph.D. and post-doc studies involving stem cells.

What made you decide to join Dark Horse?

I can say with a high degree of confidence that I hadn’t previously considered that this was a career path available to me. I’d been almost religiously following the University—> Ph.D.—> post-doc path and I very likely would have continued along that same route, if it weren’t for my being contacted about this open position and being encouraged to apply. Even then, I was somewhat unsure regarding my suitability. This much experience in one place can make it easy to worry that we may not be qualified.

But you took the chance and gave it a shot!

I did, and I would highly encourage others to do the same. Someone with my academic background absolutely can make the transition over to the world of cell and gene consulting. Not only is it an enviable opportunity that will serve me well for the rest of my career, but it turns out that someone with different experience can really bring something to the table in their own right. I understand the scientific landscape on a level that’s deeper than those who’ve gone directly into industry, for example. I know the limitations of the tools in the field…having been a very recent end-user.

Being intimately familiar with what can and can’t be done today gives us (academics and former academics) an insight into where the field needs to move going forward. I came to realize that my extensive repertoire of translational skills were also transferable skills.

I remained a bit in awe of the extensive industry experience all around me while I was interviewing, but other consultants in the practice reassured me that this was a viable step for me to take…that it was highly possible to provide necessary (and different) experience even without 5+ years in the industry. So, to pay it forward a bit, I’d like to offer that voice of encouragement to others who are passionate about the field. I want to say yes, give it a shot. Reach out and share your path and your strengths with Dark Horse, and you may well find out that there’s a place here for you sooner than you would have dared to hope!

And what has your early impression of Dark Horse been thus far?

People’s consideration and availability just continues to surprise me. Even though my colleagues are incredibly busy, they’re always willing to provide feedback or a sounding board. The opportunity to work alongside more senior members of the team is a symbiotic one: I learn and grow from the experience and they have another well-versed human resource in place. The client, meanwhile, gets all the experience of the senior team members alongside the fresh perspective I can bring.

I particularly like how this all plays out in nonclinical projects because therapies at that stage are like me, in a way, aren’t they? They’re exiting an academic setting and entering a previously uncharted stage.

Was there anything that took you by surprise upon joining Dark Horse?

The nature of the set-up here was a cool surprise. Even though I technically knew that we had people all over the world, experiencing it in real time has been a series of realizations. From a professional perspective, we collectively have local insights into local regulations, first-hand experience with agencies around the world. And we’re all able to tap into that experience because a collaborative workplace lets us each access and utilize each other’s knowledge.

And personally, that shared experience of working remotely doesn’t feel isolating: another unexpected plus. I’m used to academic labs with open floor plans and collaborative environments, and here we get the latter even though most of us don’t share office space. It’s part of Dark Horse culture: the team is designed to be remote and somehow that intentionality works to emphasize inclusivity. Plus, everyone makes a point of being accessible to one another. It hadn’t occurred to me that a whole group of remote workers could develop this sense of camaraderie, especially not this quickly. I felt like I belonged, right away.  

So, give us some insights into what your world is like outside of work.

My two biggest interests outside of science (because I think I speak for most scientists in pointing out that it’s not just a job; it’s also a hobby!) are sports and cinema. I grew up in a sporty family (BONUS PICTURE, below!) and enjoy athletics, plus playing racket sports and cricket. My whole family support the same (English) football team and traveling around both England and Europe to support them is simultaneously a joy and a nightmare! I currently have an ambition to run a full marathon; I’ve participated in 10ks and half-marathons so far, but a full marathon still feels like a big challenge.

I’d love to have the opportunity to travel more in the future as well. Growing up in England has given me the chance to travel and see lots of Europe, but I would very much enjoy expanding my travels outside of Europe: Australia, Japan, the U.S., South America, etc.

If the world continues to slowly open back up and I’m eventually given the opportunity to represent Dark Horse at conferences and far-flung client meetings, I might be able to pursue some of my personal and professional goals simultaneously!

And what are your thoughts on the cinematic experience in today’s world (including during the pandemic)?

On the one hand, we’re incredibly fortunate to be able to stream such high-quality at home, but I think we do miss some things when we do that. There’s something about being in the crowd of people with lots of popcorn, high-quality sound systems, huge screens: a truly immersive experience. Plus, I find that I notice art direction more in the theatre than at home.

The future there is hard to predict, though. We’re seeing viewing habits change, big screen experiences getting more intimate and serialized, small screen experiences getting higher budgets, and so on. The concept of binge-watching also really changes the viewer experience. In many ways the lines between the big screen experience and the television experience are being blurred, quickly.

Is there anything we haven’t touched on that you’d like to discuss?

I thought of another surprise in my (to date, very) short tenure here, which is the collaborative nature of our interactions with the clients as well as with each other. Consultant-client interactions very much inform the finished product and our work together is more of an evolution than a one-off product. It allows all of us to enter into motivated, passionate dialogues in which we can get to the heart of what the client wishes to achieve. Sometimes we may even uncover something the client hadn’t yet realized that they wanted to see happen. The consultant and the client share this field because they believe in the opportunities of the cell and gene space, so we all naturally pull in the same direction.


A younger Sam wearing a lab coat, looking into a microscope

Iconic lab photo of Sam Blackford!

Sam as a child, playing cricket with his dad

Tiny Sam plays cricket! See, when he said a sporty family, he meant it!

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