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Darrin M. Disley, CEO & President of Horizon Discovery Group

Thanks to the kickstart of a Cambridge PhD, Horizon’s CEO aims to make his 200 million pound company the most successful life science company in Britain. Not bad for a man who left school at 15 to become a professional footballer.

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Dr Darrin M. Disley

Dr Darrin M. Disley

This is not about the money. I live in a one-bedroom flat when I could afford a mansion. My approach is driven by authenticity, wanting to make a difference to the customer and telling a story about my ideals in the company I lead. I want to help develop treatments for the patients who are the ultimate customers of Horizon Discovery Group and I want to tell a story about my ideals, such as the importance of education and the need for social philanthropy.

My father was on the run from jail when I was conceived, and football was my way out at school and an escape from an abusive background. I left school before taking my GCSEs and went on to play semi-pro for local teams including Dagenham & Redbridge and Hornchurch. At school I was good at the work but football was everything, and it gave me a way out of East End poverty and a tough family life.

It didn’t even occur to me that I could get into Cambridge. When I decided I wouldn’t make it as a professional footballer I worked as a lab technician and then took a chemistry degree at Salford – I hadn’t particularly thought of myself as a scientist at school but enjoyed the lab technician training. I did well at Salford and was thinking of going to Princeton to do my PhD, so that I could combine the academic side with work as a football coach. Then a friend suggested I applied to do a PhD in biotechnology in Cambridge. I didn’t even know what biotechnology was, didn’t have the confidence to apply to Cambridge and didn’t do well in the interview. But obviously someone, somewhere, saw something in me. Cambridge, with its broad discursive approach and inclusive attitude, was the making of me. You can build global networks here that last a lifetime. 

You don’t need to plot out your career exactly. As an entrepreneur you pick and choose the available tools you are taught about at business school, but you don’t have to follow a formula. I launched my first company after my PhD, supplementing my post-doc income by teaming up with a colleague to introduce good design to scientific instruments. It made some money in the end but we made every mistake in the book for the first few months, over-spending on things like marketing but not actually speaking to people. I wasn’t driven to be an entrepreneur; I was led by my friend here.

Academic and commercial success can go hand in hand. Universities have become commercially aware, but they used to be suspicious of business. Academics remained arrogant about commerce, but that attitude changed in the mid- to-late 1990s as government funding became scarcer. By 1996, and although biotechnology was still a new subject, Chris Lowe at the Institute of Biotechnology made the department the most entrepreneurial in the University. It accounted for a quarter or more of all the University’s spin off companies and patents by 1996.

But academics must be carefully screened before becoming involved in a commercial project. Researchers are sometimes just looking for an alternative source of funding, or they can drastically over-value the worth of their technology or their contribution to a commercial venture. This can lead to a new venture becoming dysfunctional. Equally, the temptation to force research into a commercial venture, setting annual targets or quotas for the researchers to meet, dilutes quality.

Clashing agendas will lead to company failure. The key to a successful company is to align the interests of stakeholders. Every company has different stakeholders (management, investors, intellectual property originator, etc.) with different agendas that can clash. All of the successful ones – all of them – succeed by aligning these various interests rather than looking narrowly at, say, the interests of financial investors. Once you have matched a technology or product to a clearly defined and growing market place, the key to building a successful business is to align the interests of all of these stakeholders.

Being the chief executive is just a different job that I get well paid for. It does not make me more important, or allow me to behave differently, to any other member of the company. I believe in leading by example and always being open and transparent with colleagues.