Dr Alan Roth, Royal Society Entrepreneur in Residence, University of Oxford

Photo of Alan Roth

Alan is an organic and physical chemist by training, receiving his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Cornell University. After working for the pharmaceutical company Merck in the US in drug discovery, he obtained his PhD in organic synthesis from Columbia University, followed by a postdoctoral fellowhip at Oxford.He took on an academic position and later Alan turned his attention to industry and business. In this area he worked with two leading companies, management consultancy firm McKinsey & Company and the investment firm Commerzbank Asset Management.

In 2002, with his combined expertise in academia and business, Alan co-founded a start-up, the life sciences company Chiral Quest. He was its first CEO and CFO leading the company through its build up stages. He conceived and executed its initial business strategy and took the company public. The current management and employees have ensured that the company continues to flourish, securing international contracts.
Now, Alan holds a Visiting Lectureship at the University of Oxford and teaches his own course, Scientific Entrepreneurship. Along with this lectureship was appointed Royal Society Entrepreneur in Residence for the University of Oxford. Outside of Oxford he serves as Managing Director of Fitzroy Partners Limited, a London.based firm developing new ventures in health sciences internationally. He believes that his current academic and business path perfectly ties together his two interests, science and entrepreneurship.

What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I’ve been an academic practically all my life. When I did go into the business side of things, it was very important to me, from the very beginning, to find a way to share with other academics what I knew and had learnt from entering into the business world with no sector-specific knowledge of it. I wanted others from a scientific background to be far better prepared than I was, so that they would have also a good chance of making themselves successful.

I believe that those studying science, medicine and engineering subjects have a lot of skills and competencies that are highly valued in the business world. But can also lack some of the essential skills necessary to get your foot in the door and operate well within the world itself. That’s why I now teach my course, Scientific Entrepreneurship, to students and faculty of all disciplines at Oxford – but mainly the natural, life, medical and engineering sciences

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship actually comes from the French! It means to undertake. I like to think of it in the same way, especially coming from a science background. As entrepreneurs, we embark on a journey to convert an idea or conclusion we’ve reached into a practical product or service. This journey you embark on will hopefully help society as a whole, by contributing to a gap in the market while also creating wealth for yourself and for other stakeholders.

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Firstly, I’d say that it’s really important to learn about entrepreneurship as a discipline. In this world, being a bright Oxford scientist isn’t sufficient to be successful in the business world. It really helps if you study the variety of concepts and tools necessary to be in business. Just like chemists learn chemistry as an academic discipline, you need to learn business in the same way.

Secondly, I’d say don’t be overly optimistic. Be confident and have conviction in your idea but know that the statistics of success are very thin. Most of us start something entrepreneurial because we expect our idea to be successful, but we have to be humble. Success is very rare. So it becomes that much more important to bring in all your knowledge and work very hard to make sure you are in that small minority of successful individuals.I feel like these two aspects are especially important for those entering the entrepreneurship world with a non-business background.

Finally, it’s a team effort. Remember that entrepreneurship is not about being a hero individually. One reads about the heroes in the newspapers – Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, for example – but what most people don’t realize is that there were, and continue to be, other people supporting them throughout the whole process that are not as well-known as the leaders of the company. So I definitely think it’s really important to keep a team mentality and make sure you are in touch with the members of your team.

What is your favourite part of supporting entrepreneurs?
As Royal Society’s Entrepreneur in Residence for the University of Oxford, I come across so many aspiring science entrepreneurs. I think the best part is really the satisfaction of helping people like them, regardless of discipline, better understand business and seeing them be transformed from individuals aspiring to start something to individuals who are actually getting the tools to be able to actualize their ideas – and feel more confident about doing it!

It’s a very nice thing to see. I think it’s especially fulfilling because some don’t actually realise what they don’t know. It’s great to see and be part of a process where people really start to understand what it entails to be in business and work hard to achieve that knowledge.

What entrepreneurial individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I have had the luck of working specially with two fantastic companies in my career and I am inspired by them to this day. The first company is Merck & Co. When I joined, it was the largest and most respected pharmaceutical company in the world. The quality of the research produced, the medicines created, and the people working there were and still are of the highest order. I was very fortunate to work there as a scientist, and I think they are an amazing industry standard to aspire to. The second company is McKinsey & Company, a management consultancy firm. I think the people and the quality of the work that was produced there is formidable, and even coming from a non-business background, I quickly learnt that their practices were truly effective.

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
There are multiple things to discuss with each company, but I would ask these questions.

To the CEO of Merck & Co, I would ask:
– What are the current challenges of medicine for the next ten years in terms of addressing disease?
– How is Merck preparing for the next generation of drugs, scientifically and financially?
I think the world has tackled a lot of the basic diseases which were disastrous. This is an amazing feat. But just looking at the change that COVID has brought, it’s clear that the world can really change with even just one disease. It would be interesting to hear his perspective on this.

To the head of McKinsey & Company, I would ask:
– What are the challenges of business over the next five? ten years?
– Are there any trends you could predict of where the corporate world is headed, either positive or negative?
– How do you believe McKinsey can aid with the issues that would arise from this?

I’d also be interested in hearing their perspective on how technology is affecting business, and what are the new challenges businesses face as a result?

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned while supporting entrepreneurs?
I could spend a whole day talking about what could go wrong and what did go wrong! But in particular, I think I can talk a bit about lessons that scientists should know before entering the business world. Scientists in particular have a way of looking at the world which can be downright incompatible with the business world. A scientist is very thorough, almost exhaustively thorough. This is because if you are going to conduct research, a scientist would read all the relevant literature, then go into the laboratory and leave no stone unturned. They would try to make sure that their conclusion is 100% certain. This is a very meticulous process that takes time and money.

In the business world, one often can’t afford to be as exhaustive as a scientist wants to be. A businessperson probably only needs to be 80% sure of their conclusion – so just enough to get the information necessary to allow them to make a decision. Initially, for scientists, this is complete anathema and very difficult to accept. It can be very difficult for scientists to accept the mindset of the businessperson. But you have to adapt in order to thrive in it. That’s one of the things I teach in my course. I think a major challenge for me personally as a scientist was learning and adopting that business mindset.

One lesson I’ve learnt from supporting others is that every person, every aspiring entrepreneur, has different needs and so you want to support them in a way that would benefit each individual. As part of my Royal Society Residency, I work with a number of scientists to understand their translational needs. That is to work out how to translate what they are academically researching into a product that can have commercial benefits. In each case, I have to understand what the person is trying to achieve from a research point of view, then work together on how to use that research to solve a problem that exists in the real life market.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
It depends, really, what the person is interested in achieving. I would recommend my course, Scientific Entrepreneurship, to everyone at the University science areas – especially STEM and medicine students, faculty and staff looking to explore commercial opportunities.

If someone in academia is looking into entering the industry with their work, I would tell them to first research the industry they are interested in. By research, I mean find out what commercial category their academic research falls in and the key players (i.e. largest firms) in that particular sector. I would probably then work with them to develop a plan for how to pitch their research project to the firm they’re looking into.

If someone is looking to strike out independently – so, create a start-up, within Oxford University I would direct them to two points of contact.
Firstly, I’d recommend they look at the University’s technology office OUI (Oxford University Innovation). There they’ll find various resources, such as administrative and structural guidelines and possible paths towards grants and funding.
Secondly, I’d recommend they look at the University’s Oxford Sciences Innovation, which is an early-stage venture capital firm. This can be a really useful resource for University spinout companies that are somewhat established within a market as it can provide capital and other forms of support.