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Winner’s spotlight: Horizon Discovery's Darrin Disley

Key learnings:

  • Horizon Discovery’s Dr Darrin Disley was voted UK Public Life Science CEO of the Year at the Biotech and Money Awards 2017.
  • Over the last 10 years, Disley has overseen the transformational growth of the company, including a £68.6 million IPO in 2014.
  • In this Q&A, Disley outlines what he finds most rewarding about working at Horizon, the need for future leaders to look to the long term, as well as the challenges and opportunities facing the UK’s life sciences industry. 

Dr Darrin Disley.jpgWhat is your proudest career achievement to date?

My proudest career achievement has been showing that you can take a biotech company from a seed funding of £150,000 in March 2008 to a £68.6 million IPO exactly six years later. More importantly, we have built a company based on world-class science that by being commercially successful has had a profound impact on patients in terms of pioneering research, products and services that have supported the first implementations of personalised medicine.

What do you most enjoy about working at Horizon Discovery?

Horizon has given me a platform to support scores of intrapreneurs (within Horizon’s workforce who go on to lead other businesses) and student entrepreneurs with grant funding, mentorship, business financing showing them that you can build the company you want to build, with an ordinary share structure that has returned up to 50X returns to investors (directly in proportion to the risk they took).

Whilst all the business success, industry awards and financial rewards are appreciated, the greatest achievement of my life was recently being conferred with a lifetime-held individual Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion. Nothing means more to me or is more rewarding than seeing others fulfil their potential and seeing them go on to influence others by paying it forward.

What do you feel are the most exciting and challenging aspects of working in biotech? And what are your hopes for the wider life science industry in the UK over the next few years?

We live in a golden age where scientists and engineers of all disciplines are coming together to solve major challenges of the world, perhaps the greatest being the composition, affordability and delivery of healthcare in light of an ageing population.

Innovation that would previously be confined to an academic research laboratory is extending to industrial settings. Industry’s access to significant capital combined with its commercial imperative to deliver multi-disciplinary solutions to the complex questions posed by the modern world are drivers for this change. Academic-industry collaboration, open innovation and a horizontal view of how technology can best be deployed to feed, fuel and heal people is the new normal.

The biggest challenges are the availability of a multiplicity of government, private and public capital that allows the translation of ideas into business concept, start-up and scale-up. The complexity of the problems and solutions requires a great knowledge by and incentive of legislators and investors of the benefit of supplying patient capital in a sector that punches way above its weight, delivering 2X the productivity of any other sector in the UK.

What piece of advice would you give to the next generation of leaders in the life science sector?

I am on record as saying that new companies need to put global scale-up on their agendas from day one. There are still too many founders who are limited by ambition and an unwillingness to take the harder path to long-term, sustainable success. It is depressing but there are still too many founders who find it easier to align with investors and take early exits and early retirement. The scale-up model exemplified by Horizon and others can work, but it means making tough decisions, holding firm, and rolling the sleeves up for the battle, over a long period, with vested interests. Most founders find it easier to roll over but that has never been my mind-set.

It may seem daunting to dream of building a global business when you have £9,000 in the bank, as we did in March 2008, but what I would say to you is that if someone who until the age of 32 did not achieve any outstanding scholastic, scientific or entrepreneurial achievement can do this, then so can you.

There is nothing to lose really: more than 99.9% of all people on the planet will unlikely know of our existence let alone that we failed trying to achieve something. So why not try? In this golden age, as the irrepressible biotech entrepreneur Andy Richards says, it is a low-risk time to do high-risk things so what better opportunity will you ever have to make a difference?

Horizon Discovery was also named winner in the Life Science Communications Plan of the Year category, sponsored by EQS Group, and the Public Life Science Company of the Year category, sponsored by CMS. Read more about the award-winning communications plan, developed in partnership with Consilium Strategic Communications, in Winner’s spotlight: Horizon Discovery.

Take a look at the full list of winners at this year's Biotech and Money Assembly and Awards Gala Dinner


Louise Fordham
Written By
Images: Horizon Discovery

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