It’s not failure, it’s unfinished success! What a global pandemic, beating cancer, family responsibilities, and a business failure taught one woman about the role of a CEO

Share this article on...

In conversation with Alison Clayton

In Conversation with Alison Clayton

In conversation with Alison Clayton

Hailing from Glasgow, where she also studied for her PhD in Pharmacology, and with over 20 years of experience in senior roles within the biotech industry, Dr Alison Clayton is currently the Head of Analytical Services at Symbiosis Pharmaceutical Services. However, I first spoke with her soon after she had taken on her first CEO role with Scottish biomaterials startup Biogelx. Alison joined them in March 2020 – just as the UK was dealing with the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Knowing that the company she was joining only had 6 months' worth of funding, Alison was fully aware she was taking a big risk – and it was one that ultimately didn’t pay off.

I wanted to catch up with her again and find out about what it was like to take on her first CEO role during an incredibly challenging period, about bouncing back from what might be perceived as a “failure”, and about her experience working as a woman in senior roles in the life sciences industry.

Sue Rees: Alison, many thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. I know the last couple of years have been quite full on! The first thing I’d like to know is what inspired you to take on a CEO role at such a challenging time?

Alison Clayton: Thank you, Sue, it’s a pleasure to chat. Well, after a number of years working in highly regulated and larger organisations like Quintiles and Eurofins I was approached by the chairman of Biogelx, John Waddell, and Margaret Temple, one of the non-executive directors who I had worked with previously. It was these two individuals that sold me on the idea of working with a small, early-stage company and helping it to become successful selling a product.

The main attraction to me was that it was something really quite different and in a small company you have the ability to make decisions and make changes very quickly. This is very different to the way most large companies work, where due to layers of decision-makers and internal processes you sometimes have to go along with strategies that you may not be 100% committed to personally. That level of control and immediacy with Biogelx was quite attractive.

SR: Something I imagine you would have had to make decisions on very quickly would have been the impact of the global pandemic. What was the effect of it on your business?

AC: It was pretty dramatic! I joined just a couple of weeks before the lockdown was announced. A lot of our collaborators and customers were academics, and of course, all their labs were closed down. So we immediately lost a lot of engagement as well as momentum in our development.

Having said that, I think it provided me the opportunity in my new role to do a lot of things that I might not have been able to had everything been moving at a pre-pandemic pace. So I took the opportunity to take a thorough look at the business and make sure our strategy was right and really get to know the people. Also, my background is in pharmacology, not chemistry, so I was able to take some time to get an understanding of the technology behind our product. I was also able to make other connections that I might not ordinarily have had the chance to make.

I always like to see the positive side of things, therefore I was looking for opportunities that wouldn’t have presented themselves if the lockdowns hadn’t happened. But it’s fair to say the biggest hurdle we needed to overcome was the loss of momentum with customers.

SR: So what happened to Biogelx in the end?

AC: For the last six or seven years the company has been funded via grants and small regular investments. As you are aware, that kind of “hand-to-mouth” existence is not at all uncommon among small startups – we only had 9 people in the business, for example. That meant that producing a three-to-five-year strategy had been all but impossible.

So my priority had to be to put a strategy in place that would allow us to attract funding to keep us going through covid and then for the next three to five years.

SR: What was your experience of seeking funding in the environment you found yourself in?

AC: The immediate need was to secure funding to weather what we hoped would be the short-term storm of the pandemic. We secured a grant from the Scottish government which was very important. Our payroll wasn’t significant and our costs were under control, so I hoped that by keeping things going we could actually use the time to develop the product further and improve on some of the early results. We were hoping that we’d only need the support for 6 months at this stage!

Once it became clear that this wasn’t going to be a short-lived thing, we secured another grant/loan  with the Scottish government which allowed us to keep the business going until August 2021.

In parallel with that, I was approaching investors, which was interesting because of the history of the company specifically. We went back to investors who had seen Biogelx before, but we were in a different place than previously so we hoped the changes would encourage investment. The company was no longer pre-revenue and it had a product that was being sold, although we were at the start of that sales journey. Some investors have an expectation that once you start making sales there needs to be an almost exponential growth before they want to commit, and investors who are looking for early entry into businesses aren’t interested once you’re no longer pre-revenue! So we were in middle ground there.

In conversation with Alison Clayton

One other thing I encountered is at the time investors had so many opportunities available that there was little appetite to look at businesses that were not right in their “sweet spot” for investment. Whereas in different times they may have been interested in Biogelx being just outside that sweet spot, they weren’t looking to expand their criteria and spend that time looking at the business.

I remained in talks with other potential investors, and while there was interest, they were not able to move quickly enough to allow the business to continue.

At this point, our staff were concerned by the insecurity and most were looking for and getting other jobs. Bearing in mind our reliance on short-term funding at that point, and with no guarantees of any immediate investment appearing, along with the impact of staff leaving it became clear that we had to call it a day.

SR: And so how did you find your current role?

AC: I knew Colin MacKay, the CEO of Symbiosis and he reached out and asked what my future plans were. Based on those discussions we established the potential for a role for me within the expansion plans of the company.

It does illustrate the importance of keeping your business relationships in good health and professional links active meaning that opportunities will come.

SR: What have you learnt from this experience?

In conversation with Alison Clayton

AC: I’ve learnt that a CEO role is probably not for me. I think I’m more suited to a COO-type role where I am driving operational delivery. Biogelx was a small company, so as CEO you get involved in pretty much everything, but I felt I was more suited with solving the day-to-day issues than I was with the wider strategy you have to deal with as a CEO.

SR: So, were the role and responsibilities of a CEO in a start-up in this industry what you expected them to be?

AC: That’s a good question. I wasn’t looking for a role like this when I was approached with the chance to take it. I was attracted by the challenge of something I hadn’t done before and seeing if I could be successful, but I didn’t really know what to expect!

SR: I’m interested in how women CEOs have to juggle additional family responsibilities that men in similar positions often don’t have to. Do you think that having to support elderly parents put you at a disadvantage in terms of time and energy you could commit to the role compared to someone who didn’t?

AC: Well, in my case, in addition to supporting my parents, I was diagnosed with breast cancer 2 weeks before I started as CEO. So I also had surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy on my plate! Friends and colleagues did ask me “how do you do it?”. And the answer is – you just have to.

In some ways, the pandemic forcing people to work from home made things a little easier, but that applies to everyone I think. In general, I have never felt my gender has held me back at all, and I have an extremely supportive husband and family. I’ve always had help with those aspects of life away from my career that allowed me to devote more to it than I might otherwise have been able to.

I don’t believe any of those circumstances did distract me, but of course, without reliving history differently, we’ll never know.

SR: As you know, I’m based in Oxford so I’m very familiar with the life sciences landscape in England. What’s the picture looking like for the industry in Scotland at the moment?

In conversation with Alison Clayton

AC: It’s pretty buoyant. There’s a big facility for manufacturing medicines that’s been built in Renfewshire, the facility has been developed through a public-private collaboration between technology innovation organisation, CPI, the University of Strathclyde, UK Research and Innovation, Scottish Enterprise and founding industry partners, AstraZeneca and GSK. BioCity here in Glasgow has been taken over by We are Pioneer Group, and the market in labs and lab spaces is very active at the moment. Incubators are all well-occupied, and a lot of biotech companies can’t recruit quickly enough.

There are enough candidates for all the vacancies at the moment, the Scottish Universities are sending plenty of science grads out, but it’s definitely a buyer’s market and candidates can perhaps be more choosy than used to be the case, and this is pushing up salaries to attract and retain the best people.

SR: What has it been like for you as a woman working in this industry?

AC: Personally, I’ve had nothing but support, and while some may feel I’ve been lucky with that I do think you make your own luck to a certain extent. Throughout my career, I have mainly had male bosses, and they have all given me opportunities and pushed me and allowed me to develop and grow.

I’ve never felt that I’ve been overlooked or not achieved what I could have achieved, but I’ve also worked hard! I’m a parent – I have three children – and while I had a lot of support from parents and my husband, I never had any issues with any of the companies I’ve worked for in terms of maternity leave causing any stalls in my career. I’ve tried to pass on my experiences and principle of making your own luck through hard work and letting your talent shine through to other women that I’ve worked with.

SR: So are you proof that women in business can have it all?

In conversation with Alison Clayton

AC: Well, I think that depends on what your definition of “having it all” is. In my case, for 20 years all my time was spent on work and family – I didn’t really spend much time on myself. I’ve got to acknowledge that I’ve had the good fortune to have very supportive parents, parents-in-law and husband with a young family, and once my children grew up, then I could then actually do things just for me.

However, I do think there is a big push now on having ‘me’ time which I do think is important, as well as having a family and a career, but it’s not something I would have been able to consider when my children were young. So if your idea of having it all is being able to have “me time” and “friends time”, as well as giving your all to your family and to your career, then I am not sure how to achieve that unless you invent extra hours in the day!!

SR: So would you change anything in your journey to now if you could?

AC: No, not at all. But I do acknowledge that having the support network and childcare in place was really significant in being able to say that.

SR: Do you think having a family has had any impact on your career development and journey to date?

In conversation with Alison Clayton

AC: I’m a scientist, so I’m conscious that unless you redo the experiment changing that one aspect there’s no way to know if the outcome would have been different! We discussed as a family early on that as parents we both had to make decisions involving career that were the best for the family in the long run.

I think I was a bit of a workaholic, and at times I would say that I probably didn’t have a good work-life balance, but the family always supported me and recognised that that was what I needed to do. But I made sure that we always had great holidays and some big adventures and made memories, and I always spent time with the family when work pressures eased.

Look, if I go back and analyse everything in forensic detail then perhaps there are some things that I missed out on or could have done differently, but I’m not a believer in looking back and saying with the benefit of hindsight that was wrong or could have been done differently. At the time, I did what I thought was right and we wouldn’t have been able to have some of the amazing adventures and experiences we did if I hadn't focused on my career when I did. The fantastic support that I had from my husband in particular as well as immediate and wider family was key.

SR: Who has inspired you the most throughout your career?

In conversation with Alison Clayton

AC: I had the opportunity to meet Sir Dennis Gillings [the founder and former CEO of Quintiles] on several occasions, and he was one of the most inspiring business people that I’ve come across.

Looking further back, my PhD supervisor, Professor Ian McGrath, was a great inspiration for me. He was incredibly switched on, hard-working, and very motivational – but also quite tough on you if he thought you weren’t doing the absolute best you were capable of.

I’d also have to say my dad was a huge inspiration. He would often remind me that you need to “think like a winner”. As soon as you talk yourself down or think you can’t do something, you won’t be able to. That power of positive thinking has always stuck with me.

SR: That’s a fantastic positive motivation to have because a lot of women in business I meet seem to suffer from “imposter syndrome”.

AC: I think I do, too, to some extent. Every so often I’ll catch myself thinking “I’m not good enough for this”. But you just need to keep in the back of your head the thought that actually everyone at various points in their life feels that they might not be capable of succeeding. I used to do a lot of self-reflection on the journey home from work – what did I do today, what could I have done better or differently, how could I approach that again in the future. There were a number of times when because of that I would go back to people the next day and say “I didn’t handle that as well as I could have” and apologise to them.

SC: If you were to give an aspiring female C-suite candidate any advice, what tips would you give them?

In conversation with Alison Clayton

AC: I think you need to have a lot of self-belief, and despite the occasional doubts we talked about before, know that you can actually do it. Alongside that comes a passion and a belief in what you are selling.

Don't be scared to ask for help – remember, it’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength.

If you are moving up from an operational role, you need to make sure you can distance yourself from that day-to-day decision making and not dip in and out. Your role has to be much more strategic than that, so you need to have a team who can take that on and you need to be able to delegate effectively. Make sure you are more outward than inward-looking.

You have to enjoy what you’re doing. If you’re going to put yourself into a vital role then you have to love it otherwise it could become a chore and demotivating. If you don’t have that drive and enthusiasm, that buzz every day for what you’re doing, then it’s going to be impossible to drive the rest of the team forward with you.

SR: Controversial one, now, perhaps. Do you think the “boys’ club” still exists?

AC: It’s interesting to me, I don’t understand how it works. I’ve got friends who are COOs and Managing Directors, but I don’t believe we “think” the same way perhaps?

SR: Do you think it could be that some men have a lack of empathy or don’t think emotionally as much as women?

AC: I’m not sure empathy is linked with gender so clearly. I’ve worked with women who seemed to have zero empathy and even discriminated against working mothers who wanted some employment flexibility! But certainly, I think anyone who doesn’t have empathy is going to struggle to build a strong team in the long run.

Subscribe to our email updates

Receive all our latest blogs and "In Conversation" articles straight to your inbox

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.