When Good Business Makes Good Science

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In conversation with Glenn Croker

Glenn Crocker of BioCity talks to me about building a life sciences incubator from scratch, the impact of Covid-19 on the sector, and advice for new startups

Sue Rees in conversation with Dr Glenn Crocker, CEO and now executive chairman of BioCity Group

Dr Glenn Crocker - BioCity Group

It’s stereotypical in Life Sciences that new companies in the sector are founded and led initially by research scientists and academics, and then when they need to grow and are seeking larger investors the senior team is “strengthened” to include experienced business-people and finance professionals.

The strength of Dr Glenn Crocker, MBE, is that he has very successfully used his expertise in both these areas to build an enviable reputation for success in the sector. He’s best known as the founding CEO and now Executive Chairman of BioCity Group, and is also UK Head of Life Sciences for JLL, the global real estate services company.

I wanted to find out more about Glenn’s fascinating background, what has made him so successful in the world of life science start-ups, and what advice he would give to new or growing businesses in a post-COVID 19 world.

Sue Rees: Glenn, your background is in “hard science”, isn’t it?

Glenn Crocker: Very much so. I gained my BSc in Genetics from the University of Nottingham in 1985 and then a couple of years later went to Oxford for my post-grad studies and went on to gain my DPhil in Immunology.

SR: But armed with your fresh doctorate, you then embarked on a totally different career path?

GC: That’s true. After all my postdoctoral research I realised that life at the lab bench wasn’t actually for me. Having made that rather important discovery perhaps a little late, I then realised I needed to learn how to do something else.

SR: So you decided to become an accountant!

GC: Well, my interest in the business side of life science had been building over time, and this was what I felt I really wanted to do. I thought, in that case, I better get a qualification, and that’s where Ernst & Young came in. I chose EY – and fortunately, they also chose me – because they were very much the leaders in the life science business, particularly in the US. I thought if I’m going to get the best experience then that’s where I need to be. So I moved to Palo Alto, California, with my family for two years. It was exactly what I wanted – from day one, even as a trainee, I was almost exclusively working with life sciences businesses. So that sector has been my focus since I moved over to the business world. It was a superb learning experience, and I was involved in IPOs, mergers and acquisitions, fundraising, writing business plans, the whole lot.

SR: Since you moved into the business realm, you must have had many challenges and some low points. What is it that made you able to push through these and become a success?

GC: I suspect it’s my tenacity. I just keep going – and as with moving to the US, it tends to be an “all or nothing” approach from me! There’s also a bit of a desire to prove the b******s wrong! You need that because there are low points. One such I clearly remember was not very long after leaving my very safe, steady, and secure job at EY and agreeing to be the first employee of BioCity as their founding CEO in Nottingham.

We’d set up shop in a former Boots research facility in the city centre with the idea of forming a new kind of life sciences incubator and entrepreneurial support network. It was a new concept that I was rather excited about, as you’d imagine. And then, after accepting the position and just after I’d handed in my notice at EY, there was an article about BioCity that was published in the Financial Times with the headline “Nottingham’s White Elephant”.

That sort of thing gets you really wondering whether you made the right choice or not. Those first couple of weeks were tough. I’d moved my family to Nottingham, and here I was wandering around these huge empty buildings with no one using them, with that article like an albatross around my neck, and thinking “what the hell have I done?”

BioCity Group

SR: But of course you did hold on, and helped to make BioCity a success story. You now have multiple sites with over 260 businesses thriving, as well as incubating new companies all the time. What do you think made BioCity such a success and not the predicted white elephant?

GC: That’s pretty straightforward. It’s all about focusing on the businesses you’re developing. Because I come from a background in business and in science, I could relate to both sides of the coin. It’s about being interested in them as businesses, of course, but more than that, it’s having an understanding of what life science startups and growing businesses need in particular.

But that on its own isn’t enough. That’s where that tenacity kicks in again. I had to roll up my sleeves, prove the doubters wrong, and start to help find, create and develop those first start-ups and help them achieve the funding they needed. It was about building connections – and being able to talk the talk of science and business certainly helped.

So all those skills I learned at EY – around funding, business plans, growth strategies, all of that – were being put to good use. And the businesses that grew from those embryos became our first tenants. After that, it was about building a pipeline of new companies that we could help to form and grow who can then move in and become part of that collective network that we wanted to build.

As time went on, and as we grew bigger and bigger, that process has become much more formal and we now have an entire Venture Development Team whose job it is to do what I was doing on a much smaller scale on day one. We now also have our own investment fund specialising in pre-seed and seed funding, so we’ve added the third leg to the stool that all work together to create a fantastic support environment. We can now help to create companies, invest in them, and provide them with a home where they benefit from the collective network we’ve built.

BioCity Group

SR: Some people may wonder why you chose Nottingham when all the noise at the moment seems to be being made by the Cambridge, Oxford, Bristol, and Cardiff areas. What does Nottingham have that makes it such a good place to start and grow a life science business?

GC: Nottingham is really strong in Contract Research Organisations (CROs) and it's probably got the highest density of chemists per square mile in the country! At the last count, there are over 200 fume hoods on-site in BioCity Nottingham being used by hundreds and hundreds of well-trained and experienced chemists.

There are a few reasons for that. One is the closure of the AstraZeneca facility at Charnwood at the end of 2011 – a lot of people that were providing in-house services at AstraZeneca took a step out from there and created their own companies. Examples of those would include XenoGesis, Reach Separations, and Aurelia BioScience.

The other factor is Nottingham University being on the doorstep, which is really strong in pharmacology and chemistry, so there’s a good stream of talented graduates and post-grads on the doorstep.

When you combine those factors with the fantastic space we have and the strong network, you can see why BioCity Nottingham is so attractive. No, we don’t have the “sexy” edge that you might find in Cambridge or Stevenage, but we have good companies that are growing well and surviving longer than average for start-ups in this sector. A large proportion of them are CROs and they are actually servicing quite a lot of the companies in those other areas.

SR: Does the cost of living and cost of doing business in Nottingham compare to Oxford, Cambridge and other more expensive areas play a part in that?

GC: It does, I’m sure. Generally speaking, therapeutics companies will get a large chunk of money all of which they will spend. That's their business model. Things like property prices, ongoing costs and even margins aren’t such a concern for them.

Most of our CROs are looking to become profitable as soon as they possibly can, so costs are important to them, and that includes people costs (and their living costs) and property costs. This is why there has been a tendency for these types of business to be attracted to the Midlands and further north.

What’s very interesting to me is that those companies that receive those big chunks of money that are in Oxford, Cambridge and the other “hot spots” are actually spending an awful lot of it in places like Nottingham, Manchester, and Alderley Park.

BioCity Group

SR: COVID-19 is something that’s had an impact across the board. What has the impact been on BioCity?

GC: So it has obviously had an impact. For us, onsite activity has gone down by almost 50% at any one time. But, in reality, that’s because most of our labs have moved to shift work. So everyone is working, but only half of them onsite at a time. That’s an obvious tangible impact on our day-to-day life.

But other than that, we’ve had no companies at all that are suffering badly or getting into major difficulties. The life sciences sector is rather proving its worth at this time. I think the pandemic has made a lot of people increase their interest in the sector, in all sorts of different ways. I suspect the sector is going to grow a lot more over the next five years or so. There will be an increase in government money coming in, I’m sure, but we’ve also not seen any sign of venture capital easing up at the moment, which is very positive. Hopefully, the UK stock markets might open up a bit more towards life science companies, which is what is really needed longer-term, but all things considered, we’re seeing lots of positive signs.

SR: Finally, then, if you were to give a new business or entrepreneur any guidance, what would you say?

GC: Well, specific advice very much depends on what stage the business is at, but there is one thing I would say that applies at every stage: get the right people on board. Surround yourself with a great team.

There’s a saying I like that has always rung true for me. A bad idea can be made into a good idea by good people, but a good idea can be made into a bad idea by bad people!

I want to thank Glenn for his time and for that fascinating insight into his success and how he helped to build BioCity from scratch. He definitely did prove those b******s wrong! The award of an MBE for his services to the biotech industry in 2014 was very well-deserved. I can’t agree strongly enough with his closing thoughts on the importance of the right people in making a business successful. With over 25 years of experience helping founders and investors grow their businesses by bringing in the right people, I know how vital getting key skills and strengths on board is. But it’s also crucial that the people you bring into your business are the right cultural and personal fit if they are to become the “good people” who can take your ideas to the next level.

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