An Odyssey in Biotech

By the age of 40, Cathy Prescott (see picture at left) had done postdocs in three different countries, had moved from academia to industry and back again, and had started her own company. Now director of science at venture capital firm Avlar Bioventures Ltd. in Cambridge, U.K., Prescott says that at every stage she learned new things that would come in handy later on.

As a geneticist armed with an honours degree from the University of Nottingham and an Oxford D.Phil., Prescott started the postdoc trail at the University of Kent at Canterbury, working on the initiation of protein biosynthesis in yeast. From there she moved on to the RNA of bacterial ribosomes and to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.A. Two years later, she returned to Europe for a third 2-year postdoctoral fellowship, which she pursued at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics (MPIMG) in Berlin. Under the leadership of the late H. G. Wittmann, MPIMG was a major centre of ribosome research, attracting researchers from all over the world.

Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, on the three placements in different countries, Prescott says that the U.K. job gave her a solid base for developing innovative thought patterns. In the United States she felt encouraged to play with more radical ideas. And in Germany, the common stereotypes were confirmed, in that a lot of emphasis was placed on careful analysis. In addition, Prescott appreciated working with an international team. "Scientifically, I benefited from each of these stays," she says, "and on top of that I learned a lot about the different cultures."

After a brief foray into industry, in which she switched fields and found herself doing routine work, she moved to the publicly funded Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin-Buch in 1993, studying the interaction between ribosomes and membranes. It was then that she was tempted away from academic research for good. Friends showed her an advert for a group leader position, to investigate antibiotics that act on the bacterial protein synthesis machinery, at SmithKline Beecham's ( SB's) research facility in Brockham Park, Surrey. As somebody who values the freedom to follow her own ideas, she did not really feel attracted to industry but admits "I was curious" to find out exactly what SB were hoping to do with the system that she had spent so much time studying in great detail. "It was a perfect fit," she says, "between my research experience and the profile that SB were looking for."

So impressed was she that she accepted the job. Within the first few months at SB, she saw an opportunity to initiate a series of new research programmes focused on exploitation of RNA as a drug target. In the early 1990s this was a new concept for big pharmaceutical companies, so she had exceptional freedom to drive her research in the direction she thought most promising, because, she says, "my research interests were exactly in line with what SB wanted." In contrast to her previous work in various ivory towers, however, she would now have to think very carefully not only about the knowledge gain to be expected but also about the need to protect intellectual property rights and commercial potential. Such considerations would become more and more important in the subsequent stages of her career.

Another unexpected bonus of the industry research was the fertile cross-disciplinary collaboration, which allowed her to get continuous support from chemists and biophysicists in addition to that of her handpicked group members, who were, she says, "exceptional." Although it is unusual to move into industry after 10 years of academic research, Prescott feels that it was the right move at the right time for her, as she arrived with the confidence that allowed her to establish her own voice in the new environment.

After 2 years at Brockham Park, SB enticed her to build a bigger and better version of her lab at a newly acquired research site in Upper Providence, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. Although the research--looking at the possibilities of exploiting RNA both as a target and as a tool in drug discovery--continued to thrive in the new surroundings and resulted in nine patent applications, Philadelphia didn't live up to her cultural expectations, and she moved back to Europe for the second time.

A job offer from the Cambridge-based biotech start-up RiboTargets provided a welcome opportunity to return to Europe. As the head of drug discovery, she supervised projects involved with the identification of compounds that disrupt RNA-protein interactions with a view to developing antibiotics. In 1999, feeling the need to stretch her wings, she left to set up her own biotech consultancy, Empyrean Sciences Ltd., from her spare bedroom. As with any new business, it took a few months to get going, but a combination of cold calls to venture capital companies and capitalising on her existing networks in academia and industry finally yielded a variety of clients, ranging from academic research groups to commercial organisations, such as the technology transfer company BTG and her current employer, Avlar Bioventures Ltd..

While she was at SB, Prescott had already learned to assess start-up companies and new technologies. With her own consultancy firm, this kind of early project review and development became her main business focus. She very much enjoyed the opportunity to get acquainted with a wide range of cutting-edge science, but she also had to learn that, for a project to work out economically, the science is important but not always central. The challenge was to bridge the gap between the scientists, who were excited about their latest ideas, and the business people, who wanted to see patents and revenue streams. In order to bridge this gap, she says, "I had to think about what a licensing package should look like in the end, and from there work out which features should be included in the research." Her activities also included substantial fund-raising in Japan for a spin-out company set up by Imperial College researchers to develop gene therapy methods.

Her consultancy work for Avlar, a venture capital company dealing exclusively with biotech, got her more and more involved in the process of building new biotech companies from scratch, including the "due diligence" procedures, which involve validation of the business approach in comparison to its competitors and prognosis for future developments. She realised that she could get even more closely involved in the decisionmaking and further broaden her experience by joining the staff of the company, which she did when the opportunity arose in autumn 2001.

Now, as a director of science at Avlar, she continues to evaluate new technologies at an early stage and to make sure that those that she finds sound and promising will get the support they need. Her knowledge and experience continue to grow as she faces new challenges. These include recognizing and assessing the impact of the enormous pressures facing the biotech industry today. An understanding of the commercial position and potential business models is very important and provides an added dimension to the science.

It has often been said that, in the fast-moving biotech industry, the only constant is change. Thus, to the dreaded job interview question, "What will you be doing in 5 years' time?" she answers, "Goodness knows."

Michael Gross is a Science Writer in Residence at the School of Crystallography, Birkbeck College, University of London. He can be contacted through his Web page at

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