Deloitte Indy 100: A business with the right chemistry

Its chief executive may not think he's qualified, but the success of BioFocus suggests otherwise
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The Independent Online

There aren't many people who'd be embarrassed by having a degree in biology. But when you run a company where the majority of employees have a PhD, then your university education seems a little meagre.

There aren't many people who'd be embarrassed by having a degree in biology. But when you run a company where the majority of employees have a PhD, then your university education seems a little meagre.

Geoff McMillan is the chief executive of BioFocus, a pharmaceutical company which is one of the fastest growing companies in Britain. "I'm slightly embarrassed about my degree, given that almost everyone around me has a PhD," he confesses. "But my background and my job are entirely commercial."

Mr McMillan joined the company in November 2002 as chief operating officer and was promoted to the chief executive's post last May. He has helped create a drug company that has two strings to its bow: it generates steady, dependable revenues but it is also placing a bet on discovering new drugs.

The steady part of the business was established in 1997 when a group of scientists left Wellcome - after it merged with Glaxo - to set up BioFocus. The company provides services to large pharmaceutical groups such as Roche and Aventis. These include out-sourced chemistry facilities and a library of compounds, which larger companies call on when developing new drugs.

Since his arrival, Mr McMillan has moved the BioFocus into a second main area of business - discovering new drugs. "We only invest in research and development from money we have generated from the other parts of the business," says Mr McMillan. "This makes us almost unique in the sector as we are probably the only profitable drugs discovery company in Europe."

In its year-end results, published in March, BioFocus posted a pre-tax profit of £1.6m. But the real value of the company is in its pipeline of potential new drugs, which have yet to make it to the chemists or into the hospitals.

This typically takes at least seven years from discovery, but BioFocus is already working on eight new drugs to treat a range of illnesses including cancer and cardio disorders.

"We are between 12 and 24 months away from our first deal with a pharmaceutical company on one of our discovery drugs," says Mr McMillan. When a deal is signed this will allow BioFocus to share the development costs of the drug.

The last two years have been tough for the pharmaceutical sector, as the larger companies have struggled to excite the City with new discoveries or significant growth. But Mr McMillan believes that the outlook for the sector is good: "We expect this year and next year to be much more lively." In January, the company, which is based in Saffron Walden, signed a large deal with AstraZeneca, which will see BioFocus's technology used to help speed up the discovery of new drugs to fight diseases such as cancer, depression and diabetes. The City gave BioFocus a thumbs up, as the company's shares jumped 9 per cent on the news and its shares have been on an upwards trajectory ever since.

If this continues, then perhaps Mr McMillan won't feel too ashamed to be just a Bachelor of Science.

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