Dr Strangebug By Roger Dobson

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The Independent Online

The picture of the bug framed and mounted on the loo wall celebrates that moment when Dr Chris Evans put his mark on the world. It may have been a small step for mankind, but it was big news in the world of bacteria, and a bigger landmark in the career of the young scientist. After all, not everyone gets to have a bug named after them, and he discovered, identified and named the bacteria Corynebacterium equi evansii, or Evansey as both it and he are affectionately known in their respective circles of science.

The picture of the bug framed and mounted on the loo wall celebrates that moment when Dr Chris Evans put his mark on the world. It may have been a small step for mankind, but it was big news in the world of bacteria, and a bigger landmark in the career of the young scientist. After all, not everyone gets to have a bug named after them, and he discovered, identified and named the bacteria Corynebacterium equi evansii, or Evansey as both it and he are affectionately known in their respective circles of science.

Dr Evans went to great lengths to get that bacteria, but some credit for trust and olfactory bravery should go to the technician he dangled into a dark, reeking sewer in Toronto to scrape samples of Evansey off the walls. But Dr Evans always goes to great lengths to achieve what he wants through a mix of conviction, dynamism and hard graft.

His hobby is his work, and work is his hobby. He has acquired a few material trappings with his wealth, a dozen or so Ferraris, Astons, Lotuses and Mercs, and the 200-acre estate in his Welsh homeland, but biotechnology dominates his life, punctuated by occasional fly-fishing or a strum or two on the electric guitar.

Some men devote their days to growing prize leeks, others cultivating dahlias to exhibit, but Dr Evans grows biotech companies, lots of them, in a technological hothouse where they are nurtured with tender loving care, sprinkled with venture capital, and harvested for market.

So far, he has set up 20 or so science-based companies worth more than £1.5bn, floated four on the London Stock Exchange, and made a personal fortune estimated at more than £120m. He is regarded as Europe's leading biotech entrepreneur by a distance. He is founder of Chiroscience, now worth more than £1bn, founder and chairman of Toad Plc, and director of internet start-up Geo. Along the way, he has advised the Government on biotech issues, picked up an OBE for services to the industry, and collected professorships in biotechnology from five universities: Manchester, Imperial, Exeter, Liverpool, and Bath.

In the yo-yo world of biotech stocks, the name of 42-year-old Chris Evans is a beacon of stability, a byword for reliability, and a blue-chip indicator of success. If Ladbrokes were to be asked to take bets on the success and failure of biotechs, they would lock away the book at the mere hint of his name.

Many believe the key to his outstanding success in the white-knuckle ride of the biotech sector is his ability to combine brilliance in science with remarkable business acumen and superb communication skills. Not only does he come up with the ideas, but he can make them work, and he can explain it to the people who still think genes are blue denim trousers made by Levi's.

He is as at home talking to investors and venture capitalists, as he is to his research team and the stars of academia. On the science side, his credentials are impeccable, a first degree in microbiology at Imperial, a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Hull, and a research fellowship in genetics at Michigan.

After academia, he immersed himself in the fast-growing American biotech industry, eventually becoming research director at Genzyme, now one of the world's key players in the sector, but then a $10m company. "It is massive now, but was small then and we were building it up," he says. "I was research director, but in a company like that you did lots of different jobs. I was doing deals, explaining the science to clients and investors, and it was enormous fun.''

It was also good training, and the Genzyme experience encouraged him to go it alone, setting up his first company, Enzymatix, in 1987. "I could have stayed as a corporate director in one of the biotechs, but I wanted to do my own thing. I really fancied being in control of my own strategies. I have always been someone who had ideas so I cashed in the house and everything else and went for it.

"I began entirely on my own, not with a group of 20 people and venture capital. I had nothing, just a business plan and my dreams. I found premises in Cambridge, negotiated the rent myself, and plumbed in the sink." Plumbed in the sink? "Actually it was a sort of still, and it was a second-hand one that cost me £50 and I had to carry it from another part of the building," he says, with a wince, and a grin. "It weighed a ton and it took me two hours to plumb it in. It was absolutely primitive work, nothing to do with biotech.

"When you look back, it was a leap of faith, but I didn't think much about it at the time, that is the extraordinary thing. I think more about it now than I did then. As far as I was concerned at the time, I was going to do it, I wasn't going to fail, it was impossible for me to fail. That was the way I thought. It was just matter of degree of how well it would work with no question of failure.

"And, in a way, that belief is crucial, and it is also infectious. I employed a lot of young people, 50 or so of them, who were all very quick, very bright, all with firsts, and they were like my apostles. They liked the project and they knew I was not only a scientist, but I was also streetwise on the deals. I was tough too. You can be charismatic, but you have to be tough as well, and it is that combination of self-belief and confidence that keeps people together."

There was also, as he points out, another ingredient in those heady, electrically-charged days. "An element of naivety was crucial too. If you are mature and sensible, you will worry too much and you won't do these things. That is what separated out a lot of people in the early days.

"Then I was totally unknown, and if I failed, the only problem was between me and my wife. We had no kids at that time, we would have had no money, and we would have been in shit, but other than that, there was no ego thing, no worry about what people would say in the papers because no one would say anything. Maybe now they would. It was a big step but I didn't see it as a big step. I do now and when I rationalise it, it looks scary. At times I can't believe I did that."

After Enzymatix came a succession of other companies, including his biggest so far, Chiroscience, which he started from scratch in 1992. There is also Toad, worth £36m, and Geo.

Right now though, he is immersed in his latest venture, Merlin. No longer content to grow and float companies one or two at a time, he has organised a team who oversee a production line of biotechs. Unlike almost all other venture operations, Merlin creates companies, rather than cherry-picks existing operations for investment.

"In the Merlin fund, we don't invest in companies like a typical venture capitalist. What is unusual, unique about this first fund, is that we set out to create companies, not to back them. Everything was built from scratch. We set out to create nine companies in nine areas and we picked cancer, vaccines, brain trauma, gene therapy, drug delivery, stem cells, and so on, and we formed the companies."

His Merlin team, hand-picked from his various companies and through contacts, means he can spread the load. "You can't do all these things yourself because you might fall under a bus or something. I have invested quite a few million of my own in these companies and raised a £40m Merlin fund to invest in them.

"Each of the nine has been established, they are growing, and they are worth between £20m and £100m each at this point. The first ones will start listing, maybe later this year or certainly next year, and there could well be two or three listings from the Merlin stable." Names to watch out for from this stable are ReNeuron which works in the area of brain disorders, Cyclacel in cancer, Eurogene in cardiovascular, Vectura, drug delivery, and Microscience, novel vaccines.

"What is interesting is that when you create a company you put your own mark on it and you start building it up. We invested my money then the fund's money, but there comes a point when it has to go its own way. If the company is no good, it just dies, but if it is good then other people will want to get involved.

"We have blue-chip establishment companies, including Kleinwort and Nomura, funding some of our companies. They have come in, seen they are great companies and put up money and brought in a lot of other people. Each of these companies has now got momentum. It is no longer Chris Evans and Merlin and some

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