The Saturday Interview: Magician behind the molecule: Chris Evans

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Chris Evans, 36, is the founder and chief scientific officer of Chiroscience, a drug research company that was valued at pounds 102m when it floated in February. He is also a non-executive director of Celsis International, expected to announce a significant deal with Wellcome on Monday. Both, writes Paul Durman, emerged from his earlier vehicle, Enzymatix, one of Britain's earliest biotechnology companies. Married with a baby daughter, he hurtles around the countryside from his base at the Cambridge Science Park in a red Mercedes 500 sportscar. It is soon to be joined by a Ferrari Testarossa.

CHRIS EVANS is a man in a hurry. As a young microbiologist, he would start work on his first experiment at nine in the morning, and get a second under way at 3pm - fully aware that he might not be able to see the results until perhaps the early hours.

And then between 9pm and midnight, he would begin work on a third experiment, which would not be ready until 7am or 8am the following day.

'My theory was I could always get home to bed between 1am and 6am, and then get up and on to my third experiment,' he observes. So while most other scientists were just starting to think about their second experiment, his third was in process, and he was thinking about his fourth, fifth and sixth.

'That's what I did every single day. It was a matter of how much science, how much experimentation, how creative could I be, how much energy did I have to do it.'

This determination, enthusiasm and appetite for work has yet to diminish. Although only 36, Dr Evans is the man behind two publicly-quoted biotechnology companies, both floated within the past year. Chiroscience and Celsis International both emerged from Enzymatix, which he founded in 1987 and lucratively dismembered in 1992. He has now redirected the firm to explore environmental applications of microbe and enzyme technology.

Another 'hobby' is Toad Innovations, a firm developing novel car security devices. In addition, Dr Evans invests seed capital in other start-up businesses and dabbles in the stock market.

Somewhere along the way, he has written more than 100 scientific papers. He is visiting professor of biotechnology at Exeter University and was recently named as Cambridge Business Personality of the Year.

But best of all, as far as the City is concerned, is his ability to make money. While nearly all biotech companies are 'blue sky' loss- makers, the break-up of Enzymatix - prompted by the financial problems of its original backer, commodities group Berisford International - apparently netted him a fortune. His stakes in Celsis and Chiroscience give him extra paper wealth of approaching pounds 17m, even at the present depressed share prices.

Dr Evans learnt the value of money on the streets of Port Talbot in South Wales where he was born, the son of a steel-maker, into a family with five brothers and sisters. He grew streetwise, learning 'how to get things and how to get things done'. Together with an education, the lessons he gained then have proved invaluable in the world of science and commerce.

At 11, he was selling 'whimberries' (bilberries) for a pound a pint, making pounds 16 a day during his summer holidays. While his schoolboy rivals would sells jars of mushy berries with only a top-covering of good fruit, the young Evans quickly learnt that customers would not fall for this trick twice.

'My customer base of little old women was dead cert, repeat business,' he says. 'They knew my whimberries were always good and juicy and it was always pounds 1 a pint.'

An early curiosity about insects and tadpoles led on to a fascination with chemistry sets, 'lovely neat boxes with a big egghead- looking guy on the front'. He was soon experimenting with how to make the 'ultimate gun powder'.

He says his parents instilled in him the importance of success at school, of getting the qualifications that would allow him to escape from Port Talbot.

A fascination with bugs led him to study microbiology at Imperial College in London, a life sciences course covering molecular biology, genetics and organic chemistry. Yet by his own analysis, he did not start to excel until he began work on his first research project. It enabled him to conduct his own investigations, to be his own boss.

His gadfly nature, his desire to work on half a dozen things at once, seems to have overcome his need to remain in control.

So while he is chief scientific officer of Chiroscience, he readily accepts that it is John Padfield, the chief executive formerly with the drug giant Glaxo, who is in charge.

'A chief executive has to be a full-time individual focused on that one thing,' he says. 'You would not want that chief executive to be distracted. I am, rightly or wrongly, a person who does more than one thing.' Dr Evans says his greatest weakness is a tendency to spread himself too thin.

He completed his PhD at Hull University in the exceptionally short time of two and a half years, eager, as always, to get on. Then came a research fellowship at the University of Ann Arbor in Michigan where he got to grips with genetics and cloning. From there it was goodbye to academia and on to the next stage - 'steaming into industry'.

'Earning 30, 40 grand a year maximum for the rest of your life as some dust-covered professor in a university department - forget it. That didn't excite me. I needed to be more applied, to create products that people would use.'

Whether it was drugs or devices, he saw clearly that: 'Lots of people could make lots of money out of these things - and that goes for me as well.'

In at the birth of the North American bioscience industry in the early 1980s, working for Allelix in Toronto and then Genzyme, he returned to the UK with Genzyme before setting up Enzymatix with backing from British Sugar in late 1987.

'Our aim was to create the ultimate biotechnology company in this country.' Despite his pride in Enzymatix, he shows little distress at its break-up, painful though the process was at the time.

He is, he says, no longer a scientist but a businessman. He is happy to come up with the odd good idea, whether for a car immobiliser or a bug to degrade waste.

'I'm very happy with the way I spend my time. Getting back in the lab coat and working on that experiment - forget it, I don't need to do that any more. I'm too impatient to do it now. I see the bigger picture, and I am part of that.

Despite Dr Evans' supreme self-confidence in his abilities, in his creativity and vision, he does not come across as arrogant and egotistic. Colleagues say his enthusiasm brightens up any meeting. It is easy to like him.

Respected scientist, brilliant businessman and a nice chap to boot - it not difficult to see why sceptics wonder whether Dr Evans isn't too good to be true.

He is undoubtedly a terrific salesman. One rival biotech boss observes: 'He could sell anything - houses, cars, anything. He happens to sell companies.'

Sceptics have wondered how the value of Chiroscience could leap from pounds 3m, when it was bought out of Enzymatix, to more than pounds 100m in less than two years. They suggest the company is more a fine chemicals company, making building-block compounds for other drug companies, than a true pharmaceutical research company. All the rest is Dr Evans' wizardry, his gift for making complex scientific concepts understandable even to dim-witted fund managers and financial journalists.

Dr Evans is determined to prove the sceptics wrong. 'I must make a success of these businesses. The thing that drives me is the delivery - to deliver good deals that lead to good profits for these companies, so that the shareholders feel that by backing me and my companies, they've had a good return.

'Then I will call upon those sorts of shareholders again to back other projects. That is my primary motivation.'

(Photograph omitted)

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