Innovators immune to the 'British disease'

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The Independent Online

Increasing the size of your workforce by 6,700 per cent over five years is a staggering achievement by anybody's standards. But no sooner had Paul Drayson picked up an award for this performance at Powderject Pharmaceuticals than he was announcing he had concluded a deal that would quadruple the staff numbers to 1,000 overnight.

Increasing the size of your workforce by 6,700 per cent over five years is a staggering achievement by anybody's standards. But no sooner had Paul Drayson picked up an award for this performance at Powderject Pharmaceuticals than he was announcing he had concluded a deal that would quadruple the staff numbers to 1,000 overnight.

Satisfying as it was to see the company's growth recognised last Wednesday, the £57m purchase of Medeva Vaccines from the Celltech Group is more significant. The Oxford-based company, which has developed a painless, needle-free means of administering drugs, had sales of just £2.7m last year and, like other hi-tech start-ups, has been spending millions on research and development. So a merger with an established company enjoying sales of £56m has obvious attractions. Indeed, ownership of leading vaccines against such diseases as influenza and tetanus gives the company an application as well as a technology.

Powderject, which floated on the stock market in early 1997 raising £35m, has had its innovation recognised by the Design Council as a Millennium Product. But Dr Drayson, chairman and chief executive, has long felt it needed a broader base. He says the deal creates "a vaccine business with the complete value chain from R&D to manufacturing and commercialisation".

As such, it is another sign that innovators are escaping what was known as the British disease of coming up with great ideas but not being able to make money out of them.

It is also an indication that Oxford has become a serious competitor in hi-tech start-ups to its traditional rival, Cambridge. The overall winner of the Enterprise Magazine Entrepreneur of the Year awards last week was Andrew Rickman, founder of Bookham Technology, a supplier of internet infrastructure components that is valued at about £5bn just months after floating on the stock market. Bookham is also based in the Oxford area and Dr Rickman and Dr Drayson share a bank manager. "There's a really good cluster of hi-tech companies developing in Oxford. The university has got much more sophisticated," says Dr Drayson.

Indeed, it retains a holding in the company and Professor Brian Bellhouse - supervisor to David Sarphie, the student whose PhD project formed the basis of the invention - is a non-executive director.

Dr Drayson's own expertise is in robotics. But he did his postgraduate studies at Aston University, where he was "fortunate" to be able to take MBA modules alongside his science studies. "It opened my eyes. It's what got me into business."

He believes aspiring hi-tech entrepreneurs should get the best possible science or engineering education they can. But he also feels it is vital that they acquire business training along the way, so "they can see it [the technology they come up with] in context".

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