Success is in the blood

Roger Trapp reports on a small firm that has built up a big presence in drug research and development

Unlike many people with fast-growing companies, Ian Wilding never set out to be an entrepreneur. He became one by accident.

Back in 1990, when Pharmaceutical Profiles was established under the aegis of Nottingham University, he was just coming to the end of his PhD and decided to give the fledgling operation 12 months of his time.

When a short while later the university pulled out and the company joined the private sector, he found himself the sole full-time employee.

"I had an exponential learning curve," he says, with some understatement. "I dealt with the lawyers, the accountants etc. I developed commercial nous while getting my scientific career going."

Certainly, neither Dr Wilding, who is now in his mid-30s, nor the company seems to have suffered from having to pick things up as they went along. From sales of £250,000 in the first year of trading, Pharmaceutical Profiles has now expanded to 55 employees housed in a purpose-built facility on the outskirts of Nottingham, and a turnover due to hit £4m.

Growing at an average rate of 40 per cent a year was good enough to propel the company into last year's league of Britain's fastest-growing private companies compiled by the Independent on Sunday in association with KITE, the entrepreneurs' business forum established by accountancy firm BDO Stoy Hayward.

Pharmaceutical Profiles is a contract research organisation, a business concept growing in popularity in both Europe and the US as a way for large pharmaceutical companies to outsource aspects of their drug-development process. What gives the company an edge, it claims, is its use of a novel medical imaging technique called Gamma Scintigraphy to assess how tablets and inhalers work in our bodies.

To Dr Wilding, though, this is not the advantage it would appear to be. As a pioneer, the company has to spend time and effort educating the market. "It's a long, hard process," he says, musing over how it might be better to have a large competitor to share this burden - provided it did not prove too efficient or effective.

Persuading a watchful pharmaceutical industry of the benefits of what it is doing might be "a hard sell". But Pharmaceutical Profiles has generated enough interest around the world to open an operation in Princeton, New Jersey, close to the heartland of the US drugs industry, and has for over three years run an office in Japan.

If this looks ambitious, Dr Wilding admits he set about establishing a strong management team as part of his plan to transform the business from a science-based company into a commercial enterprise that works with science. "It's not semantics," he says. The operation is "very much structured as a business for the future".

Dr Wilding introduced a share option scheme for all staff over four years ago. With the company looking either suitable for floating on the stock market or attractive to a potential trade buyer, there is every likelihood of employees being able to cash in before long.

In the meantime, though, the emphasis is on developing the business in a way that adds to the service. The company recently put a £500,000 investment into a subsidiary to develop a "clever capsule" to measure drug absorption.

Just as important as the technology is the people, Dr Wilding says. As well as having certain skills, employees must be able to deal with sudden changes of mind by customers. They "need to be able to think on their feet", he adds.

He believes his own strengths are an ability to "see through things clearly" and decide on a logical strategy. And the skills he wants in would-be recruits are the very ones that have propelled him and Pharmaceutical Profiles to their current heights.