Stephen Reeders left Britain in the 1980s for a research laboratory at Yale University. Six months ago he returned dressed in a suit and tie and reading the Financial Times.
Dr Reeders, originally a physician who swapped his hospital job for a lab bench, went to the United States in 1988 to work on the molecular genetics of kidney disease. Four years ago, he was involved in setting up a biotechnology company, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, commercialising his genomics research. Now the firm employs 400 and Dr Reeders has left the lab far behind.
After being headhunted by the UK Medical Research Council from a New York merchant bank, Dr Reeders is now back in the UK to set up a venture fund to commercialise the results of MRC biotechnological research. It is a first for a UK research council, but is it the beginning of a trend?
Dr Reeders expects it will soon spread to other government institutes. "The MRC has a huge inventory of technology waiting to be exploited," says Dr Reeders, who has raised Pounds 30 million in venture capital to invest in potential new technologies. He has already won backing from investment capital group 3i and a number of pension and insurance firms, but is still seeking a further Pounds 10 million.
"We have only gone for the bluest chip of capital sources," he explains. "These are very large companies whose pension funds invest in all categories."
The money will be ploughed into MRC research which shows commercial potential. "The problem with getting early stage funding for research is that it takes time," says Dr Reeders. "You have to find venture capital, but there is nowhere to go for know-how. So we will be going to researchers with a pool of capital to make the process easier."
Dr Reeders, 44, is one of the few scientists with an established research career to have made the shift into business. He was approached by a New York merchant bank after setting up Millennium Pharmaceuticals. The bank wanted to invest in biotechnology - it was his job to find them new technologies worth investing in.
"I was not bored with research," he explains. "But I felt there was a wider world in which science was married to commerce. I thought it would be very ex-citing. I have been proved right."
Dr Reeders found that as a scientist he had an advantage when it came to commercialising scientific discoveries. "I could talk the talk," he explains, adding that he established four new companies while at the bank. "I walked into a science meeting and I was among friends. If I had been a banker I would not have known what science was like, how to talk or dress. It was an advantage. I had no shortage of new ideas to invest in."
He expects the same experience in the UK. He envisages setting up two or three new companies a year. "The majority will be from scratch," he says. UK Medical Ventures Management Limited will work alongside researchers to write business plans. Ultimately companies could be sold or floated on the Stock Exchange.
"We are hoping to staff our fund with scientists who would like to be in this business," he adds. "We need highly qualified scientists with entrepreneurial interest. I think it's a very attractive area for scientists to be in.
"This is a new paradigm, but there's potential for lots of different government-funded research institutes to commercialise their intellectual property more effectively than they do," he explains. "I think the MRC is being very exciting. Others might follow."