To celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2022 we spoke to Anne Lane, Orla Hough, Sara Garcia Gomez and Weng Sie Wong from UCL Business (UCLB), UCL’s research commercialisation company. UCLB brings the institution’s best research ideas to commercialisation.
UCLB spin-outs have been engineering new cancer treatments and rare disease gene therapies, and in 2020 UCL developed the Ventura CPAP breathing aid which helped Covid-19 patients battle severe breathing issues during the first spike of the virus.
Let’s meet UCLB’s women in science…
1. Could you tell me more about yourself and your background?
Anne Lane, CEO
I’ve been CEO at UCLB since 2019 and have overseen five university spinouts that are now listed on NASDAQ. I’ve been at UCL, on the commercial side, since 2000, but was also an academic here in the early 1990s completing my PhD, and then as a post-doctoral fellow. After research at UCL and Harvard Medical School, I worked for RTP Pharma Inc, out-licensing and preparing valuations of the company’s portfolio for public listing. I’m now pleased to be leading the team at UCLB, which has been nurturing the research and ideas of UCL academics into innovations that have had a positive impact on people’s lives, since 1993.
Orla Hough, associate business manager
I joined UCLB in 2019 and manage the IP and commercialisation of technologies generated in the Institute of Ophthalmology, the School of Pharmacy and the Institute of Child Health. I have a Bachelor of corporate law and LLB degree from the National University of Ireland, Galway, a BSc in genetics from Trinity College, Dublin, and an MSc in cell and gene therapy from UCL.
Sara Garcia Gomez, senior business manager
Since joining UCLB in 2018, I have been responsible for supporting the biopharm team on the assessment of market and patentability for technologies arising from UCL academics, as well as being involved in the commercialisation pathway. I have extensive experience as a scientist in molecular biology, cancer biology and DNA damage repair. I’m originally from Malaga, Spain, where I studied biology but received my PhD from the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid in biochemistry and molecular biology.
Weng Sie Wong, senior business manager
I was born in England to Chinese parents who settled in England in the ’60s and ’70s. I was encouraged to study hard and go to university by my parents, but expectations were low, partly because I was a girl. I have extensive experience in all aspects of university technology transfer activities including strategic IP management, marketing and licence negotiations and spin-out formation. Before joining UCLB, I was a senior technology transfer manager at Oxford University’s Technology Transfer Office (TTO), Oxford University Innovation, working on a diverse range of life and physical science projects over 10 years. I have an MBA from Edinburgh University and a PhD in pharmacology from University College London.
2. What is your specific area of science and why did you choose it? Were you inspired by someone?
I was attracted to genetics as I remember reading the Double Helix by James Watson on the discovery of DNA and being impressed by Rosalind Franklin – how she kept going against all the odds, how she made such an impact in a short space of time (she died at 38), and that she worked at Birkbeck College, that is just around the corner from UCL.
I initially studied genetics and then went to do a Masters in cell and gene therapy. I chose this avenue because of the extraordinary amount of growth in this sector of biopharm. Cell and gene therapy research has seen a huge surge in the last ten years, and UCL, and by extension UCLB, has been at the forefront of this innovation in the UK and globally. I’m most certainly inspired by our CEO, Anne Lane. As a woman at the top of her field, she is a role model for any woman or girl that is considering a career in science and beyond.
Sara Garcia Gomez
During my PhD, I characterised the biochemistry properties of a new enzyme discovered in humans, PrimPol. Both my PhD and postdoc were around the role of several proteins on DNA damage repair. I always found it fascinating that all of our genetic information is contained in just under four words: adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (ACGT).
Weng Sie Wong
I became a research scientist after I finished my PhD, but realised academia was not for me and took a sales role in a large pharmaceutical company to gain more commercial experience. A few years later, I joined Oxford’s TTO. Over time, I moved from life science-based projects to more physical science and cross-disciplinary projects. I joined UCLB almost six years ago looking after the commercialisation of medical technologies with both life and physical sciences aspects to them.
3. What does it take to be successful in a science-related career?
I think realising where your strengths lie, and that you can still be involved with science without having to be a research scientist. When I was at Harvard, I realised that there were people there far more talented and dedicated than me. Academic scientific research can be a challenging career unless you enjoy it – you are constantly having to juggle applying for funding, publishing and very often teaching, working long hours. I really enjoy what I’m doing now, helping to build the impact of all that hard work, whether commercially or via a social venture.
Many people think that science is purely about being in the lab, but numerous other roles go into building a successful invention. My advice is always to reach out to as many people as possible in these roles to get a better feel for the wider picture outside of pure research. For the most part, people will be willing to share their experience and expertise and this could save your project both time and funds in the long run.
Sara Garcia Gomez
I would say perseverance and keeping up to date with the latest developments. Science is an ever-evolving beast – it never sleeps, it keeps changing, and discoveries are made at an incredible pace. I think that while working in technology transfer, it is crucial we are on top of the cutting-edge technologies that are being developed around the world.
Weng Sie Wong
Each university has set up its TTO differently but the role tends to require a broad set of skills and knowledge, including intellectual property protection (in particular patents), negotiation of legal documents, technical expertise, understanding of academic and commercial drivers, to name just a few. To be successful you need to be a good communicator, understand multiple points of view, be goal-focused but know when to stop or pivot when something isn’t working. Hard work, persistence and resilience are also very important.
4. What are some interesting things that people in your profession work on, and could you provide some examples?
UCLB doesn’t just work on developing things for a financial return, although that is a large part of what we’re involved with. Two of our most interesting projects were social ventures. The first was a collaboration between Onya McCausland from the UCL Slade School of Fine Art and the Coal Authority to develop a range of paints using waste materials from coal mining. The second was the UCL Ventura CPAP breathing device, developed during the first wave of the Covid pandemic through a collaboration between Professor Rebecca Shipley and her colleagues at UCL, UCLH and Mercedes-AMG High-Performance Powertrains.
The biopharm team handle a vast array of new technologies, such as antibody therapies, cancer immunotherapies and new diagnostic assays, to name but a few. One of the most interesting parts about working in this field is the variability of the work that you do. It is also fascinating to be involved in new and emerging innovations in science. It’s also not all about intellectual property and the commercialisation of new technologies. We work very closely with our academics who often reach out to us for advice and guidance on many aspects of their project such as grant funding and potential routes to the clinic. We can support our academics through each stage of development of their projects.
Sara Garcia Gomez
I think we are privileged because we get to see great ideas becoming actual products that would benefit society. In our work to help academics reach their goal, we do a variety of things such as helping obtain grants or private investment to continue developments, as well as looking for the ideal partner to adopt a technology or even setting up spinout companies.
Weng Sie Wong
One of the most memorable projects I worked on was the UCL Ventura CPAP breathing aid. At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and UK lockdown – UCL engineers and UCLH clinicians, in collaboration with Formula 1 engineers, manufactured a breathing aid and gained emergency regulatory approval for its use in managing Covid-19 patients with severe breathing problems. When the work was published, there were hundreds of requests for information from around the world and no easy way of releasing this information. Over 3-4 days, a coordinated effort involving multiple parties, legal documents, preparation of the e-lucid platform (and team) for the expected deluge of requests, was made to allow the release of the designs and manufacturing instructions. This was an atypical project in terms of timescales (driven by a global pandemic), but the multiple stakeholders and multiple activities that needed to be managed are typical for any technology transfer project.
5. What is unique about working at UCLB as a woman in science, and what do you love about working at UCLB?
UCL is one of the most radical universities in the world, and I hope that we carry that approach through into UCLB. Our investment fund is unique, developing projects that are developed not just through the spinout company route but also via licensing to commercial partners. My scientific background and being able to identify with the academic challenges that UCL and its researchers face helped me to ensure that UCLB remains successful. I also have, in my view, one of the best and most imaginative and strategic teams in university commercialisation supporting me.
A major attraction of working at UCLB for me was the fact that it truly is an equal opportunity and diverse company. Many of the people in senior management roles here are women or non-UK born and I believe that this variance of background creates a more inclusive environment.
Sara Garcia Gomez
There is nothing unique about being a woman at UCLB as we feel equal among our peers and we are equally listened to. UCLB is a great place to grow professionally, you get to learn from colleagues and more senior staff; you also get to meet fantastic scientists at UCL, a historic institution with unlimited sources of new ideas.
Weng Sie Wong
UCLB recruits business managers based on experience and abilities. Having a science background has enabled me to work on projects that originate from different scientific disciplines, not just the one I studied. Not many jobs allow you to do that. The multi-faceted aspects of the business manager’s job at UCLB is one of the main attractions of the role, as is the opportunity to learn new things all the time.
6. What inspirational message would you give young girls to inspire them to pursue science and/or a career in the TTO space?
Science is a never-ending discovery, and whether you pursue a scientific research career or one in a TTO, ensuring that those discoveries make a difference to the world and people’s lives is constantly rewarding.
I would advise them to speak to as many female professionals as possible. At present, only about one third of researchers in science are women but much is happening right now to change this. Many conferences and websites are dedicated to networking opportunities for women in science and this is a great way to meet such people and learn from their experiences.
Sara Garcia Gomez
Don’t be afraid to go against stereotypes when choosing a career in science!
Weng Sie Wong
Find things out for yourself and don’t be afraid to ask for advice and help. There are lots of career paths you can take with an education in science, and you’re not limited to science as the skills you learn are transferable. Technology transfer probably didn’t exist when I was deciding what GCSE’s to do, but I wouldn’t be in this industry if I hadn’t decided to pursue a career in science.
You might also like: EY launch app for girls in STEM