Neil-Goldsmith-Innovation interview

Processes kill innovation

The serial entrepreneur Neil Goldsmith is drawn to new ventures. Annett Altvater from BaselArea.swiss talked to him about how to detect startup-suitable talent and his current involvement with BaseLaunch.

You founded and led a number of companies over the last 30 years. How did you know that entrepreneurship is your path?

That was completely random. I was aiming for a PhD but a policy issue suddenly made it impossible and I wondered what to do. My first company was applying game theory to the advertising business, but I soon realized that this was not suiting my interests entirely. At this point, I came across a job offer in the Sunday Times: A consulting company was looking for someone to help start and advise new life sciences companies. One of these companies was in Sweden and later hired me as a trouble shooter in business development and then I got offered the role as CEO in a Danish diagnostics company, which was soon after sold to Roche – by which time I was 31. The investors in that company then asked me to become CEO of two more of their portfolio ventures, and so it went from there, with my gradually becoming more proactive in the actual creation of new ventures. You could say, I took initiative, but then my career sort of found me.

You were often part of small companies that grew big. How did that conversion influence the possibility to innovate?

In my understanding, innovation means that you see something others have not yet seen. That is much more likely in small companies. Big companies sooner or later have to develop processes – and processes kill innovation. You can always find exceptions, and there are possibilities to delay the effect of the processes. Google, for example pushed a lot of decision making out to the guys at the front line to ensure innovation. But my belief is that the processes will always get you in the end.

What is the biggest difference between managing a private and a public company and where are you more at ease?

The switch from a private to a public company means your investors and your board change. In private companies investors and board tend to intertwine, the people on your board have a lot of skin in the game themselves. Once you are public these roles tend to split, and board members become more like “guardians”. Whilst they can be very good people they will for example inevitably be more risk averse – which might be completely right for a bank, but I am not sure if it is correct for technology ventures. Being public also alters the way the company can communicate. In a private company, discussions can be more open. So, as you might guess, a private company is more my thing.

What did you find is crucial to start an innovative company?

To find the right people is the single biggest challenge. It is not so much the specific skills that are difficult to find, but the ability to function in a very fluid and ambiguous environment. You will not have all the resources or information you need but still be able to make smart decisions. Especially for senior staff from big corporations it can be challenging to adapt to a startup. Everybody has an early learning curve, but if a few months after joining you see people wanting more structure and seeing their fluid working conditions as chaotic, then they probably won’t adapt – though of course there are roles where you must have structure. I would say it works out half the time.

You decided to move the last company you headed, Evolva, to Switzerland. You left Evolva behind last year, yet you are still in Switzerland…

Evolva’s origins were Danish, but we faced the problem of a limited pool in terms of money and people for what we wanted to do at the time. We discussed the UK, the United States and Switzerland as possible locations, and in the end chose Switzerland. Basel as a life sciences hub was the obvious location. At first, we could not find labs but the predecessor organization of BaselArea.swiss, together with BLKB, helped us buy and convert an old warehouse to labs. It was a good decision to settle here and I still like living in Delémont.

You are not known for idleness. What are you currently working on?

I am working on building a new set of life science ventures, both in the classic healthcare spaces and the whole consumer/industrial which I think has tremendous potential but needs different business models. And I have joined the board of an industrial biotech called Unibio that has managed to bring to commercial scale a fermentation process that converts methane gas into protein. Further, I am supporting startups through non-profit organizations such as BaselArea.swiss and its healthcare accelerator BaseLaunch.

Where do you see the potential of the startup scene in Basel – and how will you contribute in shaping it with BaseLaunch?

Due to its scientific talent and the unrivalled management expertise spread through the large corporates, Basel ought to have a really vibrant startup scene. It also helps that Switzerland is not short of money. I think it could be more vibrant. Traditionally, the best talent has been siphoned off into the large companies, and the money and the ideas have not connected as well they might. BaseLaunch has made a start during the last two years in addressing some of these disconnects, leveraging the knowledge of large pharma to assist the formation of very early ventures. In the future we hope to go further with this approach.

Where do you find suitable projects that are worth pursuing?

As companies grow, they inevitably narrow their focus – I do not think I have ever seen it go the other way. That means a lot of interesting stuff gets deprioritized. I am trying to spin out what companies do not want anymore, with the benefit that I can start with an asset that has been at least somewhat worked up, and commercially grounded. Innovation does not only come from Universities, and sometimes I think the public sector misses this point when it designs support schemes.

What objectives and which values do your ventures have in common? Is there a common thread?

I like to create products that are meaningful and make a real difference to at least a part of the world – that are not “me too”. For example with Personal Chemistry, a company I co-founded in 1996, we pioneered the application of microwaves to organic chemistry synthesis, and nowadays almost every chemistry discovery lab has one or more of such instruments, and people are using them daily. It really gives me a good feeling when I see one of those instruments, even if they come from one of our competitors.

How easy is it for you to find funding for your ventures?

It is never easy, and one of the issues is that investors like to hunt in packs, which tends to make them avoid ideas that are too different – even if they like it they know others will need to be convinced as well. Europe is too conservative regarding the funding of ideas. It is frustrating because I think that ideas that are further away from the average grasping point can be businesses, too – as the Americans have shown time and time again.

When do you know it is time to leave a company?

I find that when it comes to optimization, it is time for me to move on. It is a normal process most companies go through: Once a company has found its sweet spot, it increasingly becomes about optimizing what it has, but that is not for me. I like creating things. And I certainly never go down the same path twice.

 

About

Neil Goldsmith founded or was instrumental in the early development of fourteen ventures in five countries during the last 30 years. Among them are companies like the synthetic biology company Evolva that is also listed on the Swiss Stock Exchange, Personal Chemistry (now Biotage) or Topo Target. He received a first-class BA Honours degree in Zoology from Balliol College, University of Oxford. Neil Goldsmith lives in Delémont. Currently, he is about to build a set of new companies and collaborates with BaselArea.swiss accelerator program BaseLaunch as Director Strategy.