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Experienced Entrepreneurs: Will West - serial entrepreneur and long-term OneStart mentor

Interview - Dr. Laura Ferguson a Christ Church Research Fellow with a background in molecular evolutionary genetics.

Introduction to the Series 

OneStart is about fostering innovation. Each year the OneStart Bootcamps (London and San Francisco) bring together the top-40 semi-finalist teams per stream. This mini-MBA not only focuses heavily upon education, but also allows these young entrepreneurs to interact with a wide range of industry executives sourced from across biotech, pharma and venture capital. This unparalleled industry access is what really sets OneStart apart from other programmes. 

It’s incredibly rare to have so many talented individuals in the same room. To take advantage of this unique opportunity, we would like to introduce our 6-part interview series conducted by Dr Laura Ferguson at the OneStart London Bootcamp, hosted by Queen Mary University of London earlier this year. 

Over the coming weeks you will get to hear form a wide range of representatives from the OneStart partner and mentor networks chatting to Laura about everything from their professional roles, to how they got where they are today, what motivates them personally and professionally and importantly why they so generously give up their spare time to participate in the OneStart programme. 

So if you’re interested in getting to know some of the amazing people behind OneStart’s success, pull up a chair and join in...

Experienced entrepreneurs can provide invaluable first-hand advice and insight into every aspect of start-up life. At OneStart we like to tap into this, and provide a platform for seasoned entrepreneurs to advise the next round of start-up founders. Indeed, such knowledge transfer is a core component of OneStart’s advisory network, and the people involved play a key role in fast-tracking the OneStart teams through the initial maze of starting out as a company. 

One such individual is Will West, an avid, serial entrepreneur, and long-term OneStart mentor. After joining the Experienced Entrepreneurs panel discussion at the London Bootcamp, Will sat down with Dr Laura Ferguson to discuss why he thinks people should embrace entrepreneurship. 

With bags of enthusiasm, Will encouraged anyone wanting a work-life balance to get involved in a startup. He highlighted the potential for working globally, with his own businesses based both in the UK and US. Will asserted that issues with team dynamics have to be resolved without delay; and also revealed that whilst his involvement in OneStart initially began as a favour, being a mentor has been an incredibly enriching experience. 


LF: Please can you tell the OneStart community a bit more about who you are and what you do?

WW: Hi! I’m Will West, Chairman of CellCentric, a cancer drug discovery biotech company, originally spun out of Cambridge University.  I also run a US business, CTS, a lung cancer imaging and treatment company using non-viral gene therapy.

LF: So how do you find it running two companies? Do you dip in and out?

WW: Both companies are asset-focused plays.  There are two types of biotech companies: ones that are growing into real businesses, and others that are more like single projects being managed by a team to get to a certain event. So you’ve got funders such as Imperial Innovations and Neil Woodford supporting multiple biotechs that will probably become a certain size. Then you’ve got investors like Index and their new fund Medicxi who are more product / project focused. Both exist in the ecosystem. If you’re involved in a product or asset-centric company, the work involved ebbs and flows, so being involved in more than one kind of makes sense. That’s the situation I’m in.

LF: So how did you make that initial move out of academic science?

WW: Just exactly the way you’re encouraging people here at OneStart. It’s networking, it’s finding out what you’re ultimately going to be good at.  If you’re good at something it will probably be fulfilling and lead to success. I was enjoying academia, but was I the best academic? No. So what else was I going to do? I wasn’t sure, so I just spoke to as many people as I could. I knew some people in large corporates so I joined them, and had 7 years in R&D. I got to a point where I wanted to be more involved in business, and then took the decision to start a company. I moved from an academic position as a post-doc scientist to Pharma and then biotech, an industry that I’ve now been involved with for 12 years.  

“It’s networking, it’s finding out what you’re ultimately going to be good at……. I wasn't sure, so I just spoke to as many people as I could.”

LF: OneStart. How long have you been involved, what got you involved and what keeps you involved?

WW: From the start. Debbie Harland [SR One Partner] phoned me as I was about to get on a train, and said ‘we’re trying to put this thing together, we need some mentors’ and I thought that it sounded interesting.

I do think that what OneStart is, and what it continues to do, is incredible. There are lots of business competitions, there are many mentoring schemes, but there is nothing like the scale and quality of OneStart that I’ve seen. The quality of the people they’ve managed to bring in is super, but the people who are trying to push the ideas out are also phenomenal. I’m involved in an angel network group, so I do see a lot of startup companies, but this is absolutely terrific. I’ve been very lucky that the companies I’ve been involved with have always been very good. In fact, the first one, Puridify, ended up winning, and last year I had Beamline Diagnostics, who were semi-finalists, and again a great company whose founders have now left academia.

“There are lots of business competitions, there are lots of mentoring schemes, but there is nothing like the scale and quality of OneStart that I’ve seen.”

LF: What do you think you bring to this competition as a mentor?

WW: I’ve done it. I know how hard it is. But I also know the positives, and what it really takes. So don’t give up on your enthusiasm. Don’t give up and be walked over by somebody. You’ve got to believe in it. You’ve got to be hugely tenacious. EVERYTHING goes wrong, 100 things have to go right, and every one of them can go wrong at any point, so it’s a huge juggling act. It’s a case of conveying to people ‘don’t worry! This is just what it’s like! If you don’t like it, then this is the wrong job for you, but if you thrive on it and keep going then it’s hugely beneficial’. 

“ You’ve got to believe in it. You’ve got to be hugely tenacious.”

LF: What do you find most enjoyable about being an entrepreneur and running your own business, or in your case businesses? 

WW: Where else can you do business and science together and be in control? I have the US business as well, so I spend most evenings on the phone, but only after I’ve put the kids in bed - I can do it on my own terms. I can work wherever. That flexibility and balance of life is something you can get running your own business. It’s hugely important.

I think flexibility is something that is extremely important to any parent. I know that I’ve appreciated the flexibility of biotech rather than having a corporate job, partly because when I was in corporate I was out of the country a lot of the time. Now I typically go for 3-4 days at a time, avoiding long stretches away. So yes, definitely - do it!!

“ Flexibility is something that is extremely important to any parent. I know that I’ve appreciated the flexibility of biotech rather than having a corporate job.”

LF: You’ve been there, and done that. What piece of advice can you give anyone starting-up that might help them in the early days? 

WW: Well in the early days of a new company you are such a small team, and so reliant on each other, that if something goes wrong, you need to address it immediately. If someone’s not pulling their weight, or you have a difference of opinion you have to bottom it out, you can’t just ignore it. Even if that means a parting of the ways, address it. Move on. There will always be another opportunity.

LF: And what do you get out of being a OneStart mentor?

WW: [laughing] Yeah, I do think that every time I get on a train to come here! Part of the reason I do it is because it gives you that fresh perspective, it reminds you of why you ever did it! It’s creativity, it’s making stuff happen, it’s combining science with business… it’s all that. You meet great people and it’s massively fulfilling. It’s great!

“You meet great people and it’s massively fulfilling.”