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European Biopharmaceutical Review

Business Talk


EBR talks to Jim Reid of Sistemic about his business philosophy, the current challenges facing small biotechs, and what makes a successful start-up.

EBR: What attracted you to the pharmaceutical industry?

Jim Reid: I’ve been in the industry for about 35 years. I was fortunate enough to be awarded a scholarship by Organon Pharmaceuticals, which took me all the way through to a degree and provided me with both practical and academic experience. It was an attractive proposition for several reasons. I was looking for a career with longevity and had always been interested in biological and chemical sciences at school. Although it took me slightly longer to gain my degree, it seemed like a real positive opportunity to get a bit of industrial experience in parallel with an education. It also meant that Organon was prepared to put their belief in me. At the end of my degree period I stayed with Organon and moved into scientific research.

How would you describe your business philosophy?

I want to surround myself with the best people I can find. I think the philosophy should always be to recruit the best that it can at every level within the business. My attitude is that I should always be the least capable individual in the company. I believe that if I can adopt and maintain this philosophy, surrounding myself by the best – be it in research, business development or finance – then I think the company will be successful. I also believe that we have to give people responsibilities and disseminate tasks, trust and accountability as far as possible in the organisation. We should, therefore, be bringing people in who can both grow and develop, but who are also capable of taking on responsibilities from as early a point as possible.

What encouraged you invest in Sistemic?

There were a number of factors that made me decide to invest: the timing was right, the opportunity itself was exciting, and the ability for me to contribute in taking Sistemic to the next level were all important. I had been heavily involved with quite a number of early stage biotech and life science companies and had successfully exited from a few. I was therefore looking for opportunities that would enable me to get in on the ground floor of something interesting. When I came across the Sistemic concept I thought it was in the ideal investment arena. Occupying the intersection between drug discovery and stem cell R&D, it offered exciting opportunities for contributing to the development of really innovative therapeutic treatments in the future.

What have been your successes during the past year at Sistemic?

Sistemic was formally founded in January 2009, so we’re just entering our third financial year. 2011 was about marketing and broader exposure of the technology base that we had put in place through a number of product offerings during 2010. We’re committed as an organisation to work with people in their own markets. We’re currently looking to put an offi ce in the California area and further laboratory facilities, probably in the US fi rst and then perhaps somewhere in South East Asia.

And the biggest challenges?

It’s all about scale. As a small organisation among Big Pharma and biotech companies, it can be challenging to fi nd recognition as industry leaders by people at all stages within the life sciences supply chain. We have to ensure we keep punching above our weight. Happily, we don’t have any issues recruiting good people. Neither is it a problem to fi nd the right environment for us to work in. Where we do face a challenge is in maintaining growth and having people understand precisely our stage of evolution, and that we have the resources to work with large organisations, as well as small.

What do you think the industry needs to focus on at the moment?

I believe 2012 is really about transition from research into more mainstream utilities or technology directly affecting patients. Governments around the world are encouraging companies to move beyond the R&D phase into the clinical and production phase. It is important to ensure that resulting scientifi c benefi ts are actually brought to bear on patients. For Sistemic, 2012 is about moving from the collaborative research phase that we currently have with our customers, and much more into routine production. A key example of this is the recent European FP7 grant programme we have been asked to collaborate on. This consortia (REGENER-AT) is focused on developing stem cell therapy for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.

I think that the big challenge going forward will be to move healthcare systems to embrace new technologies that offer patients huge advantages. Finding ways of paying for these developments is also going to be a critical issue. Over the years we’ve certainly seen healthcare and development costs go up, but we shouldn’t underestimate the significance of contributing to the health and wealth of people as they move into old age. We want to be living healthier because, by doing so, we reduce the overall burden on the healthcare system. The industry needs to work closely with regulators and investors to make sure that we’re giving them the answers to the questions they need answering. How can the industry work more effectively with the big pharmaceutical companies to make sure that these exciting developments don’t get delayed as a result of changes within their commitment to research and development? It all comes down to pharmacoeconomics. In the long run, will the treatments that we’re developing provide positive financial outcomes for the patients and for the healthcare payers?

What are the most important ingredients for a successful start-up?

Putting it simply, I think that there are four critical components to having a successful life sciences start-up business. Firstly, intellectual assets: in an industry where development costs are high, investors need to know their investment will pay returns over a period of time. Academic research is producing intellectual assets, but it is commercialisation and utility which are vitally important. Secondly, infrastructural assets: laboratories, offices, communications and so on should all be provided at reasonable cost. Human assets are also key: we’ve got some of the top brains and access to top universities, and we don’t mind going international to ensure we have the best talent available. People who have the experience are worth their weight in gold. The final factor is money: the environment in the UK is positive for investment in early stage business. Enterprise initiative schemes where investors can invest in tax efficient ways contribute and Government is generally supportive from an R&D grant point of view.

Where do you see cell and RNA therapeutics going over the next year?

We know that cell therapies are going to have significant impact over the next few years, but in many cases the efficiency of production in this sector is not high enough. There has to be a focus in terms of biopharmaceutical process optimisation. I know that great strides have already been taken in this area, and that the production levels being achieved now would have been thought impossible only five years ago. But we shouldn’t stop there; we should constantly improve. If we can produce things in much larger quantities, at much lower cost, then clearly we can make those products more accessible. This is all about patient accessibility. As an industry we have the capability to ensure a healthier and wealthier society. We should not fail for want of trying.

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Jim Reid is Chairman and CEO of Sistemic, providers of miRNA-based products to the drug development, cell therapy and bioprocessing markets. Jim was the recipient of the 2010 Outstanding Contribution to Scottish Life Science award as well as the 2005 Ernst & Young Technology Entrepreneur of the Year for the UK.
Jim Reid
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