Image credit: Wellcome Sanger Institute

Categories: Sanger Life13 November 202326.5 min read

Entrepreneurship at Sanger – pipetting, coding and innovating in genomics and biodata

Dr Joanna Mills, Head of Entrepreneurship at the Sanger Institute tells us what Entrepreneurship looks like at Sanger to celebrate Global Entrepreneurship Week. A mix of factors, from a culture of innovation to fostering support, an entrepreneurial offering and accessible role models. This is Jo’s vision for entrepreneurship at Sanger.

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I’ve always believed that scientists are a source of untapped entrepreneurial potential. There are many synergies between science and entrepreneurship - both involve ambition, experimentation, problem solving and a need to think out of the box to get to where we want to go. I’d also add resilience and tenacity as the journey isn’t always a smooth one.

Entrepreneurship at a place such as Sanger needs to be deeply rooted in our science and connected to our mission. In our case, genomics and biodata science and how that can be utilised to benefit society. Entrepreneurship enables us not only to fulfil the Institute’s mission of applying and exploring genomic technologies at scale to advance our understanding of biology and improve health, but also to develop entrepreneurial skills. How? Through action learning within a nurturing, supportive and safe environment supported by mentors and inspired by role models. I believe that it should also be celebrated whatever the scale and whether it succeeds or not – failure should be valued as an opportunity to learn.

“Entrepreneurship at a place such as Sanger needs to be deeply rooted in our science and connected to our mission. In our case, genomics and biodata science and how that can be utilised to benefit society.”

Dr Joanna Mills,
Head of Entrepreneurship at the Wellcome Sanger Institute

Role models are critical and we have multiple examples. Our Sanger Director, Prof Matt Hurles defines himself as an Accidental Entrepreneur. Many of our faculty are engaged or have engaged in their own entrepreneurial endeavours - Richard Durbin in Congenica; Trevor Lawley with Microbiotica or, more recently, Mathew Garnett with Mosaic Tx. However, not all innovation means setting up a spin-out. Gavin Wright’s work on the Trypanosoma vaccine developed at Sanger is now progressing to veterinary trials in cattle, and Physilia Chua’s work intends to make sequencing accessible anywhere.

Blog story

Matthew Hurles

Accidental Entrepreneur

Read Blog story

Innovation Case Study

Richard Durbin

Advancing healthcare through genomics

Read Congenica case study

Sanger Institute news

Trevor Lawley

Microbiotica enters into collaboration with Genentech

Read Microbiotica news

Sanger Institute news

Matt Garnett

Spin-out shows strength of Institute’s cancer research

Read Mosaic blog story

Sanger Institute news

Gavin Wright

Discovery of vaccine target for devastating livestock disease

Read Sanger News story

Blog story

Physilia Chua

Sequencing anything, anytime, anywhere

Read Physilia's blog story

Since 2020, we’ve run an entrepreneurship survey on [the Wellcome Genome] Campus that gathers the views and attitudes of campus scientists towards entrepreneurship and what it might mean for them. With participation steadily increasing annually, we have seen a trend in some of the questions posed. For example, when we ask about future careers, the number of people unsure of continuing in Academia to progress their career has been increasing steadily throughout the years.

We started gathering insights in 2020, to coincide with the launch of the Startup School. We did wonder if there was an appetite for it back then, and hence a survey was a great way to gauge interest. Of course, we had planned it as an in-person programme, but as we all know the pandemic hit and we had to go fully virtual.

There seemed to be an appetite. We had plenty of applicants, of which we could only take 24,  12 pairs of scientists working together on 12 ideas. Since then, we’ve run three editions and have started the fourth this week. This year, we’ve taken 30! The appetite is growing. With our first session starting this Thursday, I cannot wait to meet the smiling faces of our new cohort and their ideas.

Developing an entrepreneurial culture on Campus. Image credits: Wellcome Sanger Institute

What will they take away from the programme? Well, in past years the mentoring experience has been highly valued as has the opportunity to learn from and connect with entrepreneurs from Campus and beyond. For our scientists, the fact that this enables precious links to the life sciences industry ecosystem in Cambridge and beyond is another highlight. It also opens the door to novel approaches to their science and new career possibilities.

Some of our participants have then taken up jobs in startups and industry, with Startup School giving them an advantage when evaluating the prospects of early-stage startups, or just the confidence and enough knowledge to apply their experience to a position in industry. It seems the right way to go, and a Nature article published last week on the need for entrepreneurial training, especially among postdocs, encourages us to continue in this direction.


Spinning out the science

Alexandra Canet-Font explores some of the ways Sanger Institute scientists are applying their research to health, and moving science from bench to bedside.

There is bespoke support for our entrepreneurs and innovators at Sanger, but it does sometimes go unnoticed. The Genomics Innovation office has access to a Translation Fund and can award small flexible grants for proof of concept projects to accelerate the pace at which Sanger Science is able to create real-world impact. The team also specialises in all aspects of business development, including developing early intellectual property strategy, building commercial partnerships, and connecting with investors to help our scientists translate their research. The internal support at Sanger, and our privileged position within the Cambridge life sciences ecosystem, give us the perfect setting for entrepreneurial minds to flourish.

One of our PostDoc representatives and Startup school alumnus, Ujjwal Banerjee, says in this video that entrepreneurship for him is the execution of a good scientific idea into something practical. I agree with him - it’s all about the execution, and that execution is done by people.  That’s why here at Sanger we see Genomics Innovation as developing technologies and people together and why entrepreneurship at Sanger is about nurturing the skills, attitudes and behaviours to be entrepreneurial and innovative with our science, in ways we've yet to imagine.

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