Kim McAllister: Growing organically – RoslinCT

Janet Downie, chief executive of RoslinCT
Janet Downie, chief executive of RoslinCT

Did anyone else used to think the University Challenge contestants were actually stacked on top of each other?

Finding out the set isn’t actually a double-decker sofa is a bit like realising not all high growth companies need a massive cash injection from investors.

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Sometimes they’re just reinvesting profits.

Who knew?

I spoke to Janet Downie, chief executive of the rapidly expanding RoslinCT cell and gene therapy contract manufacturers yesterday. This is a company that’s grown 25% year on year for three years now and is set to grow 50% by the end of 2019.

It’s mostly down to having a unique specialist knowledge in a growing sector – but I think Janet also has an unusual skillset which makes her very successful.

The biologist has a very good business brain.

“I moved from the science into quality assurance and regulatory [control] quite early in my career, and I’ve always been quite focused on the ‘business bit’,” she explained.

“I have enough understanding of the science to know how it all works, but a big part of what we do at RoslinCT is service – we’re a contract manufacturer so client interaction is very important. They have to trust us – we’re working with their very expensive products and returning them ready for clinical trials. I think a lot of scientists can get caught up in the science – whereas I’m always mindful that we have to be commercial too!”

If, like me, you have only a vague notion of what cell and gene therapy is, allow me to share my new-found knowledge.

Cell therapy involves taking stem cells to treat disease – for example, to make pancreas cells to cure diabetes. The cells are transplanted into the patient where they help the defective cells already in the body or replace them. Cell therapy is used in brains to repair brain tissue after a stroke, or anywhere it is possible to see damaged cells. The challenge is similar to transplanting organs – persuading the immune system not to reject the cells.

Gene therapy is different in that the patient’s cells are removed from the body, engineered in some way and then replaced.

I asked what I imagine many people wonder.

“Do you feel a bit like you’re playing God?”

But Janet just laughed. “No – we just see it as the next phase of medicine, it’s such a challenging process, we manufacture in such a sterile environment, with head-to-toe suits, we would only do that if we believed we were making a genuine difference. Working on T cells to re-programme them for cancer treatment, for example, is [quite] a developed area, and it’s changing people’s lives.”

RoslinCT is the only contract manufacturer in the UK in this area, which the UK & Scottish governments have identified as a key sector for development. Janet is keen to keep growing and developing the company to remain at the forefront of this global industry.

“We’ve sent cells off to Boston and all over Europe, so we’re about to undertake a big expansion to allow us to serve even more customers. We’re currently a team of just under 50 people and we want to grow that team and expand our facilities so that we can offer all forms of cell  & gene therapy,” she said.

“I think that’s the part I enjoy most. I get to bring the three things I love most together – science, people and customers.”

High Growth articles from Kim McAllister

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