New science chief is all fired up

 

AS I’M USHERED into the office of Prof Mark Ferguson in Wilton Place in Dublin, the first thing that strikes me is the breeze billowing through the open windows.

And we’re off. Before I’ve had a chance to muse over the symbolism of the open windows signifying new beginnings, the interview begins. No cups of coffee or small talk here. It’s straight down to business.

Ferguson is a man on a mission. The professor turned biotech entrepreneur is the newly appointed head of Science Foundation Ireland, the government agency which funds third level research in the fields of engineering, science and energy.

As he races through our interview, one can’t help but feel that this is an eminently busy man, someone with an endless list of important people to meet and things to do. “In the first two months of the job, I will have visited most if not all academic institutions in the country, and most if not all relevant companies,” he declares proudly.

He speaks at a rate of knots, as if his mind is constantly jumping ahead to the next thought.

Naturally gregarious, and a strong communicator, he is anything but the stereotype of the sleepy science boffin, perhaps indicative of a man who has spent as much of his life in the corporate world as in the lab.

Born in Northern Ireland, Mark Ferguson completed undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at Queen’s University in Belfast, where he excelled academically. After a lectureship at Queen’s, he moved to the University of Manchester in 1984, where he became the youngest professor in the UK at the age of 28.

While originally specialising in dentistry, his main research interest was in the field of anatomy and embryology.

“My main research was on alligator and crocodile embryos,” he explains, displaying the same level of enthusiasm about his early research topic as an industrious undergrad. “I discovered that when you operate on alligator embryos, they heal without a scar. This had major implications for tissue healing – everything from serious medical needs to cosmetic surgery.”

Over the next decade, he amassed a string of academic accolades, publishing hundreds of academic papers and giving plenary lectures, while all the time progressing up the career ladder to head of department and dean.

But it was his experience in business that is believed to have caught the attention of Science Foundation Ireland and has got people talking in the academic community here.

In 1998, he and his wife, Dr Sharon O’Kane, building on the success of their academic research, founded Renovo, a biotechnology company which developed drugs for the prevention of scars.

The pair raised £32 million in private venture capital from separate venture capital sources in New York, Boston, New Jersey, Stockholm, and Singapore.

In 2006, the company floated on the London Stock Exchange, raising £67.5 million.

A key milestone was the sale of the non-EU rights of its lead drug, Juvista, to Shire for $839 million plus royalties the following year.

But the company hit a major stumbling block in 2011 when Juvista failed to meet its goals in a major clinical trial. The unexpected development had a devastating impact on both the share price and the future of the company. Ferguson restructured the company and effectively put it up for sale. All assets were sold off and staff were let go, with the company rehiring some as consultants.

Ferguson downplays the significance of the reversal in fortune, pointing out that peaks and troughs are part of the biotech industry.

“It’s a cyclical business. At its peak, Renovo had 200 employees and was worth £500 million; at its trough, it had 20 employees and was worth about £50 million. The difference between those two was very short. That’s the nature of biotech. It depends on how the drugs are progressing.”

While the company is up for sale, he says it’s in no rush to secure a buyer. “The sale of the company is completely in control of the board. There’s no massive pressure to sell because the operating costs of the business are less than the interest on cash. We have £35 million in the bank, and no debt.

“Nobody wants to be in a firesale situation. The main focus is to maximise returns for our shareholders.”

Today, Ferguson is firmly focused on the job at hand. (He was required to step down from Renovo as a condition of his new position, though he remains a significant shareholder).

He takes over Science Foundation Ireland at an interesting time for the agency. It’s more than a year since his predecessor, Frank Gannon, stepped down 18 months ahead of schedule to take up a position in Brisbane.

The agency itself has been something of a success story. Established as a subsidiary of Forfás in 2000, the evolution of Science Foundation Ireland coincided with a major expansion in government funding of scientific research in Ireland, solidified in 2006 with the Government’s Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation, a major initiative for science, technology and innovation investment.

While the agency has been broadly sheltered from recent spending cuts – it provides funding of about €150 million to academic researchers a year – there is a growing sense that SFI, like all government agencies, needs to assert itself as the inevitable public debate about exchequer spending picks up speed.

Prof Ferguson, who has been appointed for a five-year term, characterises the next few years as a period of reorientation for the organisation, as it moves from “capacity-building” to “strategic alignment”.

“For the last 10 years, spending on science has increased dramatically, and SFI has been focused on capacity-building. It’s successfully taken Ireland from being nowhere in terms of science to being consistently in the top 10 countries in the world for science – number three for immunology and number eight in material science.

“Now that we’ve got some capacity, we have to focus on what our strategy is going to be. You can’t deploy a strategy unless you’ve a solid base.”

Ferguson’s stated strategy for his term is to emphasise scientific relevance and impact. Throughout the interview, he quotes what he labels as SFI’s new mantra – “excellence with impact”.

“What I mean by that is, while we already have excellence in academic and scientific research, we are now trying to get increased economic and societal impact from that research excellence.”

One way of achieving this, he says, is by focusing on Ireland’s unique differentiating features, slipping into business mode as he describes his plans: “We need to look at Ireland’s unique selling points. As with a business approach, we need to identify the USPs for Ireland.”

Energy (particularly wind) and marine are some of the areas he mentions, while Ireland’s size also means it has huge potential to be used as a test-bed for various fields. The close convergence of pharmaceutical, technology companies and academic institutions in Ireland are also a key selling point, he says.

“If you are smart about things, you will focus on themes that are of interest to all of those groups. For example, the interface between software and energy and utilities would be one possible area. It’s those sorts of interesting interfaces where Ireland could be world-leading.”

But it is in the whole area of academic and industry collaboration that Ferguson is expected to make most waves. The subject is a notoriously tricky one, touching on the sensitive issues of academic freedom, state support of education and commercial interests.

Currently, around 30 per cent of SFI-funded researchers have established collaborations with industry. Is this enough for a State which wants to establish a smart economy?

Ferguson is reluctant to criticise Ireland’s track record in this area. “Collaboration between science and industry in Ireland is good, but could be better. It’s always a difficult interface, for all countries around the world.”

And he points out that for every €150 million invested through SFI another €150 million is raised by other sources. Nonetheless, one of Ferguson’s plans for SFI is a major overhaul of how funding is disseminated to include a focus on “impact”.

“Currently most funding bodies focus solely on the science, looking at publications, conferences, research, that kind of thing. While that will continue, people will also have to write an impact statement. That will also be internationally peer-reviewed, but by a panel of venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and R&D directors from major companies.”

Applicants will be ranked on a 10-point scale, and will be reviewed half-way through and at the end of the research project by the same impact assessment panel.

“The researchers will be asked three simple questions: ‘What have you discovered? Why is it important? And what have you done about it?’ If you can answer those three questions, you’re on the way to measuring impact.”

Each part of the application will have equal standing.

“The academic community takes academic excellence seriously. I want them to take the impact piece as seriously.”

He also has plans for a more radical experiment whereby the public will be asked to review researchers’ impact assessment statement, though he stresses that at the moment the idea is aspirational.

The idea is part of Ferguson’s interest in the growing global phenomenon of “crowdsourcing” whereby tricky scientific issues are posted and outsourced to the public, usually by way of social media, where they are collaboratively discussed and sometimes solved.

Is he expecting a kick-back from the academic community?

“Yes,” he smiles. “It’s always difficult, but it’s a partnership. I’m looking at ways of partnering with industry, with charities as well as other agencies.”

Fostering public engagement in science is another key priority for Ferguson. “I’m passionate about public engagement in science … around the world there’s an increasing gulf between the people who give money for science, whether by taxation or charity, and the people who spend the money on science, and that can’t continue.”

He is nonetheless unequivocal about the value delivered by the State’s investment in science.

“If someone asked me what SFI offers, I can provide a list – the number of jobs we create directly, the money we leverage from industry and private sector, the huge role we play in attracting FDI [foreign direct investment] into Ireland, the number of graduates who have gone on to get jobs. We can make those arguments, we’re just not as in your face as it were.”

He points out that the agency’s achievements are sometimes under the radar. “In terms of jobs, for example, while the IDA and Enterprise Ireland might put the ball over the line, a lot of people have done the running before that. We meet with international companies looking at investing in Ireland at an early stage of that process. We’re a fundamental part of the ecosystem, but not necessarily the bit that’s recognised.”

Does he think Irish universities have been slow to turn out a significant number of spin-off companies?

Again, Ferguson is careful not to criticise. “There are a reasonable number but there aren’t enough of quality and scale,” he says, diplomatically. “My focus will be on the quantity but also on the quality”, stressing that the scale and capacity that has been built up in the university research sector over the last decade will be a key advantage in the future.

Though barely a couple of months into the job, Ferguson is settling in to life in Dublin, with his wife Sharon, who is a non-executive director of a number of UK companies and investment funds.

He is currently renting in Dublin and is planning to buy a house. Two daughters are pursuing undergraduate and further degrees in the UK, while his youngest daughter is settling in to school in Mount Anville.

“It’s fantastic. The people are great. I think there’s a real interest in science. During my first weekend in Dublin, I visited the Young Scientist exhibition at the RDS. I was literally elbowed in the abdomen by a nun in her rush to get to see a stand first. I said to myself: ‘This is brilliant.’”

One of his aims is to develop and promote Ireland’s scientific culture further.

“Ireland is now one of the best countries in the world in terms of scientific research. We’ve come a long way. I want to build that further and make sure that Ireland is a country that is known around the world for the quality of its science.”

Name:Prof Mark Ferguson

Age:56

Position:Director general, Science Foundation Ireland

Lives:Originally from Northern Ireland, he has spent most of his life in Britain but recently moved to Dublin to take up a position as director general of Science Foundation Ireland. He currently lives in Churchtown in Dublin.

Something that might surprise you:He is an avid antique collector.

Something that won’t surprise you:His eldest daughter is doing a PhD in chemistry at Cambridge University.

Favourite saying:Excellence with impact.