Bruce Pritchard CA is CEO, Liminal BioSciences and Qualified 1996.
Sophie Baillie CA is Head of Finance & Operations, Weatherden and Qualified 2014
Bruce Pritchard CA: I stumbled into the life sciences industry while going through my CA training. I was the Senior and Audit Manager on one of our firm’s largest clients, a veterinary disease research and drug development organisation. They were advertising for a group financial controller. I was slightly underqualified in terms of the spec, but the CEO encouraged me to apply.
Sophie Baillie CA: My story is a bit different – I studied chemistry at university. The next stage would have been to do a PhD and continue in academia. I really loved the theory of science but I didn’t myself particularly like the lab work. So, when I graduated, I chose to train as an accountant.
BP: I think I was very focused on being an accountant in industry. Joining the life sciences sector gave me a feel for that entrepreneurial end of business and deal making and deal doing. It really sparked my love of the corporate finance world. And those skillsets led to me being headhunted for subsequent rules.
SB: My draw was specifically towards the science. I remember starting at KPMG with the mindset that I would train as an accountant, and on qualification I would then go back into industry and perhaps work in a large pharmaceutical company. That didn’t quite happen when I qualified and I moved to a couple of boutique accounting firms. The work was interesting but I was increasingly missing the science. In my current role, it’s very interesting to work with all of our clients and hear about the science that they’re doing and get to use and engage my brain in that way as well.
BP: The CA qualification really offers that flexibility to move and try new things. It is a highly recognised qualification in industry and on an international scale too. Any chartered accountancy qualification is a badge of quality, but the CA training is very rigorous and especially well respected as a result.
It’s also important to note that, at ICAS, we have made ethics a core part of the CA qualification. It is not just an educational topic, it flows through all aspects of a business. It’s particularly relevant in the life sciences industry – when we must consider questions around animal testing, human clinical trials and pricing.
SB: That ethics training is something I keep in mind every day at work. It also depends on your area of the industry. I work for a consulting company, so, unlike Bruce’s company, we are not ourselves the sponsor of any drug or medicine, but we are working really closely with those that are. And we want to give them the best value possible for their money.
BP: It’s a very challenging area. We’ve all heard horror stories of drugs and treatments being priced at ludicrous levels. The reality is that in some instances that’s justified because of the cost of developing the drug. In others, it is just corporate misbehaviour. Unfortunately, the whole industry gets tarred with that brush as a result.
SB: As well as demanding the highest levels of ethics, there is an important technical element to working in the industry. As CAs, we’re trained to interpret data and use it to create meaningful metrics that the rest of the business can use. You really need to drive efficiencies because of the limited investment you might have and the need to reach certain goals before investors might release the next tranche of funding.
BP: I think it’s a matter of combining both soft skills and analytical skills. The life sciences and pharmaceutical industry is enormously regulated, probably more so than any other industry from a health and safety perspective. Therefore, flowing through everything that we do needs to be a rigour around accuracy, review, checking, so CAs will find that they actually slot very well into the space.
SB: Being a CA means that you have that broad grounding in financial knowledge and business, and it brings in legal aspects as well. It encourages you to think in a much broader sense about businesses.
I do think that having a grounding in science helps in this industry, too. It gives you something to fall back on when you need to be able to understand scientific concepts, and it really gives you an element of credibility at the start of your career. That said, every biotech company is working on something quite different, so you will find that you learn on the job as well.
BP: I don’t necessarily think that someone moving into this industry needs to have a scientific background. It would depend on the scale of the organisation and the seniority of the role.
If you’re in a larger organisation and are purely focused on inward-facing financials, you probably don’t need any scientific knowledge other than what you pick up along the way. Where your role changes to being outward facing, particularly if it involves investor relations and capital markets activity, that’s when you have to understand the science a bit more. I’ve had to build my own understanding. Investors expect me to be able to interpret clinical data or to talk about a molecule and its mechanism of action. You have to know enough to convince the investors that you’re fit to be running the organisation.
SB: The responsibilities of CAs are also determined by the market landscape. The life sciences space is increasingly driven by external collaboration, whether that’s M&A or licensing or partnering opportunities. We increasingly need those people with financial expertise and a great grounding in business to drive that forward and structure those opportunities in the right way.
The model is also changing from the R&D being taken on by the large pharma companies to a much more scattered landscape with lots of smaller ones. With smaller headcounts, as the finance person you have a much more prominent position in the business and will be sitting at the leadership table making those crucial decisions.
BP: I think I’ve experienced that change in my career. I started in my business as CFO of a subsidiary company and I’ve ended up as CEO of the group. It shows that, as CAs, we have become integral to the business as we bring the right set of skills. We’re trained to analyse, interpret and act upon information to make solid financial and business judgements, and that is very much respected in the industry.
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This article was first published in CA magazine: https://www.camagazine.co.uk/january2021#!meeting-of-minds