Dr. Hagan Bayley is the Professor of Chemical Biology at the University of Oxford. He received his B.A. in chemistry here at Oxford and completed his PhD. in chemistry at Harvard University. He continued his research at numerous leading institutions in the US before returning to Oxford in 2003. In 2005, he founded Oxford NanoLabs (now Oxford Nanopore Technologies) to explore the diverse applications of engineered protein membranes. He continues to make impressive contributions to cutting-edge research, winning numerous prizes and awards, including this year’s RSC Interdisciplinary Prize for his prolific work on engineered protein pores.
Tell me about your early aspirations. Did you always want to go into science research and academia?
Yes, I think so. Starting in my teens I was interested in science, so that’s definitely an early aspiration. Also, with the A Levels system in England, you have to decide pretty early on what you want to do, and I was both attracted to and quite good at mathematics and physical sciences, particularly chemical and biological science. You do get to make a choice at a pretty early age in England compared to other places. Even at University in the States, there’s still time to change [your major] in your first or second year.
You were educated both in the United Kingdom and the United States, and have worked at leading institutions in both countries as well. How do the two countries compare? Do you prefer either one?
I think they both have plusses. I like the idea of specializing at an early age. I think kids are very capable at doing advanced things when they are 16 or 17, so I think pushing people with the A Levels is a good thing.
Similarly I think the undergraduate degrees here can be very good. They differ from the States in that they are much more specialized and intense. Certainly the idea when I was a science undergraduate here [was that] if there was something else that you liked doing, like acting in plays or writing poetry, that would be an outside activity, not part of your formal education. People still did these things; the organ scholar at my college was a physicist, so it didn’t rule out building diversity into your life yourself.
However, I was fortunate to go to the States to do a PhD., because I think the PhD. degree is definitely better in the States. Until recently in the UK we had a three-year PhD., which is basically time limited. When people run out of money it’s the end of their PhD., and they almost always get a degree pass and leave.
In the States you take on a cutting-edge research project and do your best to finish it. It’s not that you run out of money or time. To get a PhD. you have to finish a piece of research that makes a new contribution to our knowledge.
I also don’t really agree with the currently pervasive idea in the UK that a PhD. is a training program rather than a research degree. I think the emphasis of research councils here to produce well-trained people who will go into various jobs in industry and government is misguided. Skills training, your ability to give a talk or to write or get on with your colleagues – these are all things you learn on the job in the States, and the main emphasis there is on getting your piece of cutting-edge research done.
Speaking of cutting-edge research, how did you choose your research area? Were you relatively focused from the start?
I think people are drawn toward certain areas, but fate usually determines the specific area that you work in.
In the fourth year of my Chemistry degree here at Oxford, which is completely laboratory based, I wanted to do something that was still chemistry but was also biological. I went to work for Jeremy Knowles, an enzymologist. Interestingly, membrane proteins were an extremely exciting new area at the time, and he had devised a project in that area, which I got involved with. Partway through my fourth year he moved to Harvard, and I went on to do my PhD there with him. By the time I had finished that, my narrow specialist area was membrane proteins.
How and why did you start up Oxford Nanopore?
When we started our work with membrane proteins in my own lab it was really very basic science. The first problem we looked at was how a water-soluble protein, a toxin, could become a membrane protein. In the course of doing that we saw that people working with antibodies and enzymes were using protein engineering to change their properties to make them useful in biotechnology.
No one had worked on the biotechnological applications of membrane proteins; ours was one of the first groups to do that. We got the idea that we could make sensors or permeabilize cells to introduce cryoprotectants into them and do a bunch of other things with these engineered membrane proteins. So in parallel, we did basic science research on membrane proteins but also looked at their applications, and while I was still in the States, we took out a lot of patents on things that we did that might have useful applications.
When I got to Oxford, I thought the situation here was particularly good for forming a company. I went to IP Group, which has worked a lot with the University to give the know-how and also relatively modest amounts of money for startups, with all my ideas, and they tasked Spike Wilcocks to look into this. We then hired a very good CEO called Gordon Sanghera, who’s still with the company now. There were also great science parks around Oxford.
You also need mentors, someone to talk to. There were quite a few people in Oxford at the time, Graham Richards in particular, who had been involved in some early spinout companies. So with all these things in place and some pretty good technology, we worked with IP Group to set up the company in 2005.
How do you balance academic research with Nanopore?
I would say that I’ve never devoted a major fraction of my time to the company. At the start, I said to myself the most I was going to do was one day a week, so 20% of my time. And that’s probably down to much less now. The company is basically run by Gordon and his colleagues. I am on the board of the company but I don’t have any role in the day to day running of the company. And it’s a big company now; it’s got 135 employees and it basically looks after itself.
From my viewpoint I’d rather keep doing basic science; maybe some of that gets fed into the company and maybe more basic science could come along to form another company.
Indeed, Oxford Nanopore has seen impressive development and expansion since its inception, even against the odds of a challenging economical situation. Do you have a secret?
Of course the effort Spike, Gordon and I put in at the beginning was huge. All three of us worked pretty hard and we spent a lot of time thinking about the company and raising money and so on. But I think that we have been successful so far in not such great economic circumstances because the technology really is very interesting. And there almost always is money around for exciting technology. So I don’t think people should be discouraged by the economic situation. I think there is money around, but nowadays you may have to have something especially exciting to get that money compared to 20 years ago when it was easier to make start ups.
What would be your advice for other academics looking to straddle the line between academia and entrepreneurship?
I think it’s going to vary from person to person. There are some people who are very academically oriented and interested in basic science, and I would put myself in that category. These people should still take a look at what they have in their thoughts or research. If there is something that might be commercialized but they don’t want to change their career path significantly, there’s a lot of help here in Oxford. There are people who can help with initial investments, writing patents, finding a place to locate the company and so on. You don’t have to take 50% of your time, or 50 hours a week to do it on your own.
At the other end of the spectrum you will find people who are just absolutely drawn into commercializing what they do and they might seek to get permission from the University to spend half their time with their company and put a lot more effort into it. I think [these people] will take care of themselves. But here in Oxford you can go to IP Group or contact people who have set up companies already, of which there are very many, and get a lot of good advice.