Inclusion, innovation... and cocktail curation

Enterprising Minds

WHO? Jason Mellad, Cambridge PhD, tech transfer and innovation specialist, former CEO of University spinout, Cambridge Epigenetix (now Biomodal) and currently CEO and co-founder of Start Codon.

WHAT? Based in Cambridge, Start Codon invests in promising data-driven biotech start-ups from across the UK and guides them through the early stages of taking their ideas from lab to market. In addition, Jason co-owns The Lab, a Cambridge cocktail bar offering customers '1920s luxury with a twist of science'.

WHAT ELSE? Jason is also a longstanding supporter of Get In, a University programme which helps talented students from under-represented ethnic minority communities to study at Cambridge. He is a visiting fellow at Jesus College where he regularly runs clinics for budding entrepreneurs.

WHY? "The people with the ideas and the wherewithal to solve our biggest problems are already out there, but most of them don't have access to the resources they need, or lack self-confidence.

Everything I do is about creating a future where, if you are capable and have the right mindset, you will get the professional and personal support you need to change the world."

You started out doing a PhD. What made you decide not to pursue an academic career? I quickly realised that despite my love of science and discovery, I'm too restless to be an academic. My father was one but my mother, having started out as a social worker, became an entrepreneur. So I could see these two different paths and it became clear to me which one I should take.

What was your first foray into the commercial world? There were two, simultaneously. When I finished my PhD I went to King's College London as a postdoctoral researcher but I was straightaway looking for other opportunities. One came up, an internship with King's technology transfer office, learning about intellectual property management and spinouts. It really opened my eyes to the possibilities of that world.

I also entered a business plan competition with two friends. We put together a pitch for a device called B-stable, designed to prevent falls in the elderly. We ended up winning the competition and went on to start the company.

It didn't end up being successful for a variety of reasons. But it was a great adventure: we learned how to put together a pitch, we won some money and we developed a prototype.

My first 'proper' job was with an innovation consultancy called Innovia Technology based in Cambridge where I worked on all kinds of wonderful projects. It was an amazing way to learn about innovation, thinking through processes, products and unmet needs for some really impressive companies.

Then an opportunity came up at Cambridge Enterprise. After my experience at King's, I knew that tech transfer was what I was really passionate about so this was perfect. It allowed me to be in the academic world, supporting cutting-edge science without having to be an academic myself.

What was the best thing about working for Cambridge Enterprise? Every day I got to meet academics with amazing ideas. You are literally the first person to hear about their new inventions and can help them on their commercialisation journey, whether through licencing or securing a grant, filing IP or spinning out a company. I loved it and it taught me that I really enjoy supporting others.

Did you ever feel it should be you out there, starting something new? That's why I left! A Cambridge Enterprise colleague (and friend) sat me down one day and said, "Jason, what is your path?" He suggested I get some industry experience to learn what life is like on the other side.

At the same time, another former colleague who was working for drug discovery company, Horizon Discovery, contacted me to say the company was looking for junior business development managers - and she thought I would really like it there.

What did you learn from your time at Horizon Discovery? How to be thrown into the deep end with very little support, but a lot of encouragement.

I was part of a new business unit selling reagents to companies that are running diagnostic tests. They said, "Here's your sales target - good luck!"

I'd never had a sales role but I set off anyway on a sales trip to the States. That first trip, I got bed bugs from staying in dodgy motels. I sometimes had to drive all night to get to meetings because I hadn’t thought to book a hotel in advance. It was crazy, but I made it work and I learnt a heck of a lot.

But it was a relatively short stint because the same colleague (and friend) at Cambridge Enterprise who had originally suggested I should get some industry experience, called me up to say, "We're spinning out a company called Cambridge Epigenetix. This is a great opportunity for you because you'd be part of starting a company from scratch."

When I joined Cambridge Epigentix, I was employee number three and when I left we had 50 people.

As with all start-ups, you wear multiple hats. I had to learn how to lead on pitches, manage and grow a team, establish partnerships, sell products worldwide, troubleshoot, move to different locations and how to rebrand.

Having started as a business development manager, I was promoted to head of business development, then to vice-president of business development and partnerships. Finally, I was promoted to CEO. So I really had to learn a lot - quickly.

"I have never met anybody in my life who's truly self-made and it's not something that people should aspire to."

How important was the coaching and mentoring you received as you grew into your leadership position? There seems to be a fallacy that entrepreneurs are self-made. I have never met anybody in my life who's truly self-made and it's not something that people should aspire to.

The mark of a great leader is somebody who understands the gaps in their capabilities, as well as their strengths. They know that you succeed by bringing together a team, not just of your peers but also of people who are more experienced than you.

Although, as a leader, you need to stand with conviction by whatever choices you make, you should leverage other people to make the best choices in the first place.

I thrive from being in a metaphorical room with people who are more experienced than me because that helps me grow. That's my guiding light.

And now you are running Start Codon. How did that come about? There's a theme here of people coming to me with opportunities at the right time. That's what happened with Start Codon too.

I was approached by a number of different people, all saying the same thing: that we needed a programme and a fund to help early stage companies get up and running. And they were looking for someone to take the idea, run it and lead it. At that point, I had been at Cambridge Epigenetix for six years and I was looking for a change.

The opportunity with Start Codon was perfect. It leveraged all the experience I'd had in my career and it allowed me to work with my co-founder, Daniel Rooke, who is a perfect match. Plus it was everything I'm passionate about: supporting people and advising on new technologies every day.

"I thrive from being in a metaphorical room with people who are more experienced than me..."

What is the ambition for Start Codon? If you are a first-time founder or an inventor with an idea, you go to a venture capitalist. These funds have to make their returns and can be risk averse, particularly in the UK. So they'll say: "If you do x, y and z, we'll give you the money." And the founder goes: "If you give me the money, I can do x, y and z."

And they look at each other and nothing happens. It's like a game of chicken.

Dan and I saw a gap, a need to help founders move the needle and turn their idea into an investable proposition.

"I was allowed to flourish
here as opposed to people judging me for the colour
of my skin."

What would you say is the greatest strength of the Cambridge ecosystem? I'm a big proponent of diversity and inclusion and I take any opportunity I can to beat that drum. It's so important if the ecosystem is to achieve its true potential.

I grew up in Louisiana and came to a completely different world in Cambridge. But I was embraced here first as a student, then working at the University and Cambridge Enterprise, then building up a spinout and now funding spinouts myself.

Hand on heart, I believe that I would not have had the success I've had if I had stayed in the States, for a variety of reasons, predominantly that I was allowed to flourish here as opposed to people judging me for the colour of my skin.

Instead, they looked at my character and what I could bring to the table. Cambridge is not only the generator of incredible ideas and great innovation, but it is also a home for people from anywhere in the world who want to have an opportunity to thrive.

I am a true product of the Cambridge ecosystem. That's why I'm still here almost 20 years later. And I want to spread the message that Cambridge is for all. It's not an ivory tower that only a privileged few can access.

At Start Codon, about a third of our portfolio have come from Cambridge University, the rest come from across the UK and one from Singapore. They come to us because they want to get access to what makes Cambridge amazing and contribute to our vibrant ecosystem.

“I have a fear of heights and I don't like spiders, but the idea that I might start something and fail at it, doesn't stop me.”

Talking of amazing, you have also found time to start a cocktail bar in Cambridge. How did that come about? This goes back to the early days of Cambridge Epigenetix when we were trying to find people who might buy and use our technology.

One of my team selling kits to the Gurdon Institute ended up going to a late-night party there. I said: "They have parties at the Institute. I've never heard of this." One day, I arranged to meet with one of the researchers and said, "Hey, I hear you have a party tonight. Can I hang around and see what it's all about?"

So I snuck in. You've got be enterprising, right? I met Cambridge legend, Professor Tony Kouzarides and we hit it off right away. During a long late-night session, he told me that one of his many dreams was to have a pub and cheekily call it PubMed. Fast forward a couple years and I was with friends in a bar when we learnt that one of the owners was moving back to Spain and wanted to sell his stake.

I called up Tony and said: "It's not a pub, but it's a bar and it's in the middle of town. What do you think?" And he said, "We should buy it!"

Now we've got a cocktail bar owned by three doctors: Tony the professor, me the entrepreneur and our other partner, Peter Niemczuk, a GP.

"...people only see me as they see me now: I want them to know that I didn't pop out like this. I worked hard at it."

Have you had any setbacks in your career and, if so, how have you dealt with them? During my PhD, I had a very challenging time. I had two different advisors in two different locations with two different projects, and somehow I was magically meant to pull it all together into a coherent thesis. I reached the point where I honestly thought I wouldn't be able to graduate.

At the same time, I had just come out to my family as gay and it did not go well initially so I felt isolated and alone. I was very fortunate to have had some amazing people around me, to hold me up until I could get myself together and chart a new path.

What I learnt was that you need to eliminate the noise and focus only on what you need to do to take your next step.

You are not born with resilience, you build it over time. There are always challenges in every career, whatever people might want you to believe.

You need to have supportive people around you through that period, knowing that you might be blindsided for a while because you're so overwhelmed. And, then knowing that you can learn and grow from adversity, you can become a stronger person than you were before. Suddenly, the challenge has become a blessing.

I no longer have a fear of failure in the traditional sense. I have a fear of heights and I don't like spiders, but the idea that I might start something and fail at it, doesn't stop me.

If it fails, it's fine. I have people who love and support me. I'll figure it out. I've trained my mind to not focus on whether I might fail but rather on how do I make something succeed.

I give lots of public presentations and speeches and I often get complimented on them. I never prepare in advance. I always speak from the heart. But when I was young I used to have paralytic stage fright, even just raising my hand in class.

I couldn't stand up in a crowd to save my life but I forced myself because I knew that if I wanted to accomplish certain things I would have to be able to do it.

I made myself speak at as many opportunities as I could until now it's like second nature. But people only see me as they see me now: I want them to know that I didn't pop out like this. I worked hard at it. I have had my own challenges and still do. I'm always growing, I get support and I'm constantly trying to improve.

What would you say you are most proud of in your career so far? Getting Start Codon up and running because it's the culmination of so many things that I've been through and it's driven by my passion for helping others be their best.

Do you have a piece of advice for someone wanting to start a new venture? It'll be better if you do it with other people. You don't get extra kudos or points for doing it on your own.

What would your colleagues say is your greatest strength? You know the expression, you can't see the forest for the trees? I'm kind of the reverse. It's like I can't see the trees for the forest.

For example, a company might pitch you story a, but the opportunity I see is story b or even stories c,d,e and f. That's the way my ADHD brain works: I see how things can move together and synergise in ways that are not always obvious to other people.

What's next? I like to do things in five year plans. Anything shorter doesn't make sense. Anything longer is a bit too far out. I want to have as broad an impact as possible and everything I'm working towards is around diversity and inclusion which, I believe, will be the most disruptive innovation in the history of humankind.

I am spreading my wings to make sure that I have as big of an impact as possible. For example, I'm supporting organisations like Cambridge Science Centre because it fits with that ethos and I’m passionate about STEM education. Increasingly, I'm also undertaking a lot of strategy and policy work.

What do you do in your spare time, if you have any? Spend time with my husband and our two energetic young children.

It's a weird thing, but I've never had hobbies. I'm really into people and passionate people in particular.

I would never go swimming, say, or jogging on my own. But if a friend phones me up and says, "Hey, Jason, do you want to go on a bike ride?" The answer is: "Sure. Let's do it!"

Quick fire

Optimist or pessimist? Optimist.
People or ideas? People.
On time or running late? Running late but I'm always in time for the important bits.
Team player or lone wolf? Team player.
The journey or the destination? The journey. Half the time, I've no idea what the destination is. I'm here for the ride: we'll get somewhere eventually.
Novelty or routine? Novelty, definitely.
A risk taker or risk averse? Risk taker.
Lots of irons in the fire or all your eggs in one basket? Lots of irons.
And do you need to be lucky or make your own luck? Make your own luck.
Work, work, work or work-life balance? Funnily enough, I don't make a distinction between work and life. For me, it's all just life. I'm really passionate about what I do for work and if it felt like work, I wouldn't do it.

Enterprising Minds has been developed with the help of Bruno Cotta, Visiting Fellow & Honorary
Ambassador at the Cambridge Judge Business School.

Published 22 August 2023

Photography by StillVision.

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License