Over hill and Dale.
The founder of two leading science and technology companies based in Newcastle, but in bed with a Japanese electronics company and working globally – again – Dale Athey rarely has his feet on the ground.
In the last ten years Dale Athey has been to Japan 30 times, and currently spends around four weeks of the year there (he’s been trying to learn Japanese but confesses to finding the language hard). He’s in the US about the same amount of time. “I remember saying to my wife when we moved back to Newcastle that the university job would mean less travel, and now I’m travelling more than ever.”
The ‘university job’ was as a business development manger for Life Sciences at Newcastle University. Dale remembers vividly seeing the job ad as a ‘light-bulb moment’ in his life at a point when he was ready for a new challenge.
He’d graduated in Biochemistry from Newcastle University in 1985 and hadn’t been inspired sufficiently to do a PhD, “probably due to a feeling I needed to get a ‘real job’”. He took the first position that came along, as a medical laboratory scientific officer in the pathology laboratories at RVI Newcastle.
During his second year he was taken under the wing of Terence Keeley (now vice chancellor of Buckingham University), who gave him “the kick up the backside” he needed and helped him make a credible application for the MSc in Clinical Biochemistry. From there he did his PhD at Newcastle, thereafter taking a job with Cambridge Life Sciences as a research Scientist, leaving Newcastle for Cambridge.
His first move away from the lab into the more commercial side of the business was with Chiron Diagnostics. He travelled extensively in the Middle East, eastern Europe, Russia and Africa, training, technical selling, troubleshooting and working with customers, and it was here that he really learned about customer support. It was after a few years of this rather grueling lifestyle, lying on a settee in Bury St Edmunds in a rare moment of English tranquility, Sunday newspaper in hand, that Dale had his ‘light-bulb moment’.
He didn’t know what the role of business development manger involved – after taking the job he realised neither did the university – but felt it would be a great doorway into starting his own technology business. Four weeks in he met Professor Lakey and the idea was sown for Orla Protein Technologies, which they spun out in 2002. Dale went full time in January 2004 when they raised capital from NEL Fund Managers.
But it was the second company that Dale started that required him to get his passport out of the bottom drawer and dust it off again. OJ-Bio Ltd is a 50/50 joint venture between Orla and the Japanese radio communications equipment company, the Japan Radio Corporation (JRC). A hugely successful collaboration, it wasn’t without its challenges. “I feel that we faced (and overcame) three main challenges in setting up the JV with JRC. One was that we’re English and they Japanese.” (He reckons there’s a book’s worth of anecdotes and lessons about the basic cultural issues they faced) –
The second is that we were a very small company of only three employees when we signed the deal. And the third, they’re an electronics company and we’re biotech.”
Dale describes Orla as a holding company and “ideas factory” from which they exploit the various applications of the Orla technology, with the common theme being their expertise in protein science. At the moment, they’re working on “some very exciting developments from the Lakey lab that have broad application in cell biology, woundcare and regenerative medicine.”
OJ-Bio has a number of commercial development projects in place, and it launched its prototype reader recently at Medica, with over 220 leads generated on the stand in four days. The company also announced two very large development projects in the last month, funded by the Technology Strategy Board (Flu testing) and the NiHR (HIV testing with university college London), which will start in January.
OJ-Bio is the first major commercial output from Orla, and it sits nicely with Dale’s background in diagnostics, but other outputs are on the way. And next year is expected to see both companies move into new premises in Newcastle, entering a period of growth and expansion of manufacturing capability, new commercials, and break-even point – a rare milestone for life science start-ups.
Unsurprisingly, with travelling so much, Dale’s idea of a good time is relaxing with his wife and sons. Running serves the dual purpose of being able to exercise regardless of the location, and enabling Dale to see a bit more of his surroundings than just an office and a hotel room. “I still enjoy listening to all sorts of music, going to gigs, watching Newcastle United (not always a pleasure) and orienteering with my boys.”
But it’s the job that gets his juices flowing. “I’ve always enjoyed making customers happy, and when that’s by supplying products and/or technology that we’ve developed from scratch – well, there’s nothing better than that. I think if you get up in the morning and you really don’t want to go to work that day then it’s time to make a change – and that hasn’t happened yet.”