Currently CE of e-Therapeutics – a publicly owned business and pioneer of network pharmacology – Professor Malcolm Young has previously been prominent in academia and started his own internet company. He’s also a natural leader, a latent Geordie, and harbours a dream of taking the ‘Grand Tour’ in an Aston Martin. There’s no doubt that Malcolm’s world has a lot of scope.
As diverse as business, pharma, academia and the Internet seem, most of Malcolm’s roles and the moves between them have been driven by two things: network science and “the fact that people don’t seem to mind being managed by me”. Says Malcolm, the initial driver was that in 1990 and again in 1993, the Royal Society “made the mistake of giving me two research fellowships, in which I could do exactly what interested me scientifically.”
And what interested him were brain networks, which led to analysis of many other kinds of networks, and to one of the strands in what has become Complex Systems Science, including network biology. Such was Malcolm’s success that, in 1999, he was named one of 18 scientists worldwide nominated by the Sunday Times as the ‘Brains behind the 21st Century’.
Leadership is not rocket-science
His research was “reasonably successful” – a glaring understatement from Malcolm – “so universities started putting me in charge of successively bigger things.” And that meant successively bigger teams to lead. This trend of leadership responsibility weaves itself through most of Malcolm’s roles, regardless of the industry. So, does he see himself as a natural leader? “I think that staff want only a small number of things from their boss: they want to know what the plan is, and what their place in it is; they want to know that their manager will fight for their interests tooth and nail outside; and that he or she won’t knife them in the back by being selfish inside. So, I try to do these things. It’s not really rocket-science.”
Ironically, these management roles eventually became onerous enough that he could do more research in the companies he founded than in the university, and so he moved to the private sector.
Here, in 2007, he founded Searchbolt, an Internet company created to exploit applications of network science in the on-line universe. Searchbolt analyses social media networks to find the key influencers of any brand or topic – anything from toys like Slinky, through to high technology glass, to financial analysis – and was built up around a search engine that returns results that users judge more relevant than the current crop of leading search platforms. “The Internet is a very large directed network, on which the data are very clean, so it’s a natural place to apply tools from my science to squeeze out information.”
A rare individual
Retaining his tie as a non-Executive Director with Searchbolt, in 2010 Malcolm headed back to the world of pharma to run the listed drug discovery and development company he had founded in 2001, e-Therapeutics (ETX) plc. ETX pioneered network pharmacology as an approach to drug discovery and de-risking. “For many years we were effectively alone, but now there are many members of our church, particularly in the R&D departments of the largest pharmaceutical companies,” says Malcolm.
Network pharmacology is still relatively new, but there is some evidence that its productivity is substantially higher than that of conventional drug discovery, which has abysmal productivity. I think this is the main reason that network pharmacology activity is growing so fast in the major companies.”
I think that the most interesting problems that can be addressed with my skill set are in medical research. Even though the commercial and financial rewards for success in pharma can be very large, I’m still driven by scientific interest – I love it when a problem twitches and starts to unravel, and by the hope that my work can make patients better.”