Monika Gullerova: a scientist first and foremost
My team at the University of Oxford are investigating the role of RNA in the cellular processes that detect and repair damaged DNA. We hope that a better understanding of the DNA damage response will ultimately help to prevent and treat a range of diseases including cancer.
I saw an opportunity to develop my research idea to have real-world impact
A couple of years ago, I was considering a project for a new DPhil student in my lab when I was struck by a new idea: “Wouldn’t it be great if we had small-molecule compounds that could simulate the behaviour of cells which are naturally developed to efficiently repair damaged DNA? And if possible, to apply such molecules to trick cancer cells into self-destruction?”
I’m a scientist first and foremost, not a businesswoman. But I saw an opportunity to extend my basic research idea and turn it into something that could have real-world impact.
Immediately from the start, I noticed many fundamental differences between basic research and developing a potential translational spinout. Academic research is led by data and my own scientific curiosity, whereas developing a spinout was a far more focused and targeted process. Even if your idea has the potential to expand, investors need quick commercial success before exploring further avenues.
Adapting to this new way of working was initially challenging. At first, I found it hard to accept that I would gradually lose influence over the commercial and strategic decision-making, which eventually falls under the control of the investor. On the other hand, working with my industry partners was a collaborative and enjoyable experience and I received ongoing support from Oxford University Innovation and Cancer Research UK.
Although I have never felt that being a woman has affected my work or my opportunities, science can be tough for women. The presence of women in science is improving, and there are more women in higher academic positions now than in the past. The team in the industry company I have partnered with is led by a woman, which I find highly motivating. Despite this, when I transitioned into the business world, I was surprised to see how heavily it is dominated by men. The investors I dealt with were helpful and supportive, yet during every presentation, on every committee, it was rare to see a woman. This wasn’t challenging in a practical sense, but it was something I became quite conscious of.
If you’re an entrepreneur contemplating translational opportunities, I would recommend that you have a firm grasp of your idea – investors challenge every detail. So, research thoroughly and know your idea inside out. Also, if your spinout complements your research that’s a bonus. My core research goes hand-in-hand with the spinout I am developing, so the company can benefit from the research as it develops in the lab. My journey is still ongoing, and it has been a steep learning curve, but I’m glad I decided to commercialise my idea so that it may one day have a real-world impact.
Monika is an associate professor in experimental pathology and Lee Placito Fellow in Medicine at Wadham College at the University of Oxford and a CRUK Senior Research Fellow. Previously she was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oxford.
This is an edited extract from Researcher voices: The thrills and skills of becoming an entrepreneur, written by Rupal Mistry and published by Cancer Research UK on 2 November 2020.