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Mantell Associates Network: Q&A with Dr. Ross T Burn

​As part of the Mantell Associates Network podcast earlier this year, CEO Alessandro Mantell spoke with Dr. Ross T Burn.

As part of the Mantell Associates Network podcast earlier this year, CEO Alessandro Mantell spoke with Dr. Ross T burn who is Chief Executive Officer at CatSci. He completed an MSci in Forensic and Analytical Chemistry at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. He completed his PhD in 2007 on the use of chromatography, electrophoresis and mass spectrometry for mining the human plasma proteome for biomarkers of disease with Prof. David Perrett at Barts and the London, Queen Mary’s School of Medicine, University of London. In 2007, Dr Ross Burn joined AstraZeneca as an Analytical Chemist to support the AstraZeneca Catalysis Facility and develop techniques to improve process understanding. 

Alessandro Mantell: Hi all, thank you very much for tuning in for episode 7 of Mantell Associates Network. I am joined today by Dr Ross Burn. Ross is somebody that I have known now for probably 3 years. Ross is the CEO of a Process Chemistry, RND, CRO, which is based out in Cardiff in the UK. Ross is currently leading a business in CatSci which has roughly over 50 employees now and is growing rapidly. Ross, before we get started, thank you very much for coming onto Mantell Associates Network today. Where I want to begin is, being a CEO of an organisation, I know you have young children as well, you mentioned at the start that you have moved into the attic to try to manage the business. What is life like for you day to day, how is business, how is everything?

Dr. Ross T Burn: Thank you for calling me! Day to day at the moment, obviously mid pandemic, is a challenge, a challenge for all businesses. We have had to adjust, being a chemistry company and being practising scientists, all of my laboratory staff are still in operation. In the UK there is a lockdown and we managed to stay open throughout the whole lockdown period, which has been ongoing now for about 10 weeks. My colleagues who are not essential to the laboratory, are working from home and I have been banished to the loft to get some peace and quiet from my 3 year old. It’s about re-adjusting to working from home. I spend about 5 or 6 hours a day on Zoom or Teams and it is important to try and connect to my colleagues. At the same time try and make sure everyone in the company is connected to each other. So it’s a hybrid between still practising and working from home. 

Alessandro Mantell: Absolutely, I know that you are someone who would have spent a large amount of time in the office normally, in the lab or in the office, overseeing the business. You mentioned connecting with colleagues via zoom or team, how have you found that and how have you personally found working from home? 

Dr. Ross T Burn: It’s a challenge, I like to make that connection with people, it is now going to be a low touch, low travel normality. Being able to see your colleagues face to face is different so we are trying to understand their issues and challenges from day to day, we are trying to provide solutions for chemistry needs. To be able to connect in person is a bit more difficult, I think now I am getting used to using tools like zoom, which we are on right now, it’s just being able to adapt. One thing which is a challenge for a lot of people working from home is the work/life balance.

The kids in the UK are no longer at school so anyone who has kids at school has to balance that, looking after the children and working. You could have two parents working so it is very difficult to get that work life balance. We are trying to support everyone who has this challenge but also mentally as well. For example, people not being able to go and see friends and family is really challenging. It is about making sure that we have that kind of support and try to be as social as we can over the virtual conference offers that you can use. It’s a challenge for everyone and I think coming out of lockdown now, we will keep some of the benefits from working virtually, that flexible working and really cutting down on travel. This has actually been quite good for the environment but also the efficiency and effectiveness of our customer and partner relationships. 

Alessandro Mantell: Amazing. About the travel part, I mean this whole podcast, the first one I did was with Dietrich Bruchmann, the CEO of Nuvisan Pharma Services. The whole idea was that I would be going across the globe and meeting CEO’s and producing videos. I had this huge box that I was taking to bring everything with me but actually the idea of doing the podcast and changing it to this has been a huge benefit for us as well. The travel side and a lot of salespeople who I have spoken to have adapted not only to the employee side but also the client side, managing clients as well has completely changed it. For you as a whole and for the CatSci business, I have spoken to different people, some businesses have been hugely successful and some businesses have struggled and tried to push through this period. How has everything been going for you since COVID-19 and really CatSci as a business? 

Dr. Ross T Burn: Good question, I think for CatSci what we decided quite early on was not to push forward with our growth planning. We are a high growth company, growing at roughly 50% compound annual growth per annum. We decided to de-risk the business slightly and stopped investments in the short term. That is just to make sure we consolidate as a company and ensure that, the second wave or whatever comes in the future we are prepared for it. As a business, we are still very busy, lots of our projects have already started to be commissioned so we have just continued to execute on them.

We did find from a new sort of business perspective that some of our customers and prospective customers were again being cautious, and not making decisions but some were going full speed ahead. So there are definitely two camps and we are finding that the former camp, that were being a bit more hesitant, especially in the US, are starting to really push forward with projects now as well. I think our industry compared to others, they have this sort of V shaped recovery, many companies will be a U unfortunately or even L shaped so I think for us and our sector compared to many other sectors we are in, we are in a better, more resilient place. 

Alessandro Mantell: Amazing. What type of support are you doing and efforts really in terms of development against the medicine industry and inside the industry for COVID-19? 

Dr. Ross T Burn: We are working with innovative Pharma companies where they can repurpose there Anti-Virals. Being a process, research and development company we are looking at what we can do to make that chemical process to the Anti-Virals more efficient and effective. We are also trying to work locally in the UK, with the vaccine innovation team to see if there is anything we can do with regards to the components required for vaccines and the supply chains, some of them will require chemistry. We will be able to offer when it comes to that point, industrialisation of any technology and be able to support the chemistry side there. So it is very much supporting the industry as a whole and we are always here to help. 

Alessandro Mantell: That is absolutely huge and you touched on some of the changes that you had to adapt to, of course, video calls, with cutting down on investments. Which is what I think pretty much every company on the planet is doing at the moment. What other changes have you personally had to make, whether it is in your personal life or to the business of CatSci during this time period?

Dr. Ross T Burn: For the people in the laboratory we have to socially distance, 2-metres apart so we had to rearrange our offices. We had to cut the laboratory facilities in two with a virtual wall so we have two teams doing two shifts at the minute. That minimises contact between the two teams so we had to really think about our working practices to keep our staff safe and to minimise the potential for passing on the virus internally. Personally, I have just been trying to readjust with working from home and working as a virtual board, to make decisions and to continue the business as uninterrupted as possible.

I am a big believer that the pandemic is a black swan and what you want to make sure is that you come out the back end of it as positively and strongly as possible. We are looking at what we can do to transform our ways of working, more digital ways of transformation, how we can accelerate that digital transformation internally and for our customers as well. So we are looking at what we can do with digital platforms to be able to share data, we are actually going to see if we can try and create a community platform for process, RND and Pharmaceutical development. 

I think we need to try and evolve our best practises to be ready for any future black swans. I think compared to many businesses we were quite well prepared and that was because we actually did a risk assessment quite thoroughly as part of my research for the las t18 months. People believed that there was going to be a recession this year anyway so we had already thought out what our crisis plan was, if there was going to be a recession, what we were going to do. We came up with ways of working that we actually made plans of cost control of the business and we managed to evoke that contingency plan right from the start of March. So we were quite well prepared so my recommendation to all entrepreneurs and business owners is get yourself prepared for a crisis, for a black swan because they do come around and making swift decisions is always going to make you more resilient. 

Alessandro Mantell: It is amazing that you were thinking about that way beforehand because I think part of leading a business, if you’re an entrepreneur, part of setting up a company, being involved in that is you have to be thinking positively all of the time. I think almost with me personally, I will openly admit it, positive thinking, all of these types of situations, you think something like that is never going to happen and you get so busy in your day to day work and life that you don’t prepare for it. Luckily, in the job that we are doing, in recruitment, everybody has a laptop and a phone so we could work remotely, But speaking with people like yourself and leaders across CDMO and Pharma I am realising just how much work go in to not only maintaining business but also looking for the opportunities in it as well. From a staff perspective, I know you have touched on things that you have put in place, like zoom, how have you found it managing a business and managing all of your employees remotely? How have you adapted to all of those different things that are staff/employee related?

Dr. Ross T Burn: I think what you have to do is double down on empathy during this period, everyone is anxious, everyone is anxious for themselves, their health, their families health. There is a change to everyone’s personal situation, whether they have to work from home or in laboratories. People are nervous about using public transport, obviously going into public places to buy even essential goods like shopping. It is being able to support people’s well being, that is the most important thing. I think doubling down on empathy is definitely something that we do as a company and not push so much for growth. We are quite the ambitious company and we want it to help us on our growth journey. We have actually relaxed our target utilisation and using any spare capacity that we have to help everyone professionally develop to all become better scientists and professionals afterwards.   

Alessandro Mantell: You are the first person I have spoken with to have mentioned the word empathy, I’m not just saying this because you are on here but it is genuinely amazing to hear that. We have spoken with many many professionals across the market during a time like this. I have been interviewing for my team, who have just been let go. The 16th of March came and they were sacked out of the business and they had gone back to see if there was an opportunity for furlough and the employer still said no. I mean it is a time where you learn a lot about yourself, about the business and what type of company you work for. Working in recruitment, speaking to people across our team, day in and day out, we are seeing a lot of horror stories really. So it is really good to hear your kind of approach and the CatSci approach and how you have adapted to everything around that. 
Another thing that takes some adapting is sales and business development. Sales and business development is hard normally, travelling, doing the job itself takes guts, courage and hard work. During a time like this you would imagine it would be even more difficult. How have you found the market in terms of Sales and business development and how have you guys adapted to what is going on?

Dr. Ross T Burn: I think from March and April many businesses were closed to have conversations because they were focusing on their own risk mitigation plans and perhaps looking after their current projects. I think since the start of May we are really having great virtual meetings with prospective customers. We decided to offer a 360 virtual tour to showcase our facilities and to showcase our people so that has been live for about 4 or 5 weeks. We are working on version 3 at the moment, it is about still being able to showcase what we can do. I think actually many companies have rigid procurement and engagement processes for new business and lots of customers are evolving these as well now. Even if there is mitigation for a second wave, many innovative Pharma companies will have restricted travel for quite a long time. It will be business essential activities only because they want to protect the wellbeing of their staff. I think we will probably have to work digitally and virtually for at least another 12 months, people still have the projects to progress with so being able to make decisions and being able to select vendors, suppliers, generate sales for companies like myself still have to happen. I think everyone is adapting and evolving and we are making sure we are well placed to communicate and qualify if we are a good fit for any opportunities. 

Alessandro Mantell: Great, so with the virtual tour, just out of interest is it on your website or do you send it across to potential clients. How does that work? 

Dr. Ross T Burn: We send it across to potential clients, we haven’t got it on the website yet so if anyone wants a virtual tour they just have to contact us, via social media. It’s a bit different, it is a proper 360 virtual tour, we had someone come in with a camera, obviously a 360 camera,  go around all of the facility. In the video we are actually stopping and talking to key stakeholders on zoom, so they will be talking through work flows and such so it is about a 30 minute, 40 minute tour of the facilities. It has been a bit of an undertaking but it looks good, 9 of my colleagues, 10 in total are doing a piece to the camera so it has been an experience. 

Alessandro Mantell: You have everyone behind the lens inside CatSci. Something like that is actually really good if you are looking to bring people into the business, in terms of recruitment, in terms of staff, who aren’t able to come to your site. I know of course you can have zoom calls, which is actually how I am hiring for my business and how we are encouraging a lot of our clients to hire. But for you to go check out our website or we can send you across a virtual tour to what facilities are like so people get more of a feel of the business is actually a really really good idea. It lines up nicely to what has your stance been on recruitment during this time period, in CatSci. How have you adapted to the situation? 

Dr. Ross T Burn: As I mentioned, we went into this cross controlling zone at the start of lockdown since early March. We have now relaxed that and we are actively recruiting and actively hiring across 3 different functions across the organisation. So scientifically, for a laboratory and our enabling functions, finance and HR. We have relaxed some of our controlling measures to ensure that we strengthen as quickly as possible. We want to get back on track as quickly as we can so that we can meet our target and continue with the great growth journey that we are on. 

Alessandro Mantell: Amazing, what’s going on in the world right now with COVID-19, the pandemic is absolutely crazy. The key point is it could happen again, they are talking about a second wave coming. What kind of procedures and processes have you and CatSci set up in place to adapt to that and do you think you are better prepared this time round for that to happen? 

Dr. Ross T Burn: If we look back at previous pandemics, the second waves can be significantly worse than the first wave so we have all got to be prepared for the eventuality of a second wave. Obviously the virus itself is not very well understood, we don’t know if it is going to be seasonal like the flu virus and we may not get a spike until the back end of the year. However, we are making sure that we are socially distanced and if anyone has to travel publicly then we would advocate that they would have to wear a mask and make sure everyone is provided with hand gel etc. Essentially low touch, low travel is what we will advocate, business essential only for travelling. Making sure that everyone can minimise contact with people whilst working is what we will do and making sure we will stay abreast of good scientific information.

In the UK they are looking to test, track and trace so we will make sure that we are rapidly responding to the testing, tracking and tracing. We will also probably look and see if there is a robust private option for testing antibodies. This would be to see if you have had COVID-19 and to see if there is scientific data to backup that you have some level of immunity. We want to relieve peoples anxiety so we would offer that as a service from CatSci, to our staff and we may even extend that to other people, stakeholders that we interact with as well. We have to be very well prepared for it but the take home for me is low touch, low travel and this is with us to stay for the moment.

As a company, we are only a small company, soon to be 50 people. Our travel budget estimate is about £10,000 a month so we were able to redeploy that money into other parts of the business by working virtually. So not only can you be more efficient and effective with time but you can be a lot greener. We have as a business quite high green metricises for our customers, processes but also for our own practises. So being able to reduce our carbon footprint significantly is actually a great thing. I am hoping coming out of the other end that many of the sectors, not just the Pharmaceutical sector, will be more responsive to reducing international and national travel and doing things more through virtual platforms. I don’t think we want to have de-globalisation but being able to minimise travel is only going to benefit. 

Alessandro Mantell: Absolutely and you mentioned about the £10,000 you spend on travel on average per month in CatSci and you are now investing into different parts of the business. It made me think, with that money you are investing into different parts of the business, with all of the things you have set up inside of the company, with everything has been put into place. Listening to all of the risk assessments and being careful in regards to staff, making sure that you are set up for a second wave. Do you think your business has gotten stronger because of this? 

Dr. Ross T Burn: I like the term anti-fragile, it comes back to the black swan, you want to try and be better, more resilient. Coming out of a crisis, coming out of an existential threat, how can you be better trying to come out of it. I do genuinely think it will be V shaped for our industry but how can we come out of it better and stronger. I think we are definitely on that path and certainly up in my loft at the moment. When I have time, I think about strategy and how we can evolve our best practises to be able to capitalise on opportunities. There will be opportunities in the marketplace, things are changing, practises are changing, the way we do business is changing so we can captalise on that.

Alessandro Mantell: Amazing, one more point that I would like to cover, you said some absolutely brilliant stuff throughout all of this. What piece of advice would you give to other business leaders and entrepreneurs right now? 

Dr. Ross T Burn: The one thing I would say is, try and reimagine your business, I think what is happening is essentially accelerating 10 years into the future in regards to technology. Whether it be through using artificial intelligence, machine learning, digital platforms being able to captalise on the digital transformation. So reimagining your business, I am lucky enough to be part of the Goldman Sachs alumni for the 10,000 small businesses in the UK. It is a course I went on last year and I would recommend it to any aspiring entrepreneurs and business leaders.

It is amazing how businesses have pivoted, that have had problems, like hospitality businesses or businesses that have essentially been shut down. They had to think what can I do so they may have created online marketplaces or they have actually done something completely different. There is a gin distillery making hand sanitiser to create revenue and they had to move, rather than obviously having 90% of their revenue being from pubs and through restaurants and trades they had to move to selling business to consumers. So they had to move from b to c doing these pivots and continuously trying to reimagine. 

I am a bit of a strategy nerd, there is a second bounce which is when you think about where you believe business is going to be in 5, 10 years time. Most people when they align their business, align it to the first bounce and actually follow current market trends. It is a bit like everyone is chasing that football and you want to be the striker or hanging outside the 18 yard box to score the goal. So you have to think about where business is going to be and where #I can create value, what are the market’s needs, what are our customers’ pains and gains going to be in 5 or 10 years. Most people just focus on the now but what I think will allow people to continuously grow and evolve is to be creating the trends rather than following them. I think that’s where people should really have their headspace. 

Alessandro Mantell: Amazing, thank you so much for that and about the trends and about trying to reimagine your company and looking into the future. There’s part of me, talking to you that thinks that maybe COVID-19 has sped up what was naturally going to have to happen in business anyway for a lot of pharmaceutical companies and even for headhunting firms, any companies. My uncle owns a business in transportation which has naturally, I believe, been struggling a little bit more like a lot of companies. I know he is thinking of ideas to think into the future but it does make you think why was nobody doing this sort of stuff beforehand, zoom calls but that is it. Ross, an absolute pleasure having you on today, thank you so much for coming on and I will talk to you very very soon.   

If you missed Dr. Ross T burn original podcast and would like to listen, please click here!

Mantell Associates is a specialist Pharmaceutical and Life Sciences Recruitment organisation founded by CEO Alessandro Mantell in January 2019. If you would like to find out more about how we support finding you the right talent or the right opportunity, contact us on +44 (0)20 3854 7700.