Navigating the uncertain road of entrepreneurship

Bill Enright, CEO at Barinthus Biotherapeutics, reveals the philosphy that built his biotech business
Bill Enright
Bill Enright

This year marks the year of the dragon in Chinese culture. The dragon symbolises nobility, good fortune, and vitality and presents a year of auspicious opportunities. Against the backdrop of 2023, I’d say this is a fortune well worth getting behind.

The past year has been difficult for most companies, but for business leaders it has meant summoning inner strength and resilience. If you’re an entrepreneur, give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve taken an ambitious and courageous leap to launch and build a company during what has been a challenging economic climate for life sciences and biotech startups. The post-pandemic financial downturn saddled us with the impacts of inflation, volatile supply chains, and a stagnant venture funding environment. Research and developing innovation are a risky business even in the best financial conditions, so give yourself credit for tackling this important work during a time of uncertainty.

Our Oxford-based biotech company, Barinthus Biotherapeutics, is a growing, publicly traded developer of novel immunotherapies for the treatment of chronic infectious diseases, autoimmunity and cancer. However, like other industries, we also felt the sting of the financial downturn, which led to a year of highs and lows in 2023. We’ve learned many valuable lessons since our launch in 2016 that helped us weather the storm and stay on our trajectory of growth. Many of these lessons are still new to me, even after 34 years in the life sciences business.

By sharing some of my experiences, I hope to help current entrepreneurs navigate obstacles, weather new storms, increase competitiveness, and put their companies on a robust path to success in the years ahead.

Invest in People

Many leaders look at building teams as a function of talent acquisition, filling key leadership and management roles throughout your organization. This is an important component of company building and execution. But I challenge you to flip this focus around to one that is less about headcount, and more focused on investing in people and their success.

I try to live by this motto – it epitomises the culture we try to create at Barinthus Bio. Having the right corporate culture is incredibly important to me personally. Our people are our special ingredient and we have worked hard to establish and nurture our company culture – this has been a huge and integral part of my role as CEO. We’ve persevered in bringing open, transparent, and respectful communication – where we can talk to each other with honesty, integrity, and sincerity – to the entire business. We’re slightly unique at Barinthus, we have a flat organization model that focuses on three components: science, transparency, and communication. Our collaborative approach means that our people are empowered to do their jobs.

I have grown to value the ability of effective communications to enable quick decision making at the right level within our organisation. This has also had a massive impact on our ability to speed the development of important programmes. We operate in an industry where we know, by historical averages, that 90% of the products developed will fail. What this tells us is to cherish the small victories and to pay attention to the corporate culture on the journey.

As part of this, it’s extremely important to me that we balance our workforce, from C-suite to those just starting out in their careers. Gender is crucial in our industry, but also making sure we’re capturing the right talent to support the diversity of ideas and perspectives from different backgrounds and ethnicities to drive the very best in innovation. Our recruitment process is rigorous and we’re fortunate to be able to tap into talent pools on both sides of the Atlantic to make sure we’re fostering the best in diversity, equality, and inclusion. As part of this, alongside our flat structure, we also ensure equal pay and take a lot of pride in looking after our employees, driving good work by good people who are committed to improving lives and helping the industry ecosystem.

The bottom line is that your corporate culture can make or break you - good companies get funded because they check off one of the key elements that investors seek: a high performing, dedicated and empowered team of people.

Stay true to your vision

The second thing that occupies my time as CEO is understanding how we can responsibly push immediate projects across the finish line while at the same time managing our existing platforms to develop therapies that can address unmet clinical needs.

The past year has been challenging, especially for smaller stage companies looking to stretch capital and secure small wins across their pipeline. At Barinthus Bio, we have faced similar obstacles. In our industry, there are many more opportunities than we have resources for. This means that using our resources efficiently and effectively is key – how do we get the biggest bang for our buck? How can we improve success rates and make an impact for the people who need it quicker?

This was highlighted during the emergence of COVID in 2019. Our CSO at the time, Tom Evans, vocally advocated for our attention to be on the emerging situation in China. While I was initially skeptical, worried that it would distract from our core focus, I agreed to get the vector to seed stock stage in the event the outbreak continued to get worse.

As we quickly saw COVID spread and rapidly turn into a global pandemic, everyone had the same mission to get as much vaccine to as many people as quickly as possible. So, we put our foot to the pedal and started working as quickly as we could, collaborating with the University of Oxford to construct, test, and manufacture the vaccine. We were in a good position at the time, because we were already working on another Coronavirus vaccine for MERS, which had similar antigens.

We partnered with AstraZeneca, a big pharmaceutical with the reach and distribution to make the vaccine as widely available as possible. This then allowed us to return to our main focus of developing our therapeutic programs with the principles of utilizing resources effectively.

The various transitions we have been through as a company – from the COVID vaccine to our initial public offering in 2021 and more recently company rebrand from Vaccitech to Barinthus Bio – remind me of two things.

One, never stand still and remember why you’re here in the first place. Don’t lose sight of the vision that brought you to this point on your journey. Seizing unique opportunities, supporting collaborations, and fostering creativity are all great learnings for future growth.

Secondly, create a robust pipeline, build a high-performing, winning team, and achieve the sustainable funding that can support your vision and manage your business through change. Don’t give up – dig your heels in, be creative and open to new and different ideas to create real value for your business.

Good people drive good results and good wins

Prior to joining Vaccitech, I had been in the biotech space for over 30 years so for me, the next stage of my career was a pivotal point to reset and focus on what matters most. I wanted to bring my experience and passion to a company that aligned with my goals and experience, and I wanted to find a company at the right stage of development where I could bring that experience to bear. My job as a biotech CEO at times can be very similar to that of a salesman. I know, “If I'm going to sell this, I have to believe in the science, tech, and the people, culture.”

I’ve been through some very tough times and have done some interesting things in the past to keep companies moving both professionally and personally. I’ve gone a year without salary. I took a second mortgage out on my house. I have had to be savvy with tax breaks. If you believe in your technology, your vision, you will find creative ways to bring money in to keep the company afloat – even if it’s just enough to bridge the gap to your next milestone.

What I’ve learned through all of this is to always raise money when you can, even if you don’t need it. And then, be smart with it – recognize the difference and key factors to preserving funds and lengthening your cash runway. It’s all about the execution – good people drive good results, and good results yield good wins.

Leading with love and vision

Last but certainly not least – you need to love what you do. I love the day-to-day variety – my work changes every day depending on what is needed and juggling many, many things is right in the sweet spot of what I like. It's about overcoming obstacles and recognizing that there's always a solution if you bring the best minds to the table. That's been one of my key strategies: bringing in smart people and making sure they have the right resources to do their jobs.

By concentrating on our people, vision, and how we’re trying to make the world better, we can see a positive shift in business mentality no matter what is happening in the wider economic environment. Positivity in the business world will fuel a more confident economy and will eventually open up new opportunities for those entrepreneurs and company leaders true to their vision.

Written by
Bill Enright