Dr Sam Cohen
After reading Natural Sciences and gaining a PhD in Biophysical Chemistry, Dr Samuel Cohen (2005, Trinity) became a Research Fellow at St John’s. He has since co-founded Wren Therapeutics, a spin-off company from the University, and maintains a close relationship with St John’s as its Entrepreneur-In-Residence. Read on for his career reflections, his advice for budding entrepreneurs and his approach to running a business during lockdown.
Hello Sam! Tell us a bit about your academic and professional backgrounds, and how they intertwine.
I read Natural Sciences (Physics) before studying for a PhD under the supervision of the late Master of St John’s, Professor Sir Christopher Dobson. Chris convinced me to join his research group and later, as a Research Fellow, his College, where I focused on studying a class of medical disorders called protein misfolding diseases. These diseases include well-known neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, but also conditions such as type-2 diabetes.
Working with the diverse group of scientists that Chris had assembled, I adapted methods from my physical science background to study the biological pathways underlying these diseases. As we started to understand how the diseases worked, we realised that we could potentially use our new methods to identify and optimise molecules to act as new medicines.
For reasons which we might touch on later, however, we soon realised that the only way to make this happen was to do it ourselves. With that in mind, I set about gaining some ‘business’ experience, starting at The Boston Consulting Group, and later as an investor at a venture capital firm, before circling back and founding Wren Therapeutics together with Chris and our other co-founders. Wren is a drug discovery company based on our scientific research here at St John’s and at the Department of Chemistry, whose mission is to eliminate all protein misfolding diseases through the development of new and effective treatments, and my day job is running the company as CEO. Almost four years later, we have a team of nearly 40 employees, mostly based in our Cambridge laboratory, and we also have offices in Lund, Sweden and Boston, USA.
Briefly outline your role as Entrepreneur-In-Residence at St John’s.
St John’s has been hugely supportive of my somewhat unusual career path, particularly during my time as a Research Fellow at the College. After transitioning to my role as Wren CEO, it seemed fitting to find some way that I could help others thinking about taking the same path.
The central aim of the Entrepreneur-In-Residence position is to demystify entrepreneurship for any Johnian who might be considering it, and to offer support for those already on their journey. The careers programmes at Cambridge make it easy to access options such as banking, consulting, law and professional services, but entrepreneurship remains enigmatic to many.
As Entrepreneur-in-Residence, my role is to offer both ad-hoc advice to any member of St John’s and also to organise more formal events and programmes. In terms of advice, I’ve had great discussions with many Johnians — for example, I’m helping to get a new cancer drug discovery company off the ground right now. We also kicked off our events programme recently by hosting a discussion with the founders of Innocent Drinks (who are Johnians of course). Pandemic permitting, we hope to have more activities soon.
My central aim as Entrepreneur-In-Residence is to demystify entrepreneurship for any Johnian considering it and to offer support for those already on their journey.
What attracted you to take the entrepreneurial route and found a spin-off company?
It was a mix of frustration, obligation, and excitement at what could be. To me, what has always been most exciting about science is the ability for our discoveries to re-shape the world around us. And what could be more exciting than discovering a new medicine that could change lives? At the time, our fundamental research programme was going very well, and we strongly believed that the results could enable the discovery of new treatments. We soon realised, however, that simply publishing our results — even in high profile journals — wasn’t enough. There was no-one out there who was going to read our publications and use our breakthroughs to develop drugs, at least not within a reasonable timeframe or with the ability to apply our methods as well as we could. We concluded that the only way to do it was to do it ourselves, and haven’t looked back since.
There was a time when, as well as running Wren Therapeutics, you were also a Research Fellow at St John’s and a director of an investment company. How did you split your time so that each of your ventures received the support it needed?
It does sound a bit unusual when you put it like that! In reality, these activities were symbiotic. As a Research Fellow, I was continuing to advance our fundamental science to better enable drug discovery, while Wren’s early work was focused on industrialising this technology for use in drug discovery. My investment role was also connected — the firm I worked for was the initial seed investor of Wren Therapeutics, and my role involved helping them with other investments, which was also hugely helpful in building additional experience.
What new pressures and challenges have emerged as a result of running your business during the lockdown? How have you dealt with these?
The challenges have been many and varied — ranging from the critical tasks of keeping our lab open and operating safely, and mitigating the impact of key suppliers shutting down, to smaller things like our rubbish collection being stopped. It’s been very hectic, and the start of the lockdown was particularly challenging. The key ingredient in overcoming these challenges has been the commitment and dedication of our team, who have moved mountains to keep everything going. The University (in particular, the Department of Chemistry) has also been incredibly supportive.
More generally, finding new ways to communicate has been very important. It’s easy to underestimate the value of unscheduled discussions in a fast-moving research environment. I went from speaking to certain people several times a day — popping by their desk, catching up at the coffee machine — to having to schedule meetings to stay connected. It’s been a challenge to find the right approach to replace those informal discussions, but we’ve all learned to adapt and my diary is busier than ever before with lots of Zoom meetings!
Careers are long, and people shouldn’t view entrepreneurship as a profession in the traditional sense.
How do you manage the diverse needs of your employees during quarantine?
There were three main things that we did. The first was setting an important baseline by getting the message out loud and clear at the start of the pandemic that the physical and mental wellbeing of our people is top-of-mind for our company. Everything else comes second. Alongside our health & safety policies, we have an equally important policy for all our staff: under no circumstances should anyone ever do anything that they do not feel fully comfortable with. If you don’t want to come into the lab, even with all the precautions we’ve put in place, that’s absolutely fine, and the only consequence will be you receiving our full support.
Once that baseline was in place, the second important point was personal communication. Everyone has reacted differently to this situation and it’s important to spend time understanding and respecting how each individual is feeling, and asking what we can do to help. Although it doesn’t sound like much (until you multiply by 40!), I aim to have a 1:1 catchup call with every member of our team roughly once a month to check in on how everyone is doing and see what more we can do both in and out of work. The output can be big (eg we need to re-organise the lab rota) or small (eg Sainsburys is sold out of all fruit and veg, can you help?*). Finally, maintaining a sense of community has helped. From regular all-company calls to ‘virtual’ pub drinks (on us), it’s important that we try to maintain the strong team spirit that underpins our company’s culture.
*Answer: yes, we sent all our staff a fresh fruit and veg box from The Cambridge Fruit Company
What key advice would you offer to Johnians looking to take their first steps on an entrepreneurial path?
Try to speak to people who’ve done it — it’s not as mysterious as it seems. If you can find someone very experienced to help, as a participant, mentor, or occasional advisor, then even better. If you don’t know anyone or want to talk, contact me.
I’d also remind people that careers are long, and they shouldn’t view entrepreneurship as a profession in the traditional sense. It’s perfectly possible to jump between entrepreneurship and more traditional roles.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
If anyone wants to get in touch, please do!