As one of our first cohort of entrepreneurs-in-residence at the ICR, Heather King is breaking new ground – but that’s something she has been doing her entire career.
A commercial and business leader, she has extensive experience leading boards and senior management teams in therapeutic, medical device and digital health companies.
Heather’s work at the ICR focuses on building up confidence and awareness amongst scientists of how to navigate the commercial side of research – opening doors to a world which can be quite alien, as well as male-dominated.
She might support researchers to craft grant applications to increase a project's commercial or translational potential, or explore options to create spin-out companies or develop commercial services – encouraging them to think of their work not just in terms of the science, but also in the real world context as a product or technology.
But perhaps most valuable is the insight Heather brings as a leader who has scaled the heights in industry, from working at major pharmaceutical companies such as Roche, to setting up her own management consultancy delivering strategic planning for international companies looking to get a foothold in the UK, and to leading small UK biotechs, medical device and spin-out companies.
Having clarity on where you want to be
Looking back at her career to date, Heather reflects on the importance of thinking ahead and having clarity on where she wanted to be – from carrying out a MBA to enable her transition into the commercial side of research, to reacting to opportunities that came up. Some of the opportunities Heather was able to take came about because she had told those around her about the direction she wanted to go with her career.
She says: “It’s really important to think about where you want to go next – and what you can do to help make that happen – you can’t just wait to be asked. It’s a question I’m always interested to find out from candidates when I’m interviewing them – where do you see yourself in X years?”
The help of others on the way up was crucial – and often led to valuable experience, for example when she was approached by an investor to become a Board member. This is one of the reasons why Heather gives a lot of time and energy back now through various mentoring roles – including her entrepreneur-in-residence role for the ICR.
Embracing your differences
Heather describes often being the only woman in the management team and in the Board on her way up – although she believes this is starting to shift now. She says: “At first I found being the only woman a bit more challenging but my father said ‘Isn’t that great, you bring a different perspective’ and he was right.
When you have a group of similar characters, there is a risk that a discussion merges into a groupthink. For me, it became liberating. I thought: ‘I’m already different, so let’s make that a positive.”
She believes strongly that women can bring a different style from men and a different management approach – often more collegiate and value-based – all of which is crucial to a commercially successful mindset. This is backed up by research, with a series of studies showing that female founded companies are generating higher returns for venture capitalists.
She says: “The world has changed – as a society I think we are moving towards a more value-based approach. To that end, we aren’t just accommodating women anymore, we are celebrating their success and what they bring to the workplace.”
Making peace with your work-life balance
Heather is also frank, but positive, about the impact of raising a family whilst excelling in your career.
“Having children does not preclude you from achieving success. Build a team or environment around you who will support you in the way you need. The pandemic has changed everyone’s attitude to work-life balance, and the reality for many people will be this juggling act between work and home – we can’t as a society pretend it’s not there.
“Childcare is a challenge, but make peace with knowing you’ll work it out when you reach the next stage and don’t spend too long worrying about things that haven’t happened yet. By the time you reach that stage, things will have evolved and you will have evolved. There will be a way forward – things work out because they have to.”
She also has some consolation for working parents: “having children makes you ruthlessly efficient – you’ll produce some of your best work.”
Build your confidence and hone your mindset
For Heather, putting in the time to hone your mindset is the single most important thing for someone to do, when looking to expand out their comfort zone and enter a new field or stage in their career journey.
For a researcher wanting to work more with industry, she advises starting with simple steps. These can include attending seminars and reading articles so the language and commercial way of working seeps into your way of thinking, building networks or awareness of key players –making commercialisation part of your mindset, so that you are ready when an opportunity presents itself.
She describes how eventually, “your brain will start to recognise and be open to the right opportunities, because you have already sown the seeds.”
“Never be afraid to ask a question – people like to be asked their opinion on matters. And don’t forget that the people you meet on your way up will also be the same people you meet on your way down – so treat everyone the way you want to be treated yourself.”
And for women especially she adds: “Women so often underestimate how good they are. Accept there will be a confidence gap. Acknowledge it – give yourself permission to believe that there may even be a gap between what you would like to do and what you think you’d like to do. You are more capable than you think you are. Put yourself out there – and adapt and pivot as needed.
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“And remember that every failure is part of the journey. Reframe it as learning and don’t wait to be ready – by that point you’ll be feeling frustrated at where you are. Hone that courage by doing stuff outside your comfort zone – a couple of small things every day – and get used to feeling uncomfortable. Who knows where it might get you?”