Interview: Voyage of discovery

Published: 13-Sep-2013

A degree in science does not automatically lead to a job in a lab. Maireadh Pedersen described to Hilary Ayshford how her meandering career path took her from biochemistry to finance, from engineering to business development and then to running Quay Pharma

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Maireadh Pedersen, Chief Executive of Quay Pharma, is not a typical CEO, and this is not just because she is a woman in a chiefly male-dominated industry. Not only does she not have an office, but she also doesn’t even have her own desk, preferring to ‘hot desk’ at Quay’s plant just outside Chester in North Wales, spending time in every department and maintaining a hands-on approach to all aspects of the business.

Nor does Pedersen have a background in pure science. Although she started off studying biochemistry, she switched subjects half way through the degree course. ‘I thought: “actually I don’t know if I like science any more”, so I moved over to finance. I was planning to finish my degree and become a tax inspector or something similarly exotic,’ she recalls.

However, chance led her to pick up a copy of New Scientist, and a tiny advert offering the opportunity to study for a PhD with a company engaged in tablet technology caught her eye. This allowed Pedersen to stay with science but to combine it with engineering. It was also her introduction to Mike Rubenstein, one of the owners of Quay, which ultimately led to her current position.

Five years at Manesty, which took Pedersen into technical sales, was followed by eight years at Colorcon, running the excipient and film coating business for Europe/Middle East/Africa, and two years at Teraview, a high tech company based in Cambridge that was looking to position its technology for the pharmaceutical industry.

Sixteen years of business development experience in an international marketing environment, dealing with the supply of analytical tools and equipment as well as formulation technologies for the pharmaceutical industries, made her an obvious choice when Rubenstein was looking for someone to take on a business development role at Quay four years ago. In 2012 she was asked to take on the day-to-day running of the company.

A scientific degree is great, because it still allows you to have a very broad career choice at the end of it

‘I have gone from science through multiple guises and ended up running Quay. I like the scientific side but not the detailed science, so I get to keep a foot in the science camp but I enjoy the business side,’ she says. ‘A scientific degree is great, because it still allows you to have a very broad career choice at the end of it.’

This is a view Pedersen is keen to convey to the next generation of students, particularly the girls. ‘I like to promote science to women and show that you can do a scientific degree without ending up having to work in a lab. Every single department at Quay has a scientist in it – whether that is finance, QA, project management or purchasing – they all have science backgrounds but they have moved into different spheres,’ she emphasises.

‘I don’t know why women don’t seem to want to do science. One factor is that they have stopped doing individual sciences in schools and only do a general science course. I went to an all-girls convent school that was very science-focused but I think that was quite unusual.

‘I also think people perceive science to be poorly paid – and maybe it is in this country – or maybe they think they are going to end up in a lab or a manufacturing environment.’

Pedersen will have a chance to spread the word in November this year when she will participate in a Science Week organised by Glyndwr University to promote science to the public and local schools. ‘They are focused on bringing more women into science and they have asked me to present a series of courses throughout the day on my background, what I’ve done, what I’m doing now, what we do here, as well as where science can take you.’

As a relatively young company itself – it will be 11 years old this year – Quay has a policy of employing young scientists, and the majority of the workforce are in their mid-20s. ‘Mike Rubenstein likes to feel that we can support young people and bring them into a company and grow them,’ Pedersen explains.

Because we are a small company we need to move quite quickly – we can’t have people who sit around waiting to be told what to do

It can be difficult, however, finding enough suitably qualified people. ‘Because we are a small company we need to move quite quickly – we can’t have people who sit around waiting to be told what to do. If people come to Quay and then leave, I think it is probably because they need a more structured, large company environment where they will have a defined role. Here you have to be more flexible and hands-on.’

Quay offers opportunities to a lot of students in many different ways: from 15 year-olds on a week’s work experience, to graduates studying for an MSc or working towards a PhD. The company works closely with several local schools and nearby colleges and universities, such as Deeside College of Further Education attended by 16–18 year-olds, and the universities of Chester, Glyndwr, John Moores, Bangor and Manchester.

‘We do a lot to try and develop younger people. It is quite exciting, it feels as if we are putting something back,’ Pedersen says. ‘Also it is quite hard to find good scientific people for our type of industry; a pharmacist, for example, is not trained in formulation, so it gives us the opportunity to bring somebody in and talk to them.

‘Maybe they only stay with us for three months over the summer, but they get a feel for us and what we do, we get a feel for them, and if they want to they can then apply to come and work for us the following year.’

Curriculum Vitae
2012 to presentCEO of Quay Pharmaceuticals
2009 to 2012Head of Business Development, Quay Pharmaceuticals
2007 to 2009VP with responsibility for Pharmaceutical Business Development at Teraview
1998 to 2007Market Development manager (emea) at Colorcon
1992 to 1998Trials and marketing manager at Manesty

Since Pedersen joined Quay, the company has expanded rapidly. The past three years have seen an annual growth rate of approximately 30% and the headcount has almost doubled from 22 to 40 people, with recruitment of further people in business development, project management, manufacturing and analytical science still underway.

Most of the growth has been organic – repeat business from existing customers and new business generated by word of mouth. This, together with the company’s expertise and reputation for formulation, has helped it to flourish despite the economic downturn. ‘There are actually not many companies throughout Europe that focus just on formulation, so we are in a niche area and I think that is what is helping us grow and build our reputation,’ Pedersen suggests.

Despite the company’s relatively small size, it has a broad geographical spread of customers across the world: Europe, Japan, Israel and both coasts of America. ‘We don’t work with the large multinationals,’ she points out. ‘We tend to work with the small and medium sized enterprises – they need a lot more technical support and that is why Quay fits in well with them. Probably 80% of our business is new chemical entities because we work with these SMEs.

‘The big companies are now relying on smaller companies to find the NCEs. Companies like AstraZeneca aren’t actually wanting to formulate the product, they are just supporting these smaller companies.’

We work with a lot of companies who do not have the money to take the product through to clinical trial, so our turnround of projects is almost dictated by their access to funding

The problem with this is that to some extent Quay’s growth is affected by the access to funding available to these small companies. ‘We work with a lot of companies who do not have the money to take the product through to clinical trial. So our turnround of projects is almost dictated by their access to funding and that is still quite slow in many cases.’

Quay also undertakes reformulation of products for new indications, as well as reformulating solid dosage forms into liquids or adding modified or extended release properties. Another of the company’s strengths is amorphous solid dispersions and lipophilic systems to improve bioavailability.

Although most of its work is in solid dosage forms, Quay is putting significant efforts into developing innovative drug delivery platforms, particularly with a view to meeting the needs of the geriatric and pediatric markets for formulations that are easier to swallow. It was recently awarded a Knowledge Transfer Partnership grant with Glyndwr University worth £107,000 for the ‘Development of new dosage form technology for the administration of drugs’. The aim of the project will be to use hydrocolloidal technology to develop a matrix suspension that is suitable for being spoon- or device-fed to patients who find it difficult to maintain an appropriate drug regime, thereby improving compliance.

Other innovative delivery platforms under development include thermoreversible gels that are liquid until they come into contact with the skin where they form a gel in situ, creating a barrier over the wound but also able to be washed off. And in conjunction with the The New York Blood Center and funded by the Gates Foundation, the company developed a pessary: a tablet that formed a gel to deliver a microbiocide. It was intended for women in Africa to give them protection against AIDS when condom use was not acceptable.

Pedersen finds it frustrating that the multinational pharma companies do not seem to be interested in taking forward drugs for relatively small markets.

‘I can understand it in some ways because obviously they need a return on their investment,’ she says. ‘In their mission statements most pharma companies say that their aim is to develop drugs for patients in need, but what it comes down to is that they are in it to make money.

‘I try not to think too much about it. A business is there to make money and the shareholders are only putting their money in to make money, so return on investment is what will drive any decision.’

That is not the case with Quay. The company is owned by two families and all profit goes back into the business. ‘Being family-owned makes it a nice company to work for. It also means that we can make decisions based on what we want to do and what we believe in,’ Pedersen says.

In their mission statements most pharma companies say that their aim is to develop drugs for patients in need, but what it comes down to is that they are in it to make money

One decision that is currently pending is whether to increase potent molecule containment capacity at the Chester site as part of a project to build new GMP capacity. The company is currently split across two sites, with analytical and formulation capabilities in Chester and manufacturing in Bromborough, near Liverpool, which it currently shares with its sister company Chester Medical Solutions.

Quay Pharma views its job as not simply finding an effective method of drug delivery, it is also to find the most effective method possible for each new product. For this reason a bespoke approach is taken to every project – a university department researching new drug applications has vastly different needs from a major manufacturer developing a new chemical entity.

‘Everything we do is on a fee-for-service basis. We don’t charge royalties; we carry out the development work and then pass it back to the client together with the IP rights,’ Pedersen says. ‘For us our raison d’être is formulation.’

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