As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post-COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Graham Mills.
Graham Mills is the co-founder and Managing Director of techspert.io. From an academic career in pancreatic cancer chemotherapy resistance at the University of Cambridge, Graham went on to work in R&D and venture capital before realizing the power that precision-matched primary insights can have in driving global innovation, especially in the healthcare sector.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My childhood in Ireland was largely spent exploring the outdoors, which sparked a lifelong interest in nature and science. It led to my career beginning in academia where I focused on the study of hidden ‘codes’ in genetics and cures for diseases and continued with the Cancer Research UK (CRUK) Ph.D. program at Cambridge University, where I worked on exploration into pancreatic cancer chemo resistance.
Life science is an area where primary research is crucial to progress and it became clear that academic knowledge was incredibly slow to transfer into the business world where it could be put to use. Here, I realized, was a business opportunity for a technology solution that enabled organizations to gain the insight they needed to reduce risk and, simply put, make better decisions.
In 2015, this led to the formation of Biotechspert — in collaboration with co-founder Dave Holden-White — which later became techspert.io.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Dave and I knew our business had a problem to solve. How do we speed up knowledge transfer from academic minds into the business community? The mistake we made initially was following the model of traditional expert networks (companies that connect organizations with experts) by building a private social network for the biotech industry.
People joined our network because they supported its mission, not because they thought it would work! Before we knew it, we had 300 people on a database and felt on top of the world…until we realized that competitors had 700,000+ listings and we weren’t even in the game!
Furthermore, we couldn’t attract customers that would pay for access to this hive of expert connections and insight. We tried everything — we offered the service for free and even offered to pay companies to use it! In the end, we learned not to be a follower — we needed to change the game completely.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
George Orwell’s 1984 may not be the most uplifting of books, but it’s a profound read that continues to be relevant 70 years on.
As we enter an age where media narratives and disinformation campaigns can have such major effects on how society functions, I find the protagonist’s search for truth resonates more than ever.
Access to accurate information right now is often not a given, but a luxury. When information, and how we act upon it, can have such a huge impact on how companies grow and make decisions, enter and leave markets, create and cut jobs, it’s obvious how important it is that the information we access is true and accurate.
This book motivated my professional commitment to improving access to knowledge and providing a source of objective, powerful insights to all. Using 1984 as a template for how society can develop when objectivity and truth are not prioritized, you can clearly appreciate the incentive behind techspert.io!
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
We had a clear vision from day one: to speed the transfer of knowledge from academia to industry. Our game-changing artificial intelligence (AI)-powered deep search technology was — and still is — our competitive edge. It makes our service faster, more precise, and better able to meet the demands of clients wanting to access primary research, from one-to-one consultations to research panels and focus groups.
Having said that, we are never so fixed on our vision that we lose the flexibility to embrace and adapt to changes around us. I believe that this is the key to our resilience and success. We never sit back and say, “That’s it, guys, we’ve cracked it!” Our purpose remains constant, but we are determined that our business will remain agile so that we stay relevant and effective in our space.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
“Never stop pivoting” has become a company mantra and guiding principle. It keeps us on our toes and helps us all to ensure we maintain the awareness, agility, and responsiveness to adapt our business to new conditions.
If all the social and economic implications of the corona virus have taught us anything, it is that this agility is paramount. Businesses that haven’t adapted or responded to the changing environment — new opportunities, new policies and regulations, and new ways of working — have probably already felt the consequences.
Thank you for all that. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family-related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I appreciate that there are a lot of people that will have faced much bigger challenges during the pandemic than myself.
Many will identify, however, with the struggle of social separation from loved ones. As I grow older, spending more time with my parents, in particular, has become more and more of a priority. I want to enjoy all the time I can learning from those who pulled me, kicking and screaming, through my teenage years!
The real challenge of this pandemic for me, and families everywhere, is that seeing parents or elderly acquaintances in person is one of the riskiest activities we can do. So, navigating a period of global chaos without being able to surround yourself in person with those closest to you, weathering the storm together, can be gut-wrenching.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The biggest work-related impact for us, as with many other businesses, has been the adaptation to working from home (WFH).
Luckily, technology businesses often are — or should be — ahead of the curve here. Our team is well-equipped to work from anywhere and we ran a trial WFH day in anticipation of lock down to gather feedback and suggestions from the team. We have been ordering for delivery any equipment that our people need to work better and more comfortably from home, whether that is a desk, a chair, a monitor, or a dongle.
However, it’s the social challenges that matter most.
Inclusion is an important ethos in our company, so our social team has — ironically — been busier than ever! We continue to welcome new starters with a techspert.io cake and work hard to keep our close-knit team together. We provide e-books, audio books, or post out copies for those joining our monthly book club and have regular coffee breaks and Friday socials that people can jump in and out of for a catch-up. Our ‘Friday Food Talks’ are a regular lunchtime event where techspertians talk about something they are passionate about. This has moved easily and effectively onto Zoom, which we have also used to host quiz nights, games nights, and a hotly contested talent show!
Recently, we hosted a lunchtime wellness discussion. There can be enormous value in sharing lock down experiences with each other, so this was a chance for people to talk about their personal challenges and the strategies — however large or small — they have implemented to keep their mood, energy, and motivation up.
Our aim is to retain the family feel of our growing team by staying as connected and energized as we would in the office.
Many people have become anxious as a result of the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I said earlier that access to accurate information isn’t always a given, it’s a luxury, and the pandemic has exposed this truth like never before. News channels, social media, and propaganda have caused damage and distress to many, particularly as numerous prolific sources are designed to elicit extreme feelings and capture readers, but not necessarily provide verified and accurate information.
To family and friends, I’ve stressed the importance of removing yourself from the addiction to a 24/7 news cycle. Yes, we need to stay updated, but only when it serves a productive and valuable function. So, be aware of the credentials and motivations of the sources, and — most importantly — to switch off and take a break from the bombardment of information every now and then.
We can’t know for certain what the post-COVID economy will look like. But we can, of course, try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the post-COVID economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time, the post-COVID world can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the post-COVID economy?
During times of recession and uncertainty, we often see innovation flourish. COVID-19 has accelerated the pace of digital transformation by around three years in the space of three months, and the adoption of connected technologies has taken a similar leap forward as teams, families, friends, and communities find new ways to get together. There isn’t really a step backward from the advancements that we’ve made in digital connectivity, in fact, I’d expect to see progress continue.
I also believe that the pandemic has highlighted a gross under-appreciation of the role that academia, research, and true expert insight plays in shaping business, politics, and society in general. As we begin to rebuild our economies, we need to create faster, more timely access to knowledge from the classroom, laboratory, or library and transfer into the practical world of everyday business decision-making. It needs to be more accessible to counter the spread of fake news, propaganda, and damaging opinion.
At techspert.io, we have been busy throughout the pandemic delivering fast and accurate expert-led primary research on respiratory illnesses that link to the virus to aid pharmaceutical companies in their work. But we also see value in thinking more broadly about the transfer of knowledge between industries and professions and see the opportunity for this to increase going forwards. For example, I’ve heard inspiring stories of how the medical profession has learned from practices in the F1 pit stop and how collaboration between Mercedes F1 and the University College London created a new, innovative breathing aid in less than a week that delivers oxygen to the lungs without needing a ventilator.
What the upheaval of the coronavirus has taught us is that academic expertise is vital as a foundation for informing and de-risking big decisions.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act, or live?
Flexible working will be the most pervasive change from the COVID-19 pandemic. Entire workforces have been mobilized and a wider range of functions have been equipped to work more flexibly than ever before. Given this taste of freedom from the daily commute and office environment, there will be a lot of people wanting to adopt it as a permanent arrangement. Now it’s up to companies to ensure policies, practices, and culture support their employees’ mental well being in a distributed workforce model.
The next iteration of this will be companies actively building a decentralized workforce. Once you remove geographic restrictions to hiring, companies open themselves up to a much larger, more diverse, and dynamic — and, potentially, more affordable — talent pool.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-COVID economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-COVID Economy?
The scientist in me always seeks to understand before taking action! To grow and succeed, we first need to understand our new ‘normal’ environment. Right now, we’re busy analyzing and quantifying the new dynamics of our market, our pipeline, our operations, and our team. We can build on this foundation with confidence in our strategies for growth.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I would encourage others to think critically about how flexible and agile their business is equipped to be. We all need to be able to quickly respond to changes in the environment around us, and this will be increasingly critical for survival in the post-COVID economy. Are your teams empowered to work from home, or wherever they choose? Are your systems and processes robust enough to continue operations and retain security in times of disruption and uncertainty? Are you accessing the best and most current insight to de-risk your business decisions?
I also think that it’s important not to try and return to the old state of ‘normality’, but instead retain an open mindset to embrace a ‘new normal’. No one knows how our lives and workplaces will emerge from this upheaval, which can feel overwhelming…or it could be an exciting start to a new, flexible, entrepreneurial wave that will drive change and boost innovation. I believe that companies with this perspective will thrive as a result.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It’s interesting that a quote can act as a steer in life, like this one from George Orwell’s 1984:
“What appealed to him about it was not so much its beauty as the air it seemed to possess of belonging to an age quite different from the present one.”
The quote resonates with me because it rebels against consumerism as a reminder that you don’t have to see or value things the same way others do or the way the world presents them. It says that there is value in past and future goals, experience, and knowledge, so you can draw your own value and self-worth from something you are working towards. To me, as a scientist continually in pursuit of answers, this is a reminder to always look at the environment around the issue or scenario — looking at what or how it was in the past and what it could be in the future.
How can our readers further follow your work?
We regularly post news, opinions, and articles on the techspert.io blog. This is the best place to find out more about us and the work we do, including how techspert.io is contributing to the battle against COVID-19 and a new starter’s perspective on joining our team during the challenges of lockdown.
We are currently publishing a thought-provoking series of insight interviews in which frontline medical experts talk about the impact of COVID-19 in emerging markets, such as Nigeria and Uganda. It gives candid insight into how developing economies are fighting a battle that even the most developed markets are struggling to control.