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Introducing Women in Innovation, the infocus award and our ambassadors

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For our infocus Women in Innovation campaign, Innovate UK is publishing a series of blogs from our ambassadors. Each has a personal story to tell, which we hope will inspire women in innovation.

infocus award

The question we are giving them is: Where did it all go right?

As Chief Executive of Innovate UK, I should lead from the front so here is my story and the first in the series.

I have spent over 25 years in the pharmaceutical industry, always in research and development, trying to make new drugs based on the very latest medical science.

Ruth McKernan glaxo absw science awards image

I was always interested in science at school.  Going to an all girls school, it never occurred to me that success in this field wasn’t for girls.

With a PhD in neuroscience, I started by researching treatments for psychiatric and neurological diseases and improving the ways that drugs are invented, a process that rarely takes less than a decade and costs around $1 billion for each new medicine.

More recently, I built a new division at Pfizer based on regenerative medicine where we tried to create an artificial pancreas for diabetics and to replace cells in the eye for those going blind with macular degeneration. The latter was one of the most innovative projects ever, without precedent, and led by a dream partnership of our industry scientists with academics from Moorfields Hospital and University College London – and it actually worked!

Regenerative medicine - one of David Willett’s ‘8 great technologies’ - introduced me to Innovate UK because I helped to start up the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult Centre, one of 11 such technology centres in our family.

What I learned in 25 years is that innovation is difficult. Any leader or entrepreneur needs grit, funding and support to succeed… but mostly grit.

If you have that – you can usually find a way to get the other 2.

For every leap forward – an uphill slog to the first patient treated or unveiling clinical data that proved our drug worked – there have been multiple failures.

I have lived through the unexpected kidney toxicity that stopped a pain drug in its tracks and finding out that a treatment for stroke was fundamentally flawed, after 5 years of work and $30 million spent.

Setbacks are like food poisoning. You can take precautions, but it happens. So you get over it and your immunity and resilience builds a little every time.

I never worried too much whether I’d be successful or not.  I just focused on doing a good job.

One thing I have learned is that being confident and failing is a route to success.

One early experience was when I had a desperate desire to be in the school play. The audition required singing solo in the school hall. I absolutely can’t sing so didn’t audition. Instead I mocked those that tried but did poorly, assuming that the big non-vocal roles would be decided later.

But, there was no second chance. The tuneless singers got parts, I hadn’t even tried and got nothing.

Having the confidence to go for it brings success.

What inspires me is a very personal question. Creating wealth? Proving a point? Following in my father’s footsteps?

This is not a question I considered until the answer was presented to me. The outcome of a personality test on one of the many management courses I have attended described me as having a ‘high drive for social power’.

I was disappointed. As a research scientist at heart, I claim no interest in power at all.

It turns out that social power is in fact a will to make the world a better place.

Ruth McKernan Queen Guide image

Looking back I can see this rings true; I am inherently a bit of a ‘do-gooder.’  I won a ‘help-the-police’ competition at 11, was a Queen’s guide at 14 (for balance – this was followed by a rebellious phase in my later teens not to be dwelt on).I have campaigned in small ways: for an on-site staff nursery when my 2 children were small, for scientists to be better communicators of their work (for which I won a prize for science writing), to make medicines to improve patients’ lives, and now to help innovative companies succeed.

As a forward-looking person, the scale of my drive for ‘social power’ has been raised and called upon big-time in this job. For the UK to have long-lived prosperity I know we need innovative businesses fit for the future.

We are on the brink of the fourth Industrial Revolution and must support the growth of relevant, productive, exporting, companies. Better too if they can meet the societal challenges we face: a low carbon economy, improved healthcare, and better living environments.

There is an amazing opportunity to harness the science our academics do so well, translate that into businesses, particularly the scaling and medium-sized businesses that pay tax and employ people across the nations and regions of the UK. That is the route to a more prosperous future for us all.

You can follow Ruth on Twitter @RuthMcKernan and the infocus award via #infocus

Our infocus award page can be found here.

You can follow Innovate UK on:


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