“Sustainability is not a gloss on the business, it is the business” — A Q&A with Eagle Genomics CEO Anthony Finbow

Anthony Finbow is the CEO of Eagle Genomics, the software platform supporting organisations to solve the grand challenges in life sciences. With an early career covering engineering, law and finance, he has spent the last twenty years building and running technology businesses in a variety of sectors.

What is Eagle Genomics?

Eagle Genomics is a cloud-based platform business focused on the application of second-generation data science technologies to life sciences research and development (R&D), helping a variety of organisations solve the grand challenges of our age through biology. We are a deep tech company and we operate at what McKinsey & Company call ‘the digital reinvention of life sciences R&D’, bringing together life science and data science to prepare for and enable the Bio Revolution. This is a fundamentally new economic paradigm which is going to transform our future towards a more sustainable way of living. This is sustainability, not as a gloss on the business, but as the business.

Our core focus is on the microbiome. In the narrow sense, this is the ecology of microorganisms in your lower gut (a bio reactor) that transform your food into what you need to subsist. It’s also effectively the software programming for your immune system. In the broadest sense, microbiomes make up the lion’s share of the biomass on earth and they are to be found in every environment.

Because we are talking about invisible organisms, it’s an area that’s been systematically ignored until quite recently, but more and more people, organisations and industries are waking up to both the potential opportunities and implications of understanding microbiome science. Microbiomes have immense applications across a number of industries, across personal care, food, cosmetics, agbio and pharmabiotics. Understanding microbiome science is at the heart of what BCG and hello tomorrow have called ‘Nature Co-Design’ — so instead of plundering nature for the raw materials that we need to survive, we start working with nature to generate materials for the future.

What is the mission and vision of the business?

Our mission is to network microbiome science. We’re helping link the impact of the microbiome on humans, animals and our shared environment towards the goal of securing a more sustainable future for our food, soil, water and the health of the planet.

Our focus is on helping our customers, through using our platform, solve the grand challenges of our age. These threaten our very existence, from degradation of soil (where some commentators have estimated that without radical change there might be only 60 productive harvests left), the accompanying collapse in biodiversity, to the exponential rise in inflammatory diseases, metabolic health issues and antibiotic resistance to name a few.

Huge challenges, but unbelievably exciting economic opportunities — McKinsey & Company estimates that the direct economic impact could be “up to $4 trillion a year over the next ten to 20 years”. We’re addressing the economic opportunity with the sustainability focus.

What have you learnt from these uncertain times?

Although these are uncertain times, because of the nature of the pandemic there is a greater interest in life sciences R&D and biology in general. It’s a trend that sits very squarely in our wheelhouse, and has raised interest from investors, prospects, existing customers and potential employees.

We’re seeing more of an openness to share data. This is good, but there needs to be more than just a willingness to connect — if we don’t unify or exploit that intelligence at a human scale, enabling collaboration around broader data sources, all we’re doing is pushing the issue downstream. That’s what we’re solving with the e[datascientist] platform — we enable customers to fuse their data with external information and exploit it to generate new insights.

We’re in a recession because of the economic effects of the pandemic, potentially the worst in 300 years, but at the same time the signals suggest the bounce back is coming hard and fast. This is exciting; historically, the periods of deepest decline liberated a spirit of radical innovation, and again that’s something we’re starting to see. Our large enterprise customers are trying to innovate, to uncover sources of creativity and ideas within their organisations, and they’re looking for both radical and incremental change (big and small “I” innovation).

We often talk internally about the innovation pump. So instead of life sciences R&D being a side endeavour where every now and again insight is generated that might be useful for the core business, we now have Chief Innovation Officers of businesses saying “we want to enter this space and we need mechanisms to enter and win in this new industry space. We need product claims that are going to enable us to carve out new territory.’”

For us that’s an opportunity — aligning the ongoing R&D endeavours, through the digital reinvention of life science R&D, with the radical innovation agenda currently proliferating in enterprises.

What are the fundamental steps you believe are critical to building a disruptive and successful business?

Every individual’s journey, every business’ journey is different. We’re addressing the radical innovation spirit of the enterprises we are working with, so we have to be a model of that. We have to walk the talk, and make sure that we liberate that spirit within ourselves.

That means aligning our business objective with purpose. We’re doing that by addressing these grand challenges or supporting our customers to do that. That is incredibly attractive to the talent we want to attract. Two thirds of our team are new, having been hired as we have grown since our funding in the summer of 2020.

Of course, in this new world we have to consider a variety of approaches to enable cohesion and generate the right spirit within what is a new and evolving team. This is all part of building an environment where people have purpose, people have autonomy, and they readily see how they can influence and collectively shape the business we are creating. Why focus on building a unique culture? — because that builds loyalty, encourage creative thinking and provides fantastic energy as we address the great opportunities ahead of us.

So, we’re focusing on all the mechanisms available to liberate and exploit that alchemy at the intersection of a number of industries, and at the heart of it all is purpose.

Fundamentally, we’re doing three things:

1. We focus on our values, developing an appreciation for what is important to our team, and then we broadcast them back into the organisation, and make sure we live by them.

2. We’ve introduced an objectives and key results (OKR) framework, based on ambitious stretch goals which, if we achieve them, will demonstrate that we aren’t being ambitious enough.

3. We’ve imagined and articulated a in a paper a description of what our business will look like in 2024, describing what we’ve achieved, and retrospectively looking back at what characteristics and decisions got us there. We’re describing that so we can start collectively visualising the steps that will lead us to achieving the goals described.

We have targets to meet — we want to be a global company, and we want to be valued at a billion dollars in a certain timeframe. But really, those sorts of tangible targets are quite mundane. They’re not so much an end as a result of what will happen if we follow the steps we need to take. Really, we are building what I mentioned earlier: sustainability, not as a gloss on the business, but as the business.

What’s one piece of advice you’ve been given that’s been helpful as you’ve built Eagle Genomics?

I became a CEO for the first time about twenty years ago, heading up a company that wasn’t in a good place. In one meeting, a board member leant over and said, “no entrepreneur or investor has ever really learnt their craft until they’ve stared into the abyss.” I think that’s a good lesson. You have to get close, though once you have, you don’t ever want to do it again.

Finally, can you talk through the value brought by ETF Partners’ investment and support of the business?

ETF Partners’ diverse and substantial contributions to Eagle Genomics’ success is numerous and far-reaching across the organisation. ETF Partners is one of the leading sustainability-focused investors globally, which supports Eagle Genomics’ ambition to harness microbiome science to secure a sustainable future.

ETF Partners were also early to recognise the microbiome’s pioneering potential to assist in ensuring that future, while also generating large economic value as part of the broader Bio-Revolution. Their investment in Eagle Genomics has helped attract similarly sustainability/climate change-focused investors, and their contacts from both a business and investment perspective have accelerated the company’s growth.

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