Dr Alison Taunton-Rigby OBE

Doctor of Science

14 July 2009 - Orator: Professor Tim Gallagher

Mr Vice-Chancellor, Alison Taunton-Rigby

Dr Alison Taunton-Rigby is a scientist and business leader whose career over the past four decades charts the evolution of what we now call the biotechnology industry. 

She was born and educated in the UK, but her working life has been based in Boston Massachusetts.  Boston is a global hub of the biotech sector and Alison has worked for a series of companies whose scientific and commercial successes have made a lasting impact on healthcare and our quality of life.  Alison’s achievements have been widely recognised both within the United States and also here in the UK, and in 2002 she received an OBE for her leadership within and promotion of the biotechnology sector.

As with many of us, much of the inspiration Alison had was parental.  Her father was a scientist and her mother, who was a physiotherapist but ran her own business, was a very independent woman with a strong entrepreneurial streak who had a powerful influence on her daughter.  Science - maths, physics and chemistry - was Alison’s academic focus at school, but the process for applying to university in the early 1960s was a very different one to that operating today.  She sent off 11 applications to universities, which meant writing 11 essays and composing 11 convincing letters.  Her tenacity was, however, rewarded with 11 offers and Alison came to Bristol to read Chemistry, graduating with her degree in 1965.  Alison’s father had never had the opportunity to pursue his own academic aspirations and this was clearly a factor in her choosing to continue her studies.  In 1969, she obtained her PhD in Chemistry under the supervision of Professor Gordon Stone, a world leader in organometallic chemistry. 

That year, Mr Vice-Chancellor, 24 PhD students, including Alison, graduated from Professor Stone’s group and 23 of them – the men – went on to further academic research. By this time, Alison was married, and she and her husband decided to move for his career to the Boston area. The need to work attracted her to a job in a new company called Collaborative Research Inc which was based on the research of Professor Gobind Khorana at MIT.  Khorana had won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1968 for his work on the genetic code in relation to protein synthesis, and not surprisingly Collaborative Research Inc focussed on DNA chemistry as well as human cell culture.  These technologies, especially recombinant DNA, which is the ability to make and exploit synthetic DNA, are all now cornerstones of the biotech sector.  Indeed the pioneering nature of what Collaborative Research did led to the first crude map of the human genome in 1980, which was many years ahead of the Human Genome Project. 

A good Trivial Pursuits question might be ‘which was the world’s first ever biotech?’ A company called Genentech do claim this on their website but in truth Collaborative Research Inc had already been around for seven years when Genentech was formed.  So Mr Vice-Chancellor, the next time you find yourself in a pub quiz, this may be a very useful fact to know!  As Collaborative Research grew, so did Alison’s role.  She became Vice-President for Research and Development and this placed her very firmly at the leading edge of this rapidly emerging and highly competitive industry.

By the early 80’s, Alison also had four young children and sole responsibility for their upbringing and wellbeing.  These family commitments would shape her life in the years to come and ‘you can change jobs but not your kids’ became her guiding principle.  This meant that when Collaborative Research decided to leave the area, she stayed in Boston and worked with a series of other companies over the next few years. Her talent and track record made this relatively easy.  

In 1987 Alison joined Genzyme to lead their biotherapeutics division.  This was a remarkable period during which time a drug called Ceredase – now Cerezyme  - was discovered, developed and marketed. Cerezyme is an enzyme replacement therapy produced from recombinant DNA for the treatment of Gaucher’s disease, a debilitating genetic disorder causing fatigue, anemia, and bone damage.  This drug was a very significant milestone for patients affected by this condition and it became a commercial success for Genzyme as a company.  Cerezyme was their first major product and now has sales in excess of a billion dollars a year.

Alison was with Genzyme for 6 years, a busy time because she was also raising her children and graduating from the Advanced Management Program of the Harvard Business School. In 1993, she moved again and served for a year as President and CEO of Mitotix, where she built the management structure and raised the $12M needed for Mitotix cancer therapy research.  Her next challenge was the Cambridge Biotech Corporation, which (bluntly) she rescued from bankruptcy. Aquila Pharmaceuticals was the result of her hard work and Alison, as Aquila’s CEO, guided this company until its successful sale in 2000. 

In 2003 Alison jointly founded a new company called RiboNovix with Dr Philip Cunningham.  Phil Cunningham is an academic biologist based at Wayne State University in Detroit and he discovered the gene technology that RiboNovix is developing.  This technology offers the possibility of producing new antibiotics which are much less susceptible to resistance because these drugs specifically target a part of the bacteria’s genetic structure that is absolutely critical to its function. 

Mr Vice-Chancellor, Phil Cunningham’s personal experiences of Alison as a business collaborator and as his personal mentor are relevant here.  As a co-founder of RiboNovix, he recognises that it took a special person to work effectively with an academic and to steer him safely through the complexities of the business process. He describes Alison as ‘the tough, unrelenting CEO who fights for the best deal for her company’ and he says ‘I am always very grateful that she is on my side of the table during these negotiations’.  Phil regards Alison as someone with remarkable vision and managerial skills who has recruited talented scientists and provided them with state of the art facilities to work in.  As a result, the potential of Phil Cunningham’s scientific effort is now being realized, when it all could so easily have faded into obscurity. He also observed that in the current business climate, when many companies are discarding employees like used cars, the CEO of RiboNovix has earned herself a reputation for always treating people with dignity and fairness.

Alison’s ability to blend so effectively her personal priorities with her professional activity is remarkable, especially when one appreciates the breadth of her impact and the influence that she has had and continues to have on the biotech sector. While she would claim to have stepped back from the heat of the day-to-day business world, it appears to me that she has really just shifted her focus.  She remains very active in the Boston area where she contributes widely to a range of community functions, as an advisor to government, and, of course, she is still closely involved with business as an independent director of several health care companies, and as CEO of RiboNovix.

Finally, Mr Vice-Chancellor, Alison described her mother to me as one of a line of strong female role models and it is obvious to me, and I am sure to the many people she has worked with and mentored, that this line continues to flourish.  Alison characterises her career as having had a bit of luck combined with the opportunity to work with very talented people.  The luck was that she found herself in Boston as the biotechnology industry was being born, but she blended that with a wealth of talent, a constant desire to learn, and a potent mix of drive and vision that has meant that she has influenced dramatically the evolution of this intensely science-oriented industry.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Alison Taunton-Rigby as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

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