How the love of science led to health breakthroughs

For a man who lost count of the number of patents under his belt and helped build and transform multiple products and businesses, Paul Davis left school at age 16 with a record that stood out only for fact that it was commonplace.

“I was jogging. I didn’t want to stretch or accomplish anything, ”he recalls. “I joined Unilever in 1965 as a mediocrity in a lab technician role at the lowest possible level, which has since been phased out. “

Yet over the next three decades he launched pioneering health products such as Clearblue, the simple pregnancy test that has been in use around the world since 1988. The wider applications of the underlying lateral flow technology ‘he developed jointly for a simple “point of service” at home. The diagnostics have since had a generalized impact, notably in the coronavirus kit produced by his company Mologic.

Davis co-founded, sold, bought and converted his business this summer into a pioneering social enterprise. It provides low-cost testing for a growing array of diseases, with a vision to provide affordable global health services to the poor. At 74, he has relaxed his “day job” but shows little sign of slowing down. As he puts it, “I work a three-day week and a four-day weekend. ”

When asked to explain the stages of his varied career, he cites a series of mentors and managers who have helped him climb the corporate ladder while supporting his undergraduate and postgraduate studies. part-time in chemistry and immunology.

At Unilever, Iain Anderson, Philip Porter and Howard Preston were among the leaders who he said “gave me the confidence that I could do complex things and the desire to pursue qualifications.” In academia, Davis thanks his supervisors equally generously.

Professor George Feinberg [at the University of London] “Sparked my enthusiasm and made immunology so interesting and understandable, it was a really important step” on a master’s degree. His doctoral examiner, Professor Alister Voller, “gave me a hard time” while inspiring him with his work in diagnostic science and tropical diseases.

Reflecting on his career, he says, “I can’t remember how many patents I have. He is more interested in the secrets of his breakthroughs, especially the essential role of teamwork with his co-inventors. He claims more personal credit for identifying practical applications of research.

“Unilever was doing wonderful things in immunology, but didn’t see the connection to consumer goods.” He mobilized a team to develop Clearblue, which drew on their scientific expertise to convert what had been a bulky lab test into a simple gauge that women could use at home; then produce a faster version to stay ahead of the competition.

He also worked on food allergies and animal vaccines at Unilever before being appointed in the late 1990s to “research-research mentorship”. “It sounded very strange and I wasn’t sure I wanted to, but it was a great experience to reflect on all that I had done and see how people can flourish creatively in a large company. “

Davis says one of his biggest ideas came from psychologist Michael Kirton’s “cognitive continuum,” which distinguishes innovators and adapters. “I realized that I was on the right side as an innovator and that I don’t really like the attention to detail, thoroughness or following the rules. My bosses have always been extreme adapters and wanted to work in a frame.

In business, you need both types of people, he says. “In discovery mode you want most of your team to be on the innovator side, but if you stay there your product will never end up getting to market because you don’t have the discipline to get it through all of the ways. regulatory process. Your team must be able to evolve.

Mologic has launched tests for dialysis and Covid-19 infection, and is in advanced development for others, including malaria, measles, yellow fever, respiratory problems and sepsis © Charlie Bibby / FT

He mentions three ingredients for success. First, innovators are rarely motivated just to make money and usually don’t reach the top positions in business. “It’s because they love what they’re doing. What they are looking for is recognition.

Second, trust and openness are essential. “You need to foster an environment in which you can be critical as long as you’ve made it clear that you’re doing it with good intentions. “

Third, “people are what they are”: innovation does not come from trying to turn “adapters” into “innovators” or the other way around, but from ensuring that managers effectively bring the two types together. personality to successfully pursue new product development – something that is often difficult in large corporate bureaucracies. “This is why the big pharmaceutical companies swallow it up and feed off the small ones. “

In 2000, he helped Unilever set up its own business incubator to foster internal creativity. Very quickly, he launched his own ideas. “I thought to myself why am I not going myself?” I loved being a mentor, but I loved being the inventor even more.

Three questions for Paul Davis

Who is your leadership hero?

Sir Iain Anderson at Unilever. He had an incredible ability to see unusual and great opportunities. His charismatic and inspiring qualities persuaded those above and below him to embrace the idea and make it work. I tried to emulate his obvious concern for fairness and to make young people successful in their careers.

What was the first leadership lesson you learned?

Leadership is not the same as management, although the two roles inevitably overlap. I discovered very early on that I am not a good manager. Leaders need to inspire and motivate, while having a good understanding of the big picture or even creating it. Managers must organize, guide and attend to the details in pursuing the big picture. Often, great managers are not effective leaders.

What would you have done if you hadn’t gotten into science and business?

My love of science is essential, so my alternative would be science through education and writing, with an emphasis on sharing knowledge and understanding. One of my favorite quotes is “the truth will set you free”. One of my main ambitions today is to find time to write about the things that are important to me.

He started several companies, including one inspired by how honey bees detect odors in the air, which sought to identify a range of substances, including explosives; and another that has produced a new generation of wound treatments.

Mologic, the holding company he co-founded in 2003 as Scientific Director, has launched tests for dialysis and Covid-19 infection, and is in advanced development for others, notably for malaria, measles, yellow fever, respiratory problems and sepsis.

It attracted third party investors and was sold in 2009 to provide more funding and critical mass to support R&D costs. Commercial constraints have limited the ability to provide affordable diagnostics for tropical diseases such as Ebola in low-income countries. Ultimately, defying advice from others to walk away or downsize significantly, Davis helped coordinate a buyout in 2015.

“Our goal was to be a worthy business that would solve the problems of humanity,” he says. Initially with donor grants, and since July 2021 with the full acquisition of Mologic by social impact investors led by George Soros’ Open Society Foundations and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, he hopes that vision can be realized.

She and a partner company are now “companies limited by guarantee” without shareholders but with stakeholders who are committed to reinvesting all profits back into the company, and a model designed to generate income from the sale of its companies. produced in the richest countries to subsidize widely and affordable distribution in the poorest. “We are a fairly unconventional company in many ways. We have tended to be more on the innovator side.

In the new Mologic he says: “my son [who is on the board] considers that one of its roles is to protect me from the vagaries of a trade deal, allowing me to focus on that swan song. “

Along with Mologic’s projects, Davis is working with his daughter on a test for tapeworms in horses. He is involved in conservation projects and wishes to write more in an attempt to increase scientific communication with the public.

He also began to research “how to work with those who want to retire and do something different but who want to be relevant and use the experience and memory that are left to them”. Davis may be retiring from full-time work, but it’s not a passive retirement.


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