George Gunn

George Gunn

Founder and partner of Stonehaven Consulting, a global company offering management consultancy services and partnership to large and small life sciences businesses.

I didn’t plan to spend my career in industry. I grew up on the Shetland Isles; my father was a shepherd, we lived in a tied cottage and, materially, my family had very little. I wasn’t really aware of this as in so many ways we had everything we needed. After qualifying from Edinburgh, I worked in mixed practice and intended to spend my life as a general practitioner. Circumstances intervened and I had to leave practice. I spent six years as a ministry vet, which taught me a lot about big organisations – and also that there is life for vets outside of practice – before I joined the animal health industry.

My industry career began in the UK but I went on to work for companies in Europe and the USA. In 2003, I joined Novartis as Head of Animal Health, North America, before going on to be president and CEO of Novartis Animal Health worldwide from 2004. Subsequently, I headed up the Novartis Consumer Health Division and managed Corporate Social Responsibility for the Novartis Corporation before I retired in 2015.

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What are you most proud of and why?

I’ve done lots of things in my life that I’m happy with, and I’ve been very lucky in my career, but what I’m most proud of is, honestly, qualifying as a vet. It has been the ticket to everything that I’ve done since, and without it, I wouldn’t have done any of those other things. I never had any great ambition to head up a company, but I found that I could do it. A vet degree equips you with so many transferable skills.

Do you think vets are good at innovation? What barriers to innovation do they face?

Like every profession or group of people, there’s a range – some vets are naturally good at innovation, some are not, although that’s not to say that they’re not good at what they do. Innovation isn’t necessarily about making huge leaps. In the pharmaceutical industry, innovation is all about how to sell more product, make more profit for the company, and enhance value to shareholders, but this doesn’t just mean making great pharmaceutical breakthroughs. It can be simple ideas, like new packaging or ways of dispensing a product.

I do think that being in practice can dampen vets’ innovative side, particularly if you’re not naturally innovative. Practice can be routine, you can end up doing the same things, again and again, so you’re far more likely to get a bit ground down by routine work and not see opportunities for innovation.

What advice would you give to a vet who has an idea for an innovation and wants to take it to the next level?

For those looking to start a business, the first thing you need is excellent technology – a sound idea. Then you need a professional business plan. This is the biggest stumbling block that start-ups encounter. Very few people can put a good business plan together, predicting what it will cost to get their product to market and then what the return could be once it’s there. It’s tough and it takes time, but there are people who can help, so my advice would be to seek them out.

Also, I would say “talk to your customers”. If I were launching a new brand, would I do so without finding out what my customers wanted? Of course not! I’d use focus groups, surveys, discussions. Use your audience – your current clients, your potential customers – to find out what they want, and then give them what they want.

What are your top tips for start-ups that are looking for funding or investment?

Take the local route first – follow the ‘3Fs’ of finding funding and approach ‘family, friends and fools’ initially. These people are more likely to be willing to offer you a loan but not want a stake in your company in return. Then look for local innovation funds. You might be surprised what’s out there. Only once you’re beyond the proof-of-concept stage and at the point of taking on employees, should you start looking for what is loosely termed ‘venture capital’ funding. However, this funding will be dilutive for the originator’s shareholding – venture capital investors will want an equity stake in your company.

Also, be aware that chasing international funding rarely works.

What innovation do you think will offer the greatest opportunity to better the health and welfare of animals?

I think there will be two major developments in the animal health field in the next few years. First, there will be a revolution in animal health biotech just as there has been in human health. In the past, animal health has bumped along on the coat tails of human pharma, but now a number of the big human pharmaceutical companies have separated off their animal health interests. This independence is a good thing, but it has its downsides too. For instance, the animal health industry used to benefit indirectly from the £40 billion spent on human health innovation each year by the former owners of these animal health companies: separating the two industries means this no longer happens. The animal health industry spends about £3 billion annually on innovation and the big animal health companies need innovation to keep growing. They do a brilliant job of what they’re already doing, but they need to bring in innovation and will look to animal health biotechs for this.

Second, there are huge opportunities to improve animal health and welfare through increasing digitisation. We have greater ability than ever before to identify and monitor companion and farm animals individually, enabling us to improve disease prevention and enhance individual animal outcomes. Monitors allow us to pick up changes in an animal’s movements, rumination, breathing – we can identify an individual that is unwell simply by checking our phones! Monitoring can indicate when a cow is coming into oestrus, so she can be served at the optimum time – and because you know the length of the oestrous cycle, you can predict when she should come into oestrus again. If she doesn’t, she’s almost certainly pregnant, so do you really need to put her through the stress of handling and examination for the purposes of pregnancy diagnosis? If a machine can do it better, it’s better for animal welfare – and it could change vets’ lives too.

The profession has understated what can be achieved by measuring outcomes. Vets should be leading the field on animal monitoring, helping their clients gather and use data to improve outcomes for their animals. It will bring about more and more innovation, and I really believe that this is where we should go.

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