Footballer-turned-entrepreneur, Darrin combined his interest in chemistry and experience with companies to found a number of successful technology businesses.
From sport to science
Being a professional footballer is not so different from starting a life sciences business. Both require passion, persistence and effort, but success is rewarded with substantial peer recognition and a not-negligible salary – “and I would do either for considerably less money,” says footballer-turned-entrepreneur Darrin Disley.
Before success, comes hard work, and work hard he did. Growing up in London’s 1970s East End, Darrin came from a humble working class background. In his family there was little opportunity to shine academically, so Darrin turned to sports. “Via my participation in the very successful school football team, I was identified at a young age by several professional clubs,” he explains. Before his 16th birthday, and without taking any O-Levels, Darrin left school and decided to pursue a career in sport.
However, the professional football career Darrin had imagined didn’t work out – he was dismissed by professional clubs. Instead, Darrin got a job as a trainee laboratory technician, working in schools around London, continuing his sport as a semi-professional footballer. Hungry for knowledge, Darrin was unhappy with the lack of academic development available at the end of his traineeship and so applied for university.
“I was frustrated by the lack of further education development but my former science teacher and my uncle in Manchester suggested I go to university. I had no idea I was qualified but following interviews ended up studying chemistry at Salford University.”
Starting university life proved to be tough. “I was significantly behind my peer group in academic aspects of study not having had the benefit of A-level studies,” Darrin explains. However, his hard work paid off and, by the time he graduated with a BSc degree, Darrin had clawed his way up to the top 5% of his class.
He moved to Cambridge to start his PhD studies under the supervision of Professor Christopher R Lowe OBE, a biotechnology researcher and outstanding entrepreneur, who became a pivotal figure in Darrin’s life. After receiving his doctorate degree and completing postdoctoral studies in Lowe’s lab, Darrin worked at a Cambridge-based development organisation to manage a new technology consortium, building business plans and pitching the consortium to top pharmaceutical companies. “This employment gave me a strong grounding in how you fund, build and market technology to the global pharmaceutical industry” Darrin says.
“The programme’s success led to me being promoted rapidly and rewarded with more than 50% pay rises. However, the culture was not conducive to entrepreneurship,” Darrin explains and he decided to leave the organisation. Numerous consultancy jobs in the US and UK followed, supporting life science spin-out companies. “This gave me the drive to want to set up my own business when the next opportunity arose,” says Darrin – and he only had to wait a few years for this opportunity. Inspired by his PhD supervisor’s entrepreneurial ventures, Darrin decided to leave the security of employment; in 2000 he set about founding a number of successful technology businesses. In 2007, he met Dr Chris Torrance and Professor Alberto Bardelli and became an investor and the commercial founder of Horizon Discovery, a company that provides technology, products and services that power genomics research and the development of personalised medicines. Now, Darrin could fully engage with his entrepreneurial aspirations.
“Being an entrepreneur is the most thrilling job you could ever have. I am currently the CEO and president of Horizon Discovery Group. I am responsible to the board of directors and for the delivery of a business plan, and have raised over £130 million to date.”
Darrin manages the executive team and over 100 investors and identifies and executes mergers and acquisitions. So far, he has led three additional technology start-up companies in parallel and invested in over 20 others. He also funds and advises numerous educational, enterprise and charity endeavours. In 2014, Darrin listed the Horizon Discovery Group on AIM, a sub-market of the London Stock Exchange, achieving a record placement for a life science company.
Darrin had to overcome fundamental limitations borne from growing up in an economically disadvantaged background. “Developing confidence in my own ability and allowing ‘aspirational’ thinking to overcome historical ‘defensive’ thinking underpinned the key decisions taken in my life,” Darrin explains. He thinks that females and students from working class backgrounds struggle to identify with the scientific community due to a lack of engaging and inspirational teachers and visible role models. Darrin remembers his own science teacher, Brian Carline, as “one of those rare teachers who could engage at the human level – via passion, humour and empathy – with students from all backgrounds, ability levels and phenotypes.” Darrin thinks that science outreach initiatives, like the Cambridge Science Centre he supports, are essential to get everyone excited about science and technology and give them the opportunity for social mobility.
Asking Darrin what he would change if he had the chance to start his life over, he firmly replies: “I would change nothing at all – otherwise I would not have been able to learn how to manage risk and give myself the best chance of future success.”
Words by Katrina Kramer
Images courtesy of Darrin Disley
Published June 2015