Dr Yen Choo, entrepreneur
Find out more about his business career
This interview was conducted in 2012. In the autumn of 2017, we checked to make sure its careers advice was still accurate and updated the salary guide section.
What do you do?
I’m the executive chairman of Plasticell and CEO of Progenitor Labs, a spin-off company of Plasticell. These companies are developing stem cell technologies and using them to create drugs that regenerate human tissues. Put simply, I start biotech companies and oversee their business and scientific strategy. The first biotechnology company I started, Gendaq, developed a technology to create zinc finger proteins.
What did you study?
I did all three sciences: biology, chemistry and mathematics at higher level and physics, English and French at standard level, and then did biochemistry at university. At first I thought wanted to be a lawyer, but later, after having an exciting biology teacher, I wanted to be a medical doctor.
Why did you choose this role?
The way the body develops is one of the fundamental problems of biology. I develop technologies because I’ve always been fascinated with how to do things faster, because research can be so slow and frustrating. After several years in academic research, I decided to do something different.
What does a typical day entail?
It’s partly science (talking with the research director and the individual scientists, and reviewing reports) and partly business (procuring finance, business development, protecting intellectual property, promoting the company and talking to shareholders).
What skills from your biology background do you use in your work?
I use all of my scientific learning. Without a deep understanding of how cells and genes work, I wouldn’t be able to do that. The practical skills include forming hypotheses, planning experiments, doing research and analysing findings.
What’s your work–life balance like?
I have a healthy work–life balance, but the job never leaves you. You’ll think about it all day and sometimes all night. On the other hand, if I decide that I need to go to look at the sea, I’ll just do it (while thinking about intellectual property)!
What are the most challenging and satisfying things about your job?
Multitasking: juggling the science and the business and taking responsibility for everything, whether it’s raising £10 million or buying paperclips. Biotech research is demanding and keeping even one of these little companies afloat is very difficult, so if you do a good job then it’s very, very satisfying.
International Baccalaureate, United World College of South East Asia, Singapore (1988).
BSc, biochemistry, University of Bristol (1991).
PhD, molecular biology, University of Cambridge (1995).
Staff scientist, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge (1995–2000).
Founder and chief scientific officer, Gendaq (1999–2000). Sold in 2001.
Vice-president of research, Sangamo Biosciences (2001–02).
Founder, CEO and now executive chairman, Plasticell (2002–).
Founder and CEO, Progenitor Labs (2010–).
Steering Committee member, UK Stem Cell Bank and Use of Stem Cell Lines (2007–).
Salary guide (2017)
The median salary for a CEO (chief executive officer) in UK biotech is £180,000. As an entrepreneur, Yen has always taken a substantially smaller salary.