The Spectator’s Economic Disruptor of the Year Awards 2019, sponsored by Julius Baer, are now open: the entry form is at
www.spectator.co.uk/disruptor. We’re looking for innovators from across the UK who are disrupting their marketplace in terms of price, choice and accessibility — and have the potential to scale up, nationally and internationally. Meanwhile, in the second of our series of inspirational stories about the entrepreneurs behind some of Britain’s fastest-growing ventures, Martin Vander Weyer talks to Jonny Ohlson of Touchlight Genetics, a London regional finalist in last year’s awards.
You might imagine that the founder of a company at the forefront of advances in the manufacture of DNA would be a white-coated boffin whose career was nurtured in university laboratories. But 55-year-old Jonny Ohlson of Touchlight Genetics is as far from that archetype as he could be: his formative years were spent in advertising with Saatchi & Saatchi and his previous venture was as a partner in the members’ club Soho House. And his credo is that the creative processes behind successful business-building are the same whether they’re applied to consumer offerings or at the frontiers of science. A business studies graduate, Ohlson knew from the age of ten that he wanted to be an entrepreneur — and that he didn’t want to follow his father and older siblings into the City. Having first thought of opening a restaurant, he opted for advertising and joined Saatchi in its 1980s heyday, working for clients such as BP and British Airways under the tutelage of a legendary creative director, Paul Arden, who encouraged him to believe he could do anything he set his mind to. He went on to be managing director of the Griffin-Bacal agency until it was sold to the DDB group in 1994. Next Ohlson partnered with Soho House founder Nick Jones to help develop the format and brand of his original clubhouse in Greek Street, Soho — hugely fashionable with London’s media crowd — and replicate it in New York, Miami and elsewhere. Jones ran the operations while Ohlson did the marketing; he stayed involved as a director until 2006, by which time he had also begun investing in tech ventures and his imagination had been gripped by the potentialities of DNA. ‘I was fascinated by the Human Genome Project,’ he says. ‘I began to see that DNA coding could be a force for change in the 21st century the way computer algorithms had been in the 20th.’ He met the biologist Dr Vanessa Hill and commissioned due diligence on some of her work in the DNA field: from there was born Touchlight’s concept of an ‘enzymatic’ DNA manufacturing process for a range of medical and research purposes — radically reducing the cost, time and space required by established methods. Shunning the conventional path of raising venture capital with the target of listing on Aim or selling to a large corporate within five-to-seven years, Ohlson first funded the project himself, then raised ‘patient capital’ from friends of friends who invested through an EIS scheme. Patents were secured and an initial team of three grew to 35 at Touchlight’s HQ in a former waterworks building at Hampton, Middlesex; around 30 more will be recruited to meet the needs of a collaboration agreement with healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson and a soon-to-be-announced joint venture with a major gene therapy company. ‘I do strategy and commercial development,’ says Ohlson, ‘and I recruit incredibly clever scientists. It’s been a mountainous challenge: if I’d known it would take ten years I don’t know if I would have embarked on it. But we’ve built a company that’s unique, happy, private and British, and I’m very proud of that. I always wanted to be in a creative industry, and that’s exactly what this is.’
The closing date for entries to the Awards is Friday 7 June 2019.
For details of how to enter, please visit www.spectator.co.uk/disruptor
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