This article first appeared in ICAS’ CA magazine.
Lisa Tomkins CA, Senior Director Finance at Oxford Biomedica, tells Ryan Herman how the company assisted the vaccine rollout and is pioneering new treatments in gene therapy
When Lisa Tomkins CA became Oxford Biomedica’s Senior Director Finance in February 2021, she suddenly received a deluge of LinkedIn alerts. Anyone starting a new role will get the messages of good luck, well done and the hand-clapping emojis. But this was different. It happened just at the moment when Britain’s vaccine rollout was in full swing and she had joined a company that just happened to be producing one of those vaccines.
In September 2020, Oxford Biomedica signed an 18-month master supply and development agreement with AstraZeneca for large-scale manufacturing of a Covid-19 vaccine, with an option to extend the agreement through to 2023.
Tomkins explains: “We were invited in April 2020 to join the Oxford vaccine consortium led by the Jenner Institute. I think the general view was that if there was a British solution for manufacturing the vaccine, then it should be strongly considered and we would be proud to be part of it.”
Oxford Biomedica’s Oxbox facility in Cowley is one of the few sites that has clean room suites, providing the ideal environment to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine – and to do so at scale. “We can also respond to any variant requests, so when the variants need to be changed, we can react accordingly,” she says.
Tomkins adds: “I’d always preferred to work with smaller, private equity-backed companies, so this is the first company I’ve worked for with a name that people recognise. I was attracted to this business due to the relevant sector experience, the company’s stage of growth and the interesting nature of the role.
“And there’s nothing more important right now than getting out of the pandemic, getting the vaccine to other parts of the world, reducing the backlog of other NHS treatments and just being able to have more social contact again.”
The original purpose of Oxbox is to develop treatments in the field of cell and gene therapy – a fascinating area of biotech, with the potential to save or significantly improve hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives.
Gene therapy as a theory has existed since the 1960s, when scientists began discussing the idea that DNA sequences (essentially, the order in which your DNA is assembled) could be used to cure genetic disorders. Or, as Tomkins succinctly puts it: “Gene therapy can recode your immune system.”
The first successful treatment occurred in 1990. A four-year-old girl with a rare deficiency that put her at constant risk of contracting deadly infections was cured following a 12-day treatment. Nine years later, however, another patient died during a clinical trial, prompting many biotech companies and investors to retreat from gene therapy.
But there has been significant progress in the field over the past 15 years. Crucially nowadays, when these treatments are administered via vectors – the delivery method – they are stripped of any disease-causing genes, making the process significantly safer.
The cutting edge
Oxford Biomedica, founded in 1995, is one of the oldest biotech companies. It was spun out of the University of Oxford and listed on the Alternative Investment Market in 1996. The firm specialises in lentiviral vectors which are often applied to patients with blood disorders. Gene therapy is also now being tested in areas such as oncology, neurology and liver diseases. In 2018, a deal worth $842.5m (£627.1m) was struck with Axovant Sciences, which now has a worldwide licensing agreement to commercialise Oxford Biomedica’s gene therapy treatment for Parkinson’s disease.
Covid has made us all far more aware of what’s required to get drugs to market. Thousands of scientists worldwide worked around the clock to create those vaccines. And although the AstraZeneca deal doubled Oxford Biomedica’s revenues, the company still needs to remain focused on its core mission.
When you’re working with small, dedicated groups on groundbreaking but expensive pharma products, the role of the finance team is critical in creating the conditions that will allow scientists to work without distractions, while ensuring the company has funds to continue its R&D. Crucially, Tomkins speaks the language of science, having studied microbiology at Heriot-Watt University before becoming a CA.
Sometimes there’s a lot of ‘plate spinning’. But that’s the fun part of being in a senior financial role, where you have influence and the ability to drive your own destiny.
That may sound an unlikely career progression, but Tomkins explains: “My mum was an accountant and my dad was a teacher. I worked in my mum’s office during the school holidays, and, as part of that, I worked with some CAs who had done the ICAS conversion course. And my dad always said: ‘If you do something you enjoy, then you’ll do it really well.’”
Tomkins began her CA training when she joined the EY Edinburgh office in 2003 and found the perfect environment to marry microbiology with accountancy.
“One of the partners and a senior manager started off a bioscience focus group and took in people like myself who had a background in science,” she says. “It was really successful. We could work and communicate with the clients in the sector. That was my first awareness that accountancy isn’t purely about the numbers. It’s about understanding the business as a whole.
“And one of the things you’re taught as a CA is how to relate to the client or the customer. It’s all about building a relationship with people on the ground, whether they’re in a factory or a laboratory. So, in my current role, I do know what a vector is and how they work. When I am talking to the scientists, hopefully I can relate to them a bit more. If you can do that, then you can also help them understand what you’re talking about.”
Initially, Tomkins acted as a consultant for Oxford Biomedica. “Although we’re quite big – we now employ 740 people – it still feels like a small company,” she says. “And it’s an environment where you can look at the people around you and above you, and you really respect them for their achievements, and you can learn from them. It is great to be part of a company undergoing such growth.
“My training at EY was the foundation of all that. Every few weeks you’re in a new environment, with a new set of challenges, with no opportunity to get comfortable. There is no comfort zone. We’re a growing business, but you can’t just fly by the seat of your pants. As a FTSE 250 company, there is a lot more scrutiny and focus on what we’re doing.
“One of the big things I’ve been working on this year is really focusing on the control environment and the discipline of the financial function. Everything is moving so fast here. So, the numbers need to come out quickly, they need to be on time, and they need to be accurate – because decisions are being made weekly based on those numbers.
“It is so important that the business understands the drivers and the spends. Then they can make informed decisions to take things forward to the next level and the next month, and so on.
“It sometimes feels like there’s a lot of ‘plate spinning’. But for me that’s the fun part about being in a senior financial role, where you have influence and the ability to drive your own destiny. You’re never doing the same thing every day.”
In many respects, this role is the culmination of everything Tomkins has learned during her career. As she concludes: “When I got this job I contacted my former partner at EY in Edinburgh. He was the one who put me on that bioscience focus group. I feel as if my career has come full circle. I started off studying science and accountancy and I want to stay in the bioscience industry.
“ICAS gives you that Big Four training and the experience that you need to get an interesting job at the end of it. Even though the job title may often be the same, each job is very different, depending on the needs of that individual business. There are quite a lot of CAs, in what might be viewed as corporate roles, who because they have a science background are able to think slightly differently.
“As you progress, you realise how much people respect the CA qualification. It’s only when you see things through someone else’s eyes that you realise how lucky we are to have had that training.”