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'Chief Everything Officer' - from Edinburgh to L.A. with ImaginAb CEO, Ian Wilson

Matthew Palmer spoke to Ian to kick off the ‘Talking Radiopharma’ series for the Venari Podcast


Ian Wilson was enjoying working at a Scottish startup, Edinburgh Molecular Imaging, when he got a phone call on a cold, wet day in November that changed his life. ‘Someone said, would you like to live in Los Angeles?’ he recalls. ‘So, of course, that piques anyone’s interest.’


The call turned out to be from ImaginAb with a job offer. The opportunity was too good to turn down, so Ian moved to L.A. with his family in 2018 to take up the role of COO. A year later, he stepped up to become CEO of ImaginAb, a position he holds to this day.


Matthew Palmer, Senior Oncology Consultant for our Life Sciences team, caught up with Ian for the first episode of ‘Talking Radiopharma’, Matthew’s new series for the Venari Podcast. Read on for Ian’s thoughts on life as a CEO, ImaginAb’s R&D in theragnostics, and key challenges the company looks set to face going forward. Ian also has some fascinating insights on team building, the key skillsets he looks for in talent, and advice for budding scientists and developers in his nuclear medicine.


Early career moves

Ian trained as a biochemist at the University of Manchester, where he had a placement – and, later, a graduate job – with a small firm you may have heard of called AstraZeneca. His next move was to Amersham International – the first company to be privatised during Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister – where he focused on radiopharmaceuticals. ‘I was at the lab developing new drugs, and that company was eventually bought by GE and it became GE Healthcare,’ Ian notes. ‘I was there for over 18 years.’


Transitioning to biotech

Having taken a number of successive roles Ian finally became Head of Biology for GE Healthcare. He’d enjoyed the benefits, security and training opportunities that came with working for a large firm, but felt the need to try something else, describing the move to a biotech company as ‘natural’. A year-and-a-half at the radiotherapy company Xstrahl gave Ian the confidence to work for a smaller organisation, which he later applied in a three-and-a-half-year stint at Edinburgh Molecular Imaging receiving before the fateful phone call from ImaginAb.  


ImaginAb’s work

ImaginAb, which is a portmanteau of the words ‘imaging’ and ‘antibody’, which underscores the company’s mission. ‘They started the company to take biological drugs, add a radioactive tag, allowing you to visualise disease in the body,’ he explains. For the past few years, ImaginAb has focused on immuno oncology in cancer, a therapy which has seen great breakthroughs for some 20% of patients who receive it. ‘We have an imaging agent that can actually image a certain cell in the body known as a T cell. That T cell is what kills the cancer.’ ImaginAb use this visualisation ‘to help drug companies understand whether their drugs are working.’ The company is also working on several new projects, such as one with Bristol Myers Squibb exploring inflammation of heart cells to better predict heart attacks or disease.


Life as a leader

Ian admits that he doesn’t ‘dress like a classical CEO, maybe because I live in Los Angeles’ – but for him, the stereotypical persona of the aloof, unapproachable chief executive is very much gone. Startup life means budget flights and hotels when he travels, as the company has to ‘look after every dollar and pound.’ Ian sometimes calls his ‘job title is Chief Everything Officer’, he notes wryly. ‘In a small company, I do everything from working with the guys in R&D to sales and marketing – and of course, raising money.’


With exciting projects like the collaboration with Bristol Myers Squibb on the horizon, is it normal for a biotech CEO to have some sleepless nights? Ian admits that being a small company means constantly trying to raise money. ‘It can take many, many years [...] And of course, you can’t afford to do everything you want to do.’ Bringing in money to cover the next round of development is always the primary concern – closely followed by managing and deploying personnel effectively. ‘We’ve got some fantastic people, but it’s a small company, and people have a lot of things going on in their lives,’ he admits; worrying about having the right team performing effectively and happily is a constant for Ian.


A good time to get involved

But it’s not all doom and gloom. In fact, in Ian’s words, ‘there’s never been a better time’ to be a CEO from the point of view of new developments in biology and data science. What advice does he have for budding startup entrepreneurs?


‘If I was a young scientist coming out of university, I would look to do a second degree in bioinformatics, because I think the combination of biology and computing is going to be a real driving force in the future,’ he notes. In the U.S., at least, there are also plenty of internship opportunities. On the whole, he concludes, it is ‘a very good time for young people to set up a company.’


If you need help finding executive talent solutions in the oncology space, please get in touch – we’d love to hear from you.


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