Agility Life Sciences founder and CEO and former international footballer Professor Claire Thompson: 'The skills I learned playing football I use every day in business'
Professor Claire Thompson – former Northern Ireland under-20s footballer, award-winning founder and chief executive of Agility Life Sciences and an ex-Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline R&D scientist – has used the skills she learned on the football pitch to help forge a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry. But the married mother of one, who lives in Sheering, says having a great team around her is crucial...
Award-winning scientist, strategist and storyteller Professor Claire Thompson’s interpretation of CEO is: Captain, Extrovert, Optimist.
The former international footballer has 20 years’ experience in the pharmaceutical industry, working for large multinationals as well as smaller firms, and is now chief executive of Agility Life Sciences, a CDMO (contract development and manufacturing organisation), consulting and communications business which she formed in 2012.
She is passionate about empowering women in pharmaceutical science and education. And having skippered teams throughout her sporting career, she is keen to give more girls the chance to play football and learn valuable life skills that can be taken from the pitch to the office, laboratory and boardroom.
Claire, who recently won the inaugural One Nucleus Life Sciences Inspiration of the Year Award after being nominated by her peers, was born just outside Belfast and went on to play football for Northern Ireland under-20s when she was 17, having first played at primary school, where she was the only girl on the boys’ team.
She also captained St Andrews to British Universities Shield glory as well as helping the Scottish Universities team triumph at the British University Games.
After a break from the sport, she returned to the game, converting from a defender to a winger at the age of 37, to represent Harlow-based Frontiers before retiring at 40.
“The skills I learned playing football I use every day in my business,” said Claire, 44, who is chair of the International Pharmaceutical Federation’s Women in Science and Education initiative.
“Whether it’s celebrating successes and goals when you achieve them, maintaining momentum when things are going well, getting people’s heads up when things aren’t going quite so well or getting the best out of people.
“The skills I learned from football have really prepared me well. They’re skills for life and for leadership, not just for sport. I’m passionate about it and I want to provide an environment in which young girls can learn those skills through sport.
“Girls are falling out of love with sport at an earlier age. It used to be 14 and I think now it’s 12. That’s heartbreaking, not just from a health perspective but also because they’re not learning those skills they can embrace and take through their careers.”
To that end, Claire has established and funds the Girls in Football Teams (GIFT) scheme which allows girls’ teams to apply for £500 grants. It currently sponsors 13 sides from under-eight to senior level with another 20 soon set to benefit.
While football is a big passion, Claire always wanted to “do something medical” in her career and so moved to Scotland to study biochemistry at St Andrews from 1995 to 1999.
A pharmacy PhD, which was sponsored by SmithKline Beecham (now GSK), at Nottingham University’s School of Pharmacy followed before she worked for Pfizer in research and development.
She was headhunted by GSK for a similar position in 2005 before being headhunted again four years later by Nottingham-based firm Molecular Profiles, where her role was half technical and half commercial, developing services and selling them.
Claire’s next job was as head of research and development for virtual firm Oxford Pharmascience. It was while doing voluntary work for an organisation that she set up Agility Life Sciences, initially as a technical consulting business. As she had already developed a big network of contacts, the operation grew.
That growth has continued during the pandemic with the opening of a formulation facility in Nottingham last September. It has seen the Agility team grow from four before the coronavirus crisis to 10.
Agility’s ability to advance healthcare organisations’ products and raise their profile with Claire’s storytelling approach – “translating very technical information for different audiences” – has really come to the fore in the last 12 to 18 months.
With the world’s focus on big pharma, she feels the time is right to start talking about what the industry does in a way that interests and inspires youngsters – the people that will be making the scientific and medical breakthroughs of the future.
She also wants to use her experience and position to forge new paths for women in the industry, which remains a male-dominated one.
“It’s still very pale, stale, male. I still quite often find myself being the only woman in the room,” said Claire.
“It bothers me from an equality and diversity perspective, but it doesn’t bother me from a personal perspective. I’m confident in my competence and it also means people will remember my name.
“Some people will remember my hair and my shoes and not necessarily my name, but it gives me a platform on which to make an impact. That position, platform and power is a privilege and one of my mantras is ensuring we hold the door open for other people.
“To use a footballing analogy, I’ll create the space for others to move into so that it’s not just me being in that room any more.”
As well as picking up the One Nucleus award in the spring, Claire has earned other accolades in recent years from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, Academy of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Enterprising Women.
She said receiving the inspiration award this year was overwhelming, but always dedicates personal glory to her team-mates.
“This isn’t about me – I’ve got to this level of success because of the tribe of people I’ve had around me and that have supported me through every step of my career,” said Claire.
“Success is not a solo sport. The people in my organisation at the moment are not my best asset, they’re my only asset. I have nothing if I don’t have those wonderful people around me.”
Claire’s team at home is just as important. She and her wife Gill Davidson, who is Agility’s chief operating officer, will celebrate 10 years of marriage in October and they have a daughter, Mya, who is four-and-a-half years old. They have lived in Sheering for nine years and share their home with labradors Dexter and Jasper.
With Agility having already expanded during the coronavirus crisis, Claire is looking forward to seeing how the pharma industry as a whole evolves as the world adapts to life post pandemic.
“What we’ve seen is the industry and the fantastic scientists and virologists have been able to make a vaccine and roll it out in about a year, which is phenomenal,” said Claire.
“In more traditional terms, it tends to take about 15 years, maybe even 20 years, to go from an idea about a new drug to getting it all the way to market. Tens of thousands of them fail along the way, which is why it costs so much for medicines – it’s multi-billion pounds to do research and development.
“There’s going to be a lot of pressure on the industry to do things more quickly and more cost effectively. The spotlight’s going to be on us and I think that’s great because we’re going to have to think about what we do.
“It’s great for us as a business. Agility’s our name because I’ve seen so many organisations that are big and not agile. You’ve got to be flexible to be successful in this field.
“We’re set up to do things quickly so it can only be of benefit for us. I’m half excited and half frightened because we're going to have to grow quickly, but it’s a nice problem to have.”