I don’t have a clear vision of how I’d like our workplace to evolve. But I do know the kind of place I’d like to work in.

You might expect Sebastian Mynott, the founder, Principal Molecular Ecologist and Chief Operations Officer at Applied Genomics Ltd to take a slightly more technical approach to the development of his business. However, it is his flair for combining technology and commercial insight whilst allowing space for his team to innovate that has led to success in his business.

As the founder of the South Devon company, Sebastian’s remit is huge, spanning research and development, coaching junior staff, and stakeholder management amongst other roles. All this is over and above the provision of molecular ecological surveys, bioinformatics and data analysis services to clients, which is the bread and butter of the business. We spoke to Sebastian about how he has matched tech with talent and what he has learnt along the way.

Harnessing technology

Applied Genomics owes its existence to technology. Since I founded the business in 2015 we have been harnessing emerging technologies to create an entirely new environmental assessment marketplace; one that uses DNA collected from the environment to better inform the current state of biodiversity, detect threatened and invasive species, and provide new insights for wildlife population management. We are now at the vanguard of a molecular ecology revolution.

Like many sectors, the ecology industry is being disrupted by a number of technological advancements from molecular biology to robotics to remote sensing. These technologies are evolving at a very high rate. Our challenge is to establish pipelines using the most reliable current technologies whilst aggressively developing new services based on emerging ones. 

UK regulatory landscape: green, red and Brexit-coloured tape

Another key challenge is the regulatory landscape, which is, understandably, slow to adopt new methods. We are actively working with UK based and international consortia to help standardise new techniques and to communicate their utility to regulatory bodies.

Furthermore, every time the economy slows down, we hear about the urgent need to cut ‘green tape’ impediments to business and industry. Our industry is heavily dependent on strong environmental protection regulations. When government values social and economic justice, environmental regulations tend to improve.

Of course, the thorny issue of Brexit raises its own challenges. Needless to say, the work we do is highly specialised and we need to be able to draw upon a very wide pool of talent from throughout Europe and worldwide. Regulations that inhibit this freedom of skilled migration are detrimental to our business.

To be honest, I see many, many problems for our business with Brexit. Limited access to skilled workers only scratches the surface. Best not to get me started.

Harnessing talent

For us, finding the right people to work with, develop and exploit new technologies is essential. Our goal is to acquire skilled people and build multidisciplinary teams that can create what will become the new ‘best practice’, for ecological assessment. This means that people have usually gained their skills without having considered that they may be applying them in a different context and incorporating their results with data they may not be familiar with.

The first thing I look for in an employee is to make sure that they are much better than I am at the job they’re being hired to do (in keeping with the philosophy, A grade managers hire A+ people because they want the best result; whilst B grade managers hire C grade people because they want to look good). The next thing I consider is whether this person is the type of person I’d like as my friend. (One of the downsides of being an entrepreneur means that I find it very difficult to maintain friendships outside of the workplace.) Hiring ‘friends’, or people who are friendly to our business values, will help to keep us true to our founding values.

The first thing I say to candidates at interview is: we’re not trying to cure cancer here; we’re just doing our part to try and save the planet. If they can get with that message, they’ll probably work out. Then, when they’ve settled in, I make sure to give them enough responsibility that they can have a degree of autonomy in how they do their work. Nobody likes doing a boring job.

Workplace ecology

Applied Genomics is based at the Brixham Environmental Laboratory in South Devon. It's a beautiful location and provides our staff with excellent opportunities to maintain a healthy work/life balance. The surrounding areas have a mixture of low to high priced accommodation options so staff are well served in that respect. We do not see the value in moving to a location that would compromise the happiness of our staff.

Ours isn’t a region that most associate with genomics, so we do sometimes find it harder to attract staff. We are, however, well placed for people considering work in the marine and maritime sectors.

We consider our location an asset, and the downsides of not being in a major city are not nearly as great as city dwellers may fear. I’m yet to meet anyone who isn’t familiar with conducting meetings over Skype/Cisco/Webex, etc. As a Canadian-born Australian I can tell you, the UK is very small. If needed, I can meet a client or deliver an environmental sampling kit anywhere in the country sometimes on the same day and always by the next business day.

Organisations in many sectors are looking at decentralising. What I’ve seen in the ecology industry are consultants working from home and covering a particular geographical area rather than deploying from a central office location. I’ve also seen a number of sales/CRM staff from larger companies operating from home. Whilst working from home won’t suit everyone, there is no reason to believe that it won’t increase in popularity until a certain balance is reached.

Communications and cloud networking are easily achieved these days and advances in VR/AR technologies will enable greater telepresence of remote employees, so remote working, rural offices and multiple workplaces needn’t be issues.

The future of talent

When I was studying for this career, I didn’t even know what a molecular ecologist was. I focussed on double-majors in computational biology and ecology because they were interesting and because I had glimpsed a vision of the future where DNA technologies could be used in ecological assessments. To anyone looking to follow a similar career path, I would say find a subject you are passionate about and combine it with another very highly technical discipline.

or ecology graduates the biggest problem I hear about is the inability to break in to the industry. They are caught in the vicious cycle of not being able to get a job without any experience but not being able to get any experience without a job. 

Part of the issue is not simply field-based experience. In my view, to stand out as a new graduate, you need to have skills that your colleagues don’t have. This is why I focussed on the skills that others didn’t seem to like: biostatistics, mathematical modelling, GIS; and added skills in genomics and bioinformatics. (I should add that for many years after graduating, I also struggled to get work in my field. No one at that time was interested in how genomics could benefit ecological assessments. As many graduates do, I fell back on a previous career to pay the bills whilst taking every opportunity I could to build my experience. In the end, creating my own work has been the most fruitful path.)

When it comes to our business, experience counts for a lot, but so too does innovation. These will continue to be important regardless of age or gender. Innovation is so central to our work that we don’t hire people who just want to go through the motions every week and collect a paycheque. Unlike the majority of businesses who have established ways of doing things, this is not likely to be our strategy over the long-term.

To nurture this talent and give room for innovation, I quite like concepts such as giving employees the time to explore new ideas and share what they’ve found with the rest of the team. That time could be allocated, such as every Friday afternoon or up to the individual. Another idea from a respected mentor of mine is to give employees an unlimited professional development budget to build on any skills or education that can benefit the business. I honestly can’t see how these investments wouldn’t pay off. Sure, you might get the odd person who takes advantage but, if you’ve done your hiring properly in the first place, that risk is unlikely and fairly easily remedied.

Over the coming years we are planning to hire both highly experienced academics and new graduates, depending mainly on the quality of skills they can bring to the business. We are also looking to take on apprentices for roles in our laboratory, marketing, logistics, accounting and business administration and we are working with a local college to discuss our upcoming needs in these roles.

The future of work

One of the major changes on the horizon is the rise of automation and AI which will no doubt impact our industry within the next 5 years. In my view, the future of work will require an understanding of new machines and an ability to work with them to augment your own skill set.

So whilst the robots may be coming for jobs involving repetitive tasks that can be easily handled by AI systems, at the same time there will be a growing need for workers to adapt their skills in order to work alongside AI systems. For example, an AI will be able to parse highly complex data, allowing it to be understood by someone who can then apply a nuanced and contextualised judgement on how the information should be interpreted.

The key for the future will be combining the talent and tech by working even more closely with machine learning, robotics and AI. We are very aware that we are only at the beginning of discovering what can be achieved with these technologies. The next 5 to 15 years are going to be very exciting.

 

This article was an interview with Sebastian Mynott, Founder, Principal Molecular Ecologist and Chief Operations Officer at Applied Genomics Ltd.

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