Interview with Dr Ian Lennon

2 June 2011

Dr Ian Lennon is senior vice president, global business development for US-based company Chiral Quest. The company carries out all manufacturing and R&D operations in Suzhou, China, and specialises in making single enantiomer intermediates for active pharmaceutical ingredients. Dr Lennon has over 23 years' experience working in the area of chiral chemistry and leads the global business team, with personnel in China and the US.

What does your current job involve?
I am the head of business development for a US-based company called Chiral Quest, with all manufacturing and R&D operations in Suzhou, China. We specialise in making single enantiomer intermediates for active pharmaceutical ingredients and I have over 23 years experience working in the area if chiral chemistry. I lead the global business team, with personnel in China and the US, and I am responsible for all sales activities.

Did you have an interest in science from childhood?
As my father was in the British Army I moved around a lot during my first 12 years, attending six primary schools. So I do not have many memories of science from that age, apart from a board with mercury being brought out to demonstrate this substance! At secondary school, I found science more interesting than subjects like geography, French and Maths. I was hooked on chemistry when we were demonstrated the principle of activation energy. The teacher filled up a syringe with hydrogen and chlorine gas and there was no reaction. He then set off a flash bulb and HCl was formed with a bang. An experiment not carried out in a fume cupboard and probably not used today, but it has stayed in my memory for over 30 years!

How did you decide that you wanted a career in science?
My father was in the army for 23 years and none of his family had gone to university. I had toyed with joining the RAF or police, but wanted to study chemistry as it was the topic that interested me the most at school. Initially my father did not support the idea of me attending university, so I left school after my Scottish Highers and ended up studying for a HND in Chemistry. This led to joining the Junior Honours year (third year of a four year course) at St Andrews University. At university I found that I enjoyed organic chemistry the most, and I got a job as a chemist with Merck, Sharp & Dohme in Harlow, Essex. I worked there for four years and decided that I needed a PhD to succeed in the pharmaceutical industry.

I carried out my PhD at Imperial College, with Steve Ley, which was the most wonderful experience. It was certainly play hard and work harder! In 1992 when I graduated the job situation was poor, so I carried out an Industrial post-doc with Parke-Davis in Cambridge. I got a job with a company called Chiros, which became Chiroscience, the technology side became Chirotech, which was bought by Ascot. Dow Chemical purchased Ascot and I worked for Dowpharma for seven years, until the UK assets were sold to Dr Reddy's. In 2009 I joined Chiral Quest to lead their business development team. So my career began with a desire to study chemistry and then has been a very much unplanned but highly eventful journey!

What motivated you to pursue postgraduate studies?
I really enjoyed working as a chemist, but as I was ambitious and wanted to proceed up the career ladder, I knew that I needed a PhD to realise my ambitions.

What has your experience ascending the career ladder been like?
I can honestly say that I did not set out to climb the career ladder at the start of my career. I have a simple mantra, and that is to try my best at whatever I do. By working hard, enjoying the science and trying my best has led me to progress from chemist, to team leader, to head of a department, to a Dow Scientist and now to my current position. I also think I was in the right place at the right time for my career with Chirotech, which has been the foundation for my positions in senior management.

What are the most important things you've learned in your career so far?
Try your best at whatever you do, be honest, and do not be afraid to try new activities or volunteer for tasks, roles etc. Many times in my career management has asked for someone to volunteer and I have been astounded by the lack of response. During my HND the head of department asked for someone to attend a Youth Science Fortnight in London, all expenses paid. I was the only person to respond and I had a great two weeks in London, meeting young people from around the world. In Chirotech the head of R&D wanted someone to work with Barry Trost for six months to learn some new technology. Again, there were very few volunteers and I had a very rewarding six months working at Stanford.

What would you have done differently?
Absolutely nothing. I sometimes wish I had more career advice and guidance, but if I had I may not be where I am today!

How have you set goals for yourself and managed to achieve them?
Within each job I have had, I try to set annual goals to achieve. Some easy, some more stretching and at least one that would be very difficult to achieve. Every year a person has to feel that they have achieved goals, but also know that there is more to achieve next year.

What would you say have been the key milestones in your career?
My key milestones are:

  • Choosing to attend St. Andrews University, which got my career off in the right direction.
  • Choosing to leave my first job and study for a PhD. I could not have asked for a better supervisor than Steve Ley.
  • Responding to a small advertisement for a process chemist at Chiros. This led to an amazing career pathway, with Chiroscience to Dr Reddy's. I am glad that I stayed for 16 years, but also I knew it was time to move onto something new and challenging.
  • Having the opportunity to help grow sales at Chiral Quest and to establish the company as a serious Contract Manufacturing Organisation.

What key things would a young person need to do if they wanted to get to the position you've achieved thus far?
It is important to enjoy what you are doing, be honest to yourself and others, stick your hand up and volunteer (you never know where it might lead) and try your best at whatever you do.

How do you achieve work/life balance?
I have two important rules - do not work at weekends (unless I am travelling) and take all my holidays. It is important to have activities outside work that you enjoy, so I play golf and squash, and it is very important to spend quality time with my family.

What is your leadership style? How do you keep a team engaged and motivated?
I try and tell the team as much information on projects, the companies progress, sales etc as I can, so they are fully engaged with their career. I like to be honest with people, if there are problems and issues they should be addressed straightaway. A manager should not wait for the appraisal to off load any issues he may have with his team, or give a good appraisal verbally, then the team member gets a poor write-up and pay rise. It is also important to lead by example, you cannot expect people to work hard on a project and perhaps weekends, if you are not willing to do the same.

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