David Witty - a seven-year-old set on chemistry

20 Jan 2014

David Witty, Principal Chemist and Operations Manager at Convergence Pharmaceuticals, talks to SCI.

What does your current job involve?
Good question. When I helped spin out Convergence in 2010 I was involved in assembling key research information, producing the financial plan and presenting our ideas to Venture Capital Trusts. It was more interesting and nerve-wracking than Dragon's Den on TV, but then, we were seeking US$35m.

I had to turn empty business units into a working research lab and office; from installing equipment, building a barcoded compound collection, creating the Convergence IT system, to arranging the company insurance: a huge learning experience.

Convergence Pharmaceuticals is a small company so everyone has many different responsibilities and my role as Principal Chemist and Operations Manager is no exception. A day might involve running lead optimisation programmes, conducting analytical studies or oversight of chemical development activities. Equally, it could be negotiating strategic collaborations with potential partner companies, repairing faulty equipment or being office tea-boy. I love the variety, the teamwork and the chance to contribute to the whole process of drug discovery and development.

Did you have an interest in science from childhood?
As a young child I wanted to be an inventor but, when I got my first chemistry set aged seven, I knew I was going to be a chemist. My interest never wavered through school or university, and now, though I no longer make my own fireworks, I do patent chemical inventions.

How did you decide that you wanted a career in science?
Translating a love of chemistry into a career was a straightforward choice. While at school my brother Mike had started in veterinary drug discovery at Pfizer so I had a great role model. I heard, at a careers fair, that the best chemists became human drug designers - so I made that my target.

What are the most important things you've learned in your career so far?
First: listen to others - no one has a monopoly of good ideas. Second: to develop the careers of those who you work with. I'm proud that many former team members and placement students have established their own successful careers in drug discovery or become fine academic chemists.

Would you have done anything differently?
I enjoyed the opportunity of a Fulbright Scholarship to undertake post-doctoral research in the US. However, with hindsight, that labelled me a ‘hard-core' lab chemist in the eyes of my next employer, so it took some years to develop wider business and management interests. However, I love practical chemistry and still keep up to date with the literature as much as possible. I still have a fume-hood!

What have been the significant milestones in your career?
Launching Convergence has clearly been a major achievement. In addition I've had candidate compounds that have made Phase II; over 20 years I've been fortunate to lead a number of successful research programmes in diverse areas. I also had the opportunity to help design an electronic notebook for GSK, and led its deployment at UK and Singapore sites. Now, of course, I look forward to achieving Convergence Phase II milestones, and ultimately the launch of our first medicine.

How did you first become involved with SCI and the Fine Chemicals Group and what has that meant for you?
While attending a one day symposium at Belgrave Square as a delegate, I heard there was a meal after and as I wanted to meet the speakers I asked to attend. I hadn't realised this was for speakers and organisers only! To his credit, Chris Hill - later an FCG chair - invited me anyway. I had a great time and learned that through FCG membership I could influence the content of future events, so I asked if I could join the committee. That was over a decade ago and since then I've been lucky enough to work with this fantastic team of scientists to bring many interesting ideas to fruition as symposia, training courses and conferences.

What key things would a young person need to do to reach the position you've achieved?
I'm passionate that drug discovery should remain a great choice for young people in the UK so taking a sound general chemistry degree course is an essential start. The structure of the industry is constantly changing so chemistry skills alone aren't enough. Individuals, ideally supported by their company, should take every opportunity to learn business skills too: writing business plans, learning about investment options, understanding service agreements and taking advantage of networking.

If you hadn't pursued a career in science, what would you be doing now?
Gosh - impossible to imagine! I love gaining scientific knowledge for its own sake and work in my spare time as a STEM ambassador in local schools, to encourage children to consider science careers. If I had to choose, as I never believe any kit is unfixable and enjoy electronics and computing as a sideline, had I not studied chemistry, I would probably have pursued some aspect of engineering or applied mathematics, while making fireworks as a hobby. Probably just as well I'm a chemist!

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