Sir Christopher Evans, 52, sounds like a parent’s worst nightmare. At seven, he was feeding Lucozade to tadpoles in tin-foil covered tubes. By the age of ten, he was experimenting with explosives. But far from curbing his scientific tendencies, the biotech entrepreneur’s parents encouraged him. “I can still remember the night my father came home drunk on Mackeson’s with scoopfuls of sodium chloride he’d taken from work, which I used to make those explosives,” he says. “Science was my thing and fortunately, my parents recognised it.”
The son of a steel worker, Evans grew up in Port Talbot, south Wales, where he attended St Christopher’s College along with the rest of the “rough and tumble kids” on his council estate. After studying microbiology at Imperial College London, he gained a PhD in biochemistry at Hull University, then headed to the US to work in academia and the pharmaceutical sector.
In 1987, he returned home to set up his own business. At the time, there were almost no biotech companies in the UK or Europe. With £1.3m raised from British Sugar, he started Enzymatix from a prefab hut outside Cambridge “that had been full of sheep and had no sinks”. Evans started developing enzymes, the natural biological catalysts found in cells. He’d sell them to pharmaceuticals firms at £750 a box. The first two sold in the toilets at a conference in Reading, where Evans bumped into the man from SmithKline Beecham. It sounds ludicrous, but it was the start of a series of innovations that would catapult him into the big leagues.
Using enzymes from cabbages, among other things, Enzymatix found a way to mass-produce phospholipids, a biomolecule that can be used to improve the lung functioning of premature babies. With no time for formal testing, Evans and his team did much of the toxicity testing on themselves (“we just ate the stuff and stuck it into one another”). The breakthrough is credited with saving the lives of hundreds of premature babies. He also discovered a natural micro-organism on river banks that turned the colour of fish-farm salmon pink (at the time, chemical dye was used), which he sold to US company Abbott for £4m.
Thankfully, there were no long-term side effects from his time as a human guinea pig. He split Enzymatix in 1992 to form Celsis and Chiros (later Chiroscience). The firms floated in 1993 and 1994 for £60m and £100m respectively. Of the original 64 Enzymatix employees, at least 14 have become multi-millionaires. Evans himself is worth around £150m after going on to set up a series of other companies. They include Excalibur, a venture capital fund that aims to invest in start-up biotech companies and sell them.
It’s not bad going for a man who admits he must have been “some kind of genetic, mutant freak” as a child – one minute playing rugby with friends, the next scurrying off to the shed to make fuses for fireworks. But neither his eccentricities nor his riches have changed him too much. “I still meet up with those same guys, 52-year-olds now, to head to the rugby,” he says.