Professor Sharon Peacock was in conversation with Dame Kate Bingham for our October Women in COG edition, where they discussed her experiences of leading the UK Vaccine Taskforce, the importance of having women in leadership roles, and her new book ‘The Long Shot: The Inside Story of the Race to Vaccinate Britain’.
Kate Bingham is Managing Partner at SV Health Investors, where she co-leads the Biotech franchise. In her 30 years there, Kate’s investments have resulted in the launch of eight drugs for the treatment of patients with inflammatory and autoimmune disease and cancer. She is also a Board member at the Francis Crick Institute.
This relevant and extensive industry experience led Kate to being appointed Chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce in May 2020, which was set up to lead efforts to find and manufacture a COVID-19 vaccine. “I got an email on April Fool’s Day asking me to join,” jokes Kate, “and I was thinking ‘expert? I’m not a vaccine expert’.”
In the very early stages of the pandemic, before there were any confirmed cases in the UK, Sir Patrick Vallance, Government Chief Scientific Adviser, knew that there was a need to quickly identify, test and manufacture vaccines in the fight against COVID-19. “He was on it right from the word go,” Kate tells us, “The taskforce wouldn’t have happened without him, and we were incredibly lucky to have his trusted wisdom in government at the time.”
The taskforce was responsible for coordinating research efforts of government with industry, academics, and funding agencies to expedite vaccine development and deployment. “We recruited the best possible team to assess the little data there was at the time, and they systematically went through all of the 200 potential vaccines available.” The focus of the taskforce was on speed and whether the vaccine could be manufactured at scale to meet population demands, whilst having the confidence they’d be safe and effective. “We also wanted a good balance of vaccine approaches and types, because we didn’t know much about COVID-19 at the time and what would be successful.”
Kate has since written a book about her experience called ‘The Long Shot: The Inside Story of the Race to Vaccinate Britain’, the proceeds of which are all being donated to charity. “The last thing I wanted to do was write a book,” jokes Kate, “but it was an opportunity to provide an accurate and candid account of what we did.”
“I’m pleased with how it’s come out, because it highlights our experience and the lessons we learnt along the way, but more importantly showcases the breadth of people that were involved.” The taskforce was made up of experts from all walks of life, from both the private and public sectors. “That’s the punchline,” says Kate, “that you don’t have to be a Professor at a top university to contribute, because so many people did.”
Kate is passionate about diversity in the workplace, and advocates for representation of women at the highest levels of seniority. “Even when I was asked to take on the role at the taskforce, my initial reaction was to come up with all the reasons why I couldn’t do the job,” says Kate, “I think that’s a big issue with recruiting women and getting them to put themselves forward.”
“Employers need to be really smart in how they recruit, and it’s important to create opportunities for ambitious women to broaden their experience beyond the companies and institutions that they sit in.”
Kate works to support women to take on board roles to obtain C-Suite experience. “Often, women can’t become company leaders if they don’t have that boardroom experience,” says Kate, “It doesn’t have to be a FTSE100 company, but somewhere you can start to show what you can do and broaden your skills.”
At SV Health Investors, Kate and her team hold their portfolio companies to account when it comes to diversity, highlighting the companies that are doing well, and those that aren’t. “We send out questionnaires for companies to show their gender and ethnic diversity across all levels – from the most junior to the most senior – and then map them so they can see how they perform against others.”
“I don’t advocate for diversity because I’m a woman,” Kate concludes, “I do it because I think you get better outcomes when you have sufficient representation.”
To watch the full recording of the event, please click here.
Dame Kate Bingham
Kate Bingham is the former Chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, where she led a team of world-class experts from across industry, science, academia and government with the shared purpose of finding and manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines. The Taskforce helped place the UK at the leading edge of the international effort to fight the pandemic and it was the first Western country to start vaccination in December 2020. Kate was awarded a DBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in June 2021 for services to the procurement, manufacture and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Kate talks about the “inside Story of the Race to Vaccinate Britain” in her book The Long Shot.
Kate has worked in the biotech sector for 30 years and is Managing Partner at life sciences venture capital firm SV Health Investors. She co-leads SV’s biotech franchise which has a long history of building high value, successful new companies developing transformational new medicines and bringing drugs from discovery to market. Kate is a board member of the Francis Crick Institute. She has a first-class degree in Biochemistry from the University of Oxford and an MBA from Harvard Business School (Baker Scholar). Kate advocates for more women in c-suite and board roles in biotech companies and in science generally.