For a man who has lost count of the number of patents to his name and who has helped build and transform multiple products and businesses, Paul Davis left school at 16 with a record distinguished only by the fact that it was unremarkable.
“I was just jogging along. I didn’t have a hunger to stretch myself or achieve anything,” he recalls. “I joined Unilever in 1965 as a mediocrity in a role as a lab technician at the lowest level possible, which has since been eliminated.”
Yet over the following three decades, he launched pioneering health products such as Clearblue, the simple pregnancy test that has been used globally since 1988. The broader applications of the underlying lateral flow technology he jointly developed to simple at-home “point of care” diagnostics have since had widespread impact, not least in the coronavirus kit produced by his company Mologic.
Davis co-founded, sold, bought back and this summer converted his business into a pioneering social enterprise. It provides low-cost testing for a growing range of diseases, with a vision to provide affordable global health services to the poor. At 74, he has eased back on his “day job” but shows little sign of winding down. As he puts it: “I work a three-day week and a four-day weekend.”
When asked to explain the stepping stones in his varied career, he cites a string of mentors and managers who helped him advance up the corporate ladder while supporting his part-time undergraduate and postgraduate study in chemistry and immunology.
At Unilever, Iain Anderson, Philip Porter and Howard Preston were among the leaders he says “gave me the confidence that I could do complex things, and a hunger to pursue qualifications.” In academia, Davis credits his supervisors just as generously.
Prof George Feinberg [at the University of London] “sparked my enthusiasm and made immunology so interesting and understandable, it was a really important milestone” on a masters. His PhD examiner Prof Alister Voller “gave me a hard time” while inspiring him with his work on diagnostic science and tropical diseases.
Reflecting on his career, he says: “I can’t actually remember how many patents I’ve got.” He is more interested in the secrets behind his breakthroughs, including the essential role of teamwork with his co-inventors. He claims more personal credit for identifying practical applications of the research.
“Unilever was doing wonderful things in immunology, but couldn’t see the link to consumer goods”. He mobilised a team to develop Clearblue, which drew on his scientific expertise to convert what had been a cumbersome laboratory test into a simple dipstick that women could use at home; and then producing a more rapid version to keep ahead of competitors.
He also worked on food allergies and animal vaccines at Unilever before being appointed to the role of “research creativity mentor” at the end of the 1990s. “It sounded very strange and I was not sure I wanted it, but it was a great experience to reflect on all the things I had been doing and look at how people can thrive creatively in a large company.”
Davis says one of his greatest insights came from the psychologist Michael Kirton’s “cognitive continuum”, which distinguishes innovators and adaptors. “I realised I am towards the right hand side as an innovator, and don’t like too much attention to detail, rigour or attending to rules. My bosses were always extreme adaptors and wanted to work within a framework.”
In business you need both sorts of people, he says. “In discovery mode, you want most of your team to be towards the innovator end but if you stay there, your product will never end up being commercialised because you don’t have discipline to get it through all the regulatory processes. Your team must be able to shift.”
He mentions three ingredients for success. First, innovators are rarely motivated just to make money and usually do not rise to the top roles in business. “It’s because they love what they are doing. What they look for is recognition.”
Second, trust and openness are essential. “You should encourage an environment in which you can be critical as long as you have made it clear you are doing it with good intent.”
Third, “people are who they are”: innovation comes not from trying to turn “adaptors” into “innovators” or the reverse, but ensuring managers bring the two personality types together effectively to pursue successful new product development — something that is often difficult in large corporate bureaucracies. “That’s why large drug companies swallow up and feed off small ones.”
In 2000, he helped Unilever create its own business incubator to foster internal creativity. He was soon pitching his own ideas. “I thought why don’t I have a go myself? I enjoyed being a mentor, but I enjoyed even more being the inventor.”
He launched multiple businesses including one inspired by the way honey bees detect odours in the air, which sought to identify a range of substances including explosives; and another which produced a new generation of wound treatments.
Mologic, the holding company he co-founded in 2003 as chief scientific officer, has launched tests for infection in dialysis and Covid-19, and is in advanced development for others including for malaria, measles, Yellow Fever, respiratory problems and sepsis.
It brought in third party investors and was sold in 2009 to bring in more funding and critical mass to support the costs of R&D. The commercial constraints limited the scope for providing affordable diagnostics for tropical diseases such as Ebola in low income countries. Ultimately, defying others’ advice to steer away or to cut staffing heavily, Davis helped co-ordinate a buyback in 2015.
“Our whole purpose was to be a worthwhile company that would solve problems for mankind,” he says. Initially with donor grants, and since July 2021 with the full acquisition of Mologic by social impact investors led by George Soros’ Open Society Foundations and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, he hopes that vision can be achieved.
It and a partner business are now “companies limited by guarantee” without shareholders but with stakeholders who have a commitment to reinvesting any profits back into the business, and a model designed to generate revenues from sales of its products in richer countries to subsidise widespread and affordable distribution in poorer ones. “We’re a pretty unconventional company in many ways. We’ve tended to be very much at the innovator end.”
In the new Mologic, he says: “my son [who is on the board] sees one of his roles as to protect me from the rough and tumble of the commercial deal making, allowing me to concentrate on this swansong.”
Alongside Mologic’s projects, Davis is working with his daughter on a test for tapeworms in horses. He is involved in conservation projects and wants to write more in an attempt to increase scientific communication with the public.
He has also started looking at “how to work with those who want to retire and do something different but wish to be relevant and use what experience and memory they have left.” Davis may be stepping back from full-time work, but this is no passive retirement.