Alumni voices: Ajan Reginald

20 Feb 2019
Richard Lofthouse

Image description: 

Ajan has returned to hockey at the national level, playing for England Masters as well as mentoring younger players

Ajan (Kellogg, 2014) is the highflying CEO and co-founder with Nobel Laureate Sir Martin Evans in 2009, of a stem cell health company called Celixir. The company and its research stands, in 2019, at a very exciting juncture, yet his career is remarkable for the manner in which he turned around a dismal situation that could easily have unseated someone less determined.

A brilliant hockey player, Ajan trialled for England as a teenager and was playing at the highest level for top London club Southgate. ‘Hockey was really important for me,’ he recalls – it was the dominant part of his life in the 1990s. Age 16, he thought nothing of a stray ball hit to his left eye, but then it happened again a few years down the road.

‘It was a short corner. The ball came out of that corner at 70, 80 mph. It hit another player, deflected off him and accelerated – into my left eye. The orbit protects the eye. I didn’t lose my eye. But I did lose a little fragment of my sight in the bottom left quadrant, and the accident exacerbated the initial hit when I was sixteen.’

In another career this might not have mattered, but Ajan chose dentistry like many immediate family members around him. It was in his blood and he wanted to do it. ‘I did the whole hog training and qualification: five years and then another five practising. But there was an issue with using a mirror. Certain things I thought I could see but I could not, and it led to some clinical errors. As soon as this became evident I voluntarily resigned my license.’

So here he was, with both his identities, hockey and dentistry, lying in pieces on the floor like a smashed vase.

‘It was what Roman Emperor Julius Caesar would have called a ‘crucible event,’ he laughs. This was in 2002, when he was 29. ‘I remember it as an absolute low. It was a very grey and cold winter, 2001-2…’

Interestingly, however, Ajan had by then bought a couple of dental practises and this business side of him gradually awakened. ‘Dentistry is not a transferable skill,’ and that was a massive worry for me and for my parents.’ ‘But I knew I was good at taking exams so I turned immediately to education again and began studying very hard for the US business school qualification, the GMAT. He achieved a ‘really good score’ and that was an objective cause for new hope that led to a Fulbright Scholarship at Kellogg Business School in Chicago.

From here to Boston Consulting Group, where he worked in the biomedical science area, a way to utilise his experience as a dentist. ‘You know, this was so hard. The volume of work and the speed at which I had to do it, a shock! I had never before worked in business, unlike lots of people around me. And yet I was so grateful for this second career, it was like, ‘OK, I’m being paid to work. All-nighter? No problem – just get on with it.’

And then it all flourished. Ajan discovered that he was a consummate deal maker and was poached by Roche, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant, moving to Basel 2004-9 as their head of business development.

What’s the secret, I ask? Ajan pauses to consider this. ‘I had an intuitive feel for new technologies and how to develop them,’ he says. ‘But the empathy that I had learned working directly with patients might have been equally or more important. I think that is how I was Global Head of Emerging Technologies at Roche by 2009 – a dream job because it gave me the global horizon to scan and a brief to anticipate and discover the technologies that would change medicine.’

Ajan has combined business and hobby to support Hockey for Heroes

The leap from here to a start-up was a natural progression, even while it might not seem so. He met the world-famous Nobel Laureate Sir Martin Evans, who sat on Roche’s scientific advisory board. Sir Martin is known for his ground-breaking work isolating and cultivating embryonic stem cells in 1981. Four decades on and that research was ready to be applied to human patients, but at the high-risk, biotech start-up end of the industry.

Buoyed by three successive funding rounds since inception, Celixir has developed a stem cell treatment called Heartcel, that has successfully led to the regrowth and part re-function of hearts in patients who would otherwise have been expected to die.

‘Smaller companies are better at developing a proof of concept. It’s a market approach to risk. The winners will be absorbed by the larger established companies at a significant premium to their valuations.’

‘Sir Martin and I intuitively believed that we could develop a drug. We knew what didn’t work. Admittedly we had no data to prove it, but we had a strong hunch and sometimes that’s enough. For the first six months there were no employees. We sat there with a piece of paper. We now have artificial cells that have a characteristic allowing parts of the human body to regenerate, whether the left ventricle of the heart or certain tendons.’

Celixir now has approximately 45 employees and a growing global presence including strong links to Oxford.

Ajan says, ‘Advancement in medicine has been quite good at curing esoteric diseases, but heart disease remains elusive. We have achieved successful clinical trials in this area and our original hunch seems to be right.’

Ajan’s hockey career has also regenerated. He has been mentoring and coaching youngsters and pays now for the England Masters, ‘a great honour.’

It goes to show that when your career hits an apparently insoluble problem, that can turn out to be its salvation if viewed creatively and with a strong sense of openness and determination.

Pictures courtesy of the Ajan Reginald.

Ajan is a Fulbright Scholar and alumni of Harvard Business School (AMP), University of Oxford (MSC, Experimental Therapeutics), Kellogg Business School (MBA) and London University (BDS). He plays hockey and has represented England at World and European Masters Hockey Championships.

Add new comment