Anthony Finbow of Eagle Genomics: “My career has been very varied”

The naysaying has been a constant throughout my career, and for the first half of it I believed people and had a chip on my shoulder. I would bang my head on the wall until it gave way. It’s why I did law, investment banking and so on — I was always trying to address perceived gaps […]

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The naysaying has been a constant throughout my career, and for the first half of it I believed people and had a chip on my shoulder. I would bang my head on the wall until it gave way. It’s why I did law, investment banking and so on — I was always trying to address perceived gaps in my capability set. That was until I finally realized that others don’t necessarily know any better, or have been conditioned to see barriers. One thing I will say about the many different paths I have pursued: it has made me more confident in alien environments. I am comfortable building into the empty space.


As a part of our series about “dreamers who ignored the naysayers and did what others said was impossible”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anthony Finbow.

Anthony Finbow is CEO at Eagle Genomics (www.eaglegenomics.com), a Cambridge, UK-based company applying network science to biology — particularly linked to the microbiome. Its advanced technology platform is supporting advanced scientific discovery to enable next-generation food, personal care, cosmetics and agritech products. Eagle Genomics recently announced 9M dollars in new scale-up funding which will see the company expand its activities across continental Europe and North America.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us your ‘backstory’?

I spent the first half of my career trying to show people what I was made of. I was told at school that I wouldn’t get any O Levels, and I had to pay to do Math as they didn’t think it was worth putting me in for the exam. I didn’t do brilliantly, but I left with the 5 O Levels I needed to get onto a technician apprenticeship scheme at British Airways. Flying runs in my family (my grandfather was a navigator of Wellington bombers in the Second World War and my great-grandfather was a founding member of the RAF), but I have terrible eyesight so this was the next best thing. Sadly, BA made lots of cuts soon after the apprenticeship so the opportunity ended there.

My career has been very varied. My first really exciting job was with a laser and electro-optics company called Rofin-Sinar during its start-up phase. I was taken under the wing of the chief technology officer, Dr. Robert Angus, who told me my talent would be wasted unless I went to university. I’d studied for the equivalent of A Levels at night school. These and the support of Dr Angus got me into Reading University to study cybernetics and control engineering — a forerunner to modern AI which was a super interesting degree.

But my path to where I am now has not been in a straight line. I followed a girl to Berlin (before the wall came down) where, alongside three days a week working for IBM, I learnt German. By then I was tired of engineering and wanted to do something new. I was very interested in rowing (I’d been on the crew at Reading, even beating Oxford University’s Blue Boat). So I applied to continue my studies at Cambridge University — keen to get onto their rowing team.

I applied to do teacher training, with a view to becoming a Physics teacher, but soon realized this wasn’t the right fit for me at the time. I talked myself onto a condensed law course, and graduated with a degree in law. I became involved in corporate law, which took me back to Berlin and privatization work in the former East Germany. I became fascinated with industry and business, and moved into investment banking for a while.

It’s been a rather circuitous route, but by this time I had amassed financial, legal and managerial skills alongside my engineering background, all of which laid the groundwork for where I am today. I realized I missed working in industry, so I joined an Internet software company. Technology has been a common thread for the last 20 years of my career, spanning networked data analytics to healthcare administration.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Absolutely. I consider what I am doing now to be the great work of my life. In brief terms, Eagle Genomics is enabling a new era of understanding of the microbiome in the health of people and our planet, which will change everything. It was personal experience that put me on this path, which is worth explaining.

When I got involved with developing early-stage tech companies, it was at the start of the Internet boom, which soon turned to bust — and the stress nearly killed me. A duodenal ulcer led to diagnosis of an autoimmune disease. The doctors didn’t rate my chances, but I started reading, learning about the microbiome and its role in health and illness. Through an improved diet, exercise and the support of open-minded medical specialists, I made a full recovery. And my fascination with the role of the microbiome in health stayed with me. There is so much more to understand. And that’s the path Eagle Genomics is on, enabling deeper understanding of microbial interactions.

In terms of how it will help people, the world is beginning to realize that the microbiome is implicated in conditions such as obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes and hypertension. Even cancerous tumors have a microbiome signature. This knowledge is influencing immune-oncology interventions. It’s thought that a healthy microbiome can boost the efficacy of treatments, whereas chemotherapy damages the microbiome and can reduce the efficacy of other interventions. The connected scientific analysis our technology enables is critical in exploring these interrelationships.

In your opinion, what do you think makes your company or organization stand out from the crowd?

It’s the unique blend of network science, AI, multi-layered graph technology (for understanding the correlations between different types of data), causal interference programming, and our ability to apply all of this to further the world’s knowledge about the role of the microbiome. This is a highly complex field that has been poorly understood until now. It involves working at a nano scale with invisible organisms and, up to this point, sparse data. Causal interference programming enables root cause analysis, linking data and statistical models to infer causes of illness that can be further investigated.

Ok, thank you for that. I’d like to jump to the main focus of this interview. Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us? What was your idea? What was the reaction of the naysayers? And how did you overcome that?

The naysaying has been a constant throughout my career, and for the first half of it I believed people and had a chip on my shoulder. I would bang my head on the wall until it gave way. It’s why I did law, investment banking and so on — I was always trying to address perceived gaps in my capability set. That was until I finally realized that others don’t necessarily know any better, or have been conditioned to see barriers. One thing I will say about the many different paths I have pursued: it has made me more confident in alien environments. I am comfortable building into the empty space.

In the end, how were all the naysayers proven wrong? 🙂

I hope my tenacity speaks for itself. The “I’ll show them” mantra is a model we use to drive us on. It was certainly my narrative before, but now I am in a position where I am perfectly positioned to use all the skills and experience I have gained throughout my long and varied career to address a grand challenge, and that alone is what spurs me on now. This is my passion.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My grandfather was a huge inspiration. He was a self-taught dilettante engineer, scientist and inventor. He designed and built amazing model airplanes, and even worked on an anti-gravity machine! It was super inspiring to a young boy to have such an eccentric grandfather. In so many ways I see his characteristics mirrored in me.

But I think the person that really transformed my fortunes, by having such faith in me, was Dr. Robert Angus, at the laser company I worked for early in my career — the one who encouraged me to go to university. He gave me the lift I needed, and wrote a letter of recommendation.

I owe a great deal to rowing too, as the great team sport that it is.

It must not have been easy to ignore all the naysayers. Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share the story with us?

I’ve talked about my early years already. The fact that I turned my own health crisis 15 years ago into my life’s passion — this desire to inspire new medical breakthroughs using the latest technology and data science — is probably the strongest example of my turning things around. That tenacity was built on a lifetime’s experiences.

Based on your experience, can you share 5 strategies that people can use to harness the sense of tenacity and do what naysayers think is impossible? (Please share a story or an example for each)

I’ve probably already mentioned my best examples.

My main advice would be to abandon the belief that others know better, and start to trust your intuition. That’s very important.

I’ve also read a lot of strategy books, and still do — voraciously. This is crucial if you want to really understand an environment and get ahead of the current thinking.

The other thing, which I am very proud of here at Eagle Economics, is building the right team around you. You’ll never be successful unless you have the right people around you, to test out ideas with, especially at an early stage. This is as much about people’s mind-set and the culture you establish. You have to look beyond what’s on people resumes and understand their intrinsic motivation — do they want to share the journey you’re on?

What is your favorite quote or personal philosophy that relates to the concept of resilience?

I’m tremendously influenced by a whole range of philosophers, as well as mystics, Hindu philosophy, Buddhist philosophy and Taoism in China. I particularly like the concept of ‘Wu Wei’, which translates as ‘Doing, not doing’ — where you’re ‘working, but not working’ because you’re so aligned with what you’re trying to achieve and are harnessing the forces around you.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

This is something I would love to do more of — using my journey to excite and encourage others. Social mobility in the UK is collapsing. Not everyone has access to the kind of mentorship or the inspiration I had. So I would love to do more to help people on their journey to fulfilment- to counteract the influence of people who say they ‘can’t’.

I did start down this path for a while with Radouane Oudrhiri, our CTO. We tried talking to members of the particular trade department or government division about the concept of an alternative apprenticeship, one that equips people to make or do things and be entrepreneurial at the same time. There are lots of lessons you learn from making things that are important.

I was enormously inspired by Professor Neil Gershenfeld, the director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, who founded the ‘fab lab’ maker movement. He recognized that most students are stuck in their heads, and got people into the labs to inspire creativity and entrepreneurship.

Professor Gershenfeld work in connection with biology is fascinating too, particularly around the ‘rhizome’ — nature’s ‘3D printer’ (DNA is transcribed and then translated into protein). It provides inspiration for future technology, and unlocks some of the secrets of biology. He has been instrumental in my own focus on the science, but he’s also a fantastic example of someone who wants to inspire and enable others.

Can our readers follow you on social media?

Find me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/anthonyfinbow/

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