First-hand experience of the benefits of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) transformed Robert Miller’s life and set him on a new career path. Today, he is chief executive officer of Phynova, a multi-million pound life science company which has just beaten some of the biggest names in the pharma world to be the first European drug manufacturer to bring TCM to the UK high street. Headquarted in Long Hanborough, Oxfordshire, and with a research centre in Beijing, China, the company focuses on developing proprietary natural healthcare products from the compounds found in plants and foods. Having spent the past 30 years working in the industry, Miller says it has been a ‘long journey’, but he is as passionate now about changing the perception of Chinese medicine as he’s ever been.
Raised in Palo Alto, California, Robert Miller’s lifestyle underwent a dramatic change aged 13, when his father’s career brought the family to London. Studying at the American School, he returned to his homeland to attend university in Boston but dropped out because he found it “boring”. A spell on newspapers was followed by a move into event management, with a focus on the burgeoning alternative energy sector. It was when he became ill and was introduced to the benefits of TCM that he had his “wow” moment and realised there were huge opportunities to develop the medicines for the Western world. Phynova was launched in 2002 and now successfully bridges the innovation gap between the East’s traditional medicines and the Western need for science-based evidence and regulation. In 2013, the company was awarded a prestigious Innovate UK grant and later that year Miller was a member of the British business delegation that accompanied prime minister David Cameron on his first trade mission to China. Miller is married and lives near Chipping Norton with his wife and children.
Moving to London must have been a culture shock
When I was growing up, Palo Alto was idyllic, it wasn’t the hothouse financial and technology centre it is today. To go from skateboarding on Sand Hill Road to taking the Underground was quite some change. I was very independent though, being a young foreigner in a foreign country was a real eye opener and it made me very internationally orientated. My father’s job meant plenty of visitors came through our home from different parts of the world. It made me appreciate that the world was a lot bigger and more interesting than my very nice life in Palo Alto.
What was your first job?
University hadn’t inspired me. I wanted to get out and experience things in the real world – I think entrepreneurs tend to be like that. My first entrepreneurial venture was event management, I had to do everything – from sales, PR, logistics, production – that was needed to make the events successful. It was also then that I became quite ill with chronic bronchitis.
How did that change your life?
I was unwell for over a year and it was extremely debilitating. I was living outside Boston and I had a very good doctor who tested me for absolutely everything, treated me with various drugs that had no effect, and eventually he didn’t know what else to do. A Chinese friend of mine suggested I went to a Chinese doctor called Mr Ho in Boston’s Chinatown – I think when you’re so ill you get quite desperate and I thought I had nothing to lose, so I went. He asked me all sorts of questions, and in most cases, the questions were spot on. My first reaction was that he was more like a fortune teller, which was a bit scary. He gave me a prescription for the local Chinese herbal pharmacy in Boston’s Chinatown and I came away with what looked like a bag of twigs, which tasted pretty appalling when you boiled them up. After a difficult first week of taking the decoctions there was a marked improvement in my condition. I went back to Mr Ho and came away with a modified prescription and by the end of the second week I was a lot better, almost completely normal. He told me the illness had been the result of what in western medicine might be described as congenital weakness in my constitution. He gave me a new prescription made into honey pills – herbs ground into a powder and mixed with honey – which he said would help strengthen me after my long illness. The pills had to be sent from Hong Kong and, after taking them every day for two months, I felt fantastic.
That was my wow moment – having had the best treatment available from a highly-qualified doctor in Boston, conventional medicine wasn’t able to help get over my illness in the way that my TCM doctor had done. It had changed my life and I thought that if Chinese medicine had been able to help me with my intractable illness then it must be able to do that for other people as well, and I saw it as a great opportunity.
What was your first step?
I originally started a business with a friend who was a PhD chemist, making plant derived extracts for different applications, such as drinks and supplements. I learned a lot about the technical issues of working with plants and after a few years I sold up and came back to the UK. I went into property development, renovating run-down buildings, which was very successful, but almost as a hobby, I still wanted to do something with TCM.
I started a small company importing herbs from China for doctors and acupuncturists and then partnered up with a well-known TCM practitioner from the Cotswolds. As the business grew, I became more and more interested in the concept. I knew from my own experiences that in the right trained hands TCM can be very beneficial, but I could also see there was a lot missing in terms of quality control and science.
How did the business develop?
I started Phynova with the idea of using Chinese medicinal plants as a discovery engine for the development of new drugs. By taking traditional Chinese knowledge and applying modern biotech techniques and science, we have been able to discover new compounds and treatments for a variety of medical conditions. I teamed up with Chinese scientists – who still work with me today – who have great expertise in working with medicinal plants and phytochemistry. It’s something Phynova has become very good at and now we collaborate with companies around the world.
We’re focused on what active compounds you can extract from these plants and, given there are about 10,000 plants with a long history of use in Chinese medicine, it is an excellent source of new leads. We’ve been relatively successful in developing several products, the latest of which is a new cold and flu relief remedy currently awaiting regulatory approval that we have developed jointly with a Chinese pharmaceutical company.
What drives you?
To develop products which will be beneficial to as many people as possible.
What has been your greatest achievement?
A pretty big milestone was gaining UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) approval for our Phynova Joint and Muscle Relief tablets as the first Chinese medicine to be licensed in the UK. It took three and a half years and a lot of people didn’t ever believe it would happen. It’s now available online and from this month will be in Holland & Barrett stores.
Probably the most pleasure, however, is when we receive letters from people saying how much they have been helped by one of our products – that’s a really great feeling.
What’s the secret of your success?
I have a real determination to succeed and I’m also a very stubborn and persistent person. My father was an executive with a large global business and I think wanting to be an entrepreneur was probably in some ways a reaction to what I didn’t like about big companies. However, I do think entrepreneurs are born with genes that encourage them to explore different ways of doing things and an ability to cope with risk.
What’s your next goal?
Our immediate goal is to make the most of our collaboration with our Chinese partner, Xiangxue Pharmaceuticals. We’ve recently filed a second application with the MHRA for a cold and flu medicine that Xiangxue manufactures and sells in China. We hope to get this product approved as soon as possible and continue to register several more OTC products as well.
Are you involved in any community projects?
When my son was younger he played football for the Steeple Aston and Barton Football Club where I was chairman for a few years. During that period I worked with other dedicated dads and we raised £300,000 of grant funding to rebuild the pitch and the clubhouse. With two sons and two daughters though, I don’t find time for much else other than trying to keep track of them.
What do you do on your time off?
I spend a lot of time doing intellectual, mental things, so at weekends I enjoy something more physical and find working in the garden very relaxing. Growing up I was very fond of baseball but now I’ve become very interested in cricket – they’re both good games if you like statistics.
Your final word
It’s been a long journey but now the benefits of the products that Phynova has developed from plants used in TCM are finally proving to be effective and that’s very satisfying.