Enhancing lives through science

    Award-winning contract research organisation Reading Scientific Services Ltd (RSSL) is out to make a positive difference to people’s lives. Tim Wickham finds out how.

    Jacinta George, managing director, RSSL

    The Thames Valley Business Magazine Award’s 2019 Company of the Year was recognised for its “constant innovation and application of better solutions to meet the changing needs of new and existing markets”.

    RSSL’s business performance is consistently impressive, having also been a TVBMA finalist in the Management Team of the Year and Best Company to Work For categories, as well as winning Enlightened Employer in the 2019 Women in Business Awards.

    Cutting-edge research

    The contract laboratory is involved in research, analysis, training and consultancy for over 3,000 pharmaceutical and FMCG customers across 60 countries. Strong profitability comes from operating at the premium end of the market, with a team of world-class experts and investment in highly complex laboratory equipment.

    “As a business, we are driven by helping big and small companies to develop and supply products that are safe, innovative and of high quality. That could be bringing new medicines to market or responding to consumer trends like demand for vegan products,” said managing director Jacinta George.

    “We’ve grown rapidly over the past three years, with 17% and 19% increases in annual turnover,” she said. “We are ahead of the contract research market growth rate of around 5-6% per year.”

    Employee focus

    The majority of RSSL’s 260-strong workforce are scientists, drawn from 27 nationalities, and it expects to recruit around 20 people a year. “RSSL is about making a difference in the world rather than chasing sales,” said George, who re-joined RSSL in 2017 after a previous stint as its commercial director, and the time in-between spent at its parent company, the US multinational Mondelēz International.

    Around 65% of RSSL’s employees are women. “I think in science it matters less what your background is if you are good at what you do,” said George. RSSL’s scientists appear to have solved the elusive formula for achieving a better work/life balance. “We offer a range of flexible and work pattern options. We employ people from school leavers to scientists in their 70s, who play an important mentoring role with younger colleagues.”

    RSSL’s new pharmaceutical microbiology laboratory recently opened in Wokingham

    The company is an active supporter of science outreach programmes with the local community and plays an enthusiastic role in STEM days at local schools. “Through the fun of smoking volcanoes, fire and coloured slime we bring science to life. We aim to embody the magic of chemistry and what an impact it has in the world, and why we choose to make a difference in our careers,” said George.

    Sweet success

    The company was set up by Cadbury-Schweppes in the 1980s to research cocoa and drink ingredients. “Locating in Reading was the natural choice as the university has an excellent reputation in food science,” said George. “We connect with university staff and their lecturers run some of our pharmaceutical training modules.”

    There’s a lot of science behind chocolate products and soft drinks as they have complex chemical structures. The pharmaceutical side of the business evolved from this as the market for contract research took off.

    Mondelēz International has invested around £6 million in RSSL over the past decade. As well as expanding the main Whiteknights building and adding a second site on the university campus, in 2019 RSSL opened a third site in Wokingham to meet growing demand for its services.

    Rapid response

    An important part of RSSL’s work is delivered by its 24/7 Emergency Response Service. To date, it has solved more than 15,000 emergency incidents or requests to fast track work. “A lot of our work here is forensic analysis, for example, detecting what has caused a product to become tainted,” said George.

    The company has been involved in detecting the source of nut proteins in products, solving the scandal of horse meat in food products, and helping a pharmaceutical company successfully complete a regulatory filing for a new cancer drug.

    Currently, RSSL is busy advising a number of organisations on post-Brexit contingency planning to meet changing regulatory requirements. The company also continues to seek the most talented people and support those who relocate to the UK. “We welcome people from all over the world and won’t let Brexit be a barrier to this,” promised George.