‘Fail quickly and move on. And always cherish and celebrate your unsung heroes’: Jonathan de Pass on his unique career path

Jonathan de Pass (MBChB 1979) graduated with a degree in Medicine in 1979. After working as a junior doctor, and a spell at business school, he joined an investment bank specialising in financing pharmaceutical and bioscience companies. In 1996 he founded Evaluate, a provider of data and intelligence to the bioscience industry which would become a market leader.

A recipient of an honorary graduate degree this year, Jonathan shares insights into his unique career path and his advice to those starting out today.

How did you move from medicine to setting up your own company?
When I was starting out, we talked about professional careers as if they were ladders – rigid and inflexible. Once you were on the ladder, there was a timetable, and you couldn’t easily move sideways or jump off. You knew where you were going, which has its advantages, but it didn’t appeal to me.

I preferred my own timetable – I liked to veer off the beaten track. I remember being inspired by medical graduates who were famous as comedians, writers, politicians. I may not have had their talents, but I was impatient for change.

With this in mind, I dived straight into a business venture, which went absolutely nowhere. It failed, but it failed in the best possible way – quickly. The great lessons from that experience changed me.

Nowadays it’s quite common to develop your own unique career path, but it wasn’t when I was starting out. Perhaps it is even more imperative to do so these days, given the way the world is changing. We must be flexible, alert to new opportunities, and embrace lifelong learning.

Who or what has inspired you along the way?
I’ve been inspired by many of the people I’ve worked with over the years who have been so helpful to me, as well as being exceptional at what they do. I call them my unsung heroes because they often don’t get the recognition they deserve. To give you an example, before I went to business school I took a six-month job in psychiatry. My boss was authoritative but not authoritarian, had exemplary people skills and could calm everyone in any situation. He was a person of great integrity – consistent in his behaviour, attentive to the details and he really listened. He exemplified all the traits of effective leadership. Throughout my business career I used to think of him – if I got into a tricky situation I’d think, how would he deal with it?

Whatever your chosen career path, there are a few things I would recommend. Explore and develop yourself and your ideas. If you fail, fail quickly and move on. Always cherish and celebrate your unsung heroes. Notice the delightful small steps, and the big ones too.

How did studying at Bristol prepare you for your life beyond university?
Medicine combines the academic with the practical, so it prepares you for absolutely anything. The academic side makes you curious while the practical makes you want to roll up your sleeves, work in a team, solve problems and get the best out of people. What I learnt at Bristol has been invaluable, and the platform to my career.

You trained as a doctor and have since worked in healthcare research. What interests you most about healthcare today?
If you look at advances in medicine over the last 40 years, there have been some amazing transformations, especially in cancer and cardiovascular research. Some of the big unmet medical needs today are mental health and central nervous system research and support. Infectious diseases have also now come to the fore. That’s why my wife George and I were pleased to fund some of the COVID-19 research that was being done at Bristol. Autism research is a big focus for us too – it’s such a widespread condition and we need to get better at understanding and supporting people with it.

You are a passionate advocate for Bristol’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Why is it important to encourage a culture of innovation among our students?
When I stepped back from my own career, I wanted to support the next generation of entrepreneurs. Enterprise is really important – we can’t rely on monolithic organisations, whether government or companies, to address all the myriad problems out there. There is a lot of potential in entrepreneurial ventures, and we need to encourage the people behind them as much as possible. It’s a hard road – I know because I’ve been there myself.

What advice would you give to graduating students?
At Evaluate I would say to staff, ‘love your work, get a life’. In other words, find work you’re passionate about but don’t let it take over. Make sure you prioritise time for yourself and your loved ones. I would also advise hiring people who are better than you.

What does being a Bristol alumnus mean to you?
My relationship with my Bristol classmates is lifelong. It’s really heartening to have friends who’ve known you all the way through, especially at this stage where many of us are wrapping up our careers. There have been periods along the way where we weren’t in touch, but reconnecting has been very enriching.

My relationship to the University means a lot too. For the last twenty years we’ve lived nearby so the city feels very accessible, and I’ve been involved in a number of ways. It’s meant I can see the University developing and hear about its ambitions. I get a lot from my relationship to Bristol – we wanted to give to the University, and now it’s giving back to me all these years later.

Jonathan and Georgina de Pass have made significant philanthropic donations to healthcare research and the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Bristol. For information on how you can support Bristol, click here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *