Kate Bingham

Dame Kate Bingham DBE is the former chair of the COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force.

In her role as chair of the task force, she helped steer the procurement of vaccines and the strategy for their deployment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She was recently awarded a Damehood in the 2021 Queen’s Birthday Honours List, for her services to to the procurement, manufacture and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I am a biochemistry-trained biotech company builder and venture capital investor, mother to three very tall young adults and married to the [very tall] MP for Herefordshire who was one of the founders of NMITE (New Model Institute of Technology and Engineering). As a Managing Partner at SV Health Investors, we develop breaking science and emerging biological understanding of diseases to develop new drugs to address unmet clinical needs. Last year I spent 7 months chairing the UK Vaccine Taskforce to help secure vaccines for the UK and internationally in the fight back against the COVID19 pandemic.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No. I followed the areas that I enjoyed and thought would make a difference and would be fun.

One thing I can say about my own career, is that I got really excited about biochemistry when I was thinking about how you can actually translate that knowledge, for example about genetic mutations, into thinking about how you develop drugs for patients.  Suddenly you could see the practical application of what you were studying in the textbooks in terms of actually changing somebody’s life.

My career is a good example of the need to take a wide view, to collaborate with professionals from other disciplines and that you become good at something by practicing it. You learn by doing.  Which is why I am such a supporter of NMITE which really understands this and has been set up to change the way engineering is taught. It is a very interesting new way of teaching because its focus is on the practical, working in small teams and working very closely with industry.  It will ensure that these important principles are incorporated into its programmes and that will mean that its graduates will be uniquely well placed to enjoy a successful career, from day one.

You recently led the COVID-19 vaccine task force – can you tell us more about this, how you managed teams remotely, the challenges etc?

I was appointed as Chair of the VTF in May 2020 and within weeks had assembled the core team who developed the strategy and plans to secure vaccines for the UK. By July we had signed Heads of Terms agreements with BioNTech/Pfizer, Valneva, Oxford/AZ, followed shortly by GSK, Janssen, Novavax and Moderna. Remote working was actually easier as we lost no time in travel or unproductive chitchat. On December 8 2020, the UK was the first western country to start vaccinating its citizens.

Many of the challenges I faced, and the Task Force team faced, reflected those of any major project or highly complex scientific and engineering undertaking. We needed to work as a team, we needed to make decisions quickly and understand the degree of certainty we could count on when making those decisions. We needed to hone our communication skills as we were working remotely and at pace. Science and engineering, in the real world, are team sports. You need these skills to succeed.

This wasn’t about finding the perfect vaccine. It was about getting vaccines quickly. So, we had that very clear motivation to work quickly. We had the authority to build a team that had the right expertise and we were working in an industry that already was a collaborative industry.  The manufacturing companies had already got together early last year before the Vaccine Task Force was even conceived because they knew they were the ones who were going to have to scale up.

I think there’s a massive lesson about combining industrial expertise with the excellence from the Civil Service, so that we were able to build the team, which covered the vaccine selection, manufacturing clinical trials, and then the pandemic preparedness.  That was a core aspect: to make sure we would be better prepared for next time. Because of course we knew viruses mutate, so variants were expected and of course new pandemics were also expected.  We were able to combine industrial expertise with the expertise from the civil servants in procurement negotiation, in project management and actually in international diplomacy. We were very dependent on working with other countries for supply chains and for thinking about how to work cooperatively to get vaccines to those countries that needed them. I think the lessons about combining the best from industry and the best from government are ones that should be taken forward.

In my view, most of society’s big challenges will only be solved by the integrated work of a wide range of disciplines. The vaccine programme was only possible because of this integrated thinking and the teamwork of a brilliant team of professionals.  Likewise NMITE, because it is teaching “integrated engineering”, will be bringing together the various engineering disciplines and the softer skills that are so important in the real world.

Congratulations on your recent Damehood – how did you feel when you discovered you’d been awarded the Honour?

I am proud but also humbled to be recognised in a year when NHS workers have risked their health and their lives in fighting Covid, and have been at the heart of the vaccine roll out.

The development of vaccines has been a triumph of scientific and industrial collaboration. Just a year ago we were assembling an unproven portfolio of vaccines for the UK. Yet in the last seven months,  over 80m vaccine doses have provided unprecedented protection and saved thousands of lives.

It has been an extraordinary privilege to lead the brilliant Vaccine Taskforce team, and to secure doses for the UK, but which can also be shared with other countries. I am particularly proud of the NHS Registry, which helped the UK to run the vaccine clinical trials quickly. Its hundreds of thousands of volunteers will be essential for us to test pandemic vaccines in the future.

Finally, I am thrilled that so many women have made such enormous contributions to science, healthcare, manufacturing and technology during the pandemic. I hope this encourages more girls to pursue careers in these sectors

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

My unwavering view that you should act as if what do you makes a difference. Because it does. So don’t let hurdles get in your way.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in STEM?

STEM disciplines are so important to the economy, the country and to the well-being and quality of life for us all.  My first piece of advice would be that you should be aware that you are thinking about a career in a field that is very important – STEM disciplines will equip you to make a real positive difference to the world.

Try not to constrain your thinking.  You might think STEM is not for you, perhaps because you feel uncomfortable about the maths involved, or you feel you are better at the arts and creative subjects. Please think again! Good engineers are creative thinkers and imaginative problem solvers.

NMITE’s engineering programme has been designed to include those creative and communication skills which are so important to today’s engineering challenges. If you lack the formal qualifications in maths or physics then don’t worry, because NMITE will bring you up to speed as part of its course to ensure you succeed.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in STEM sectors, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

I do think women face different challenges and speaking for myself, I know I don’t have the same brash confidence as a man. So if I’m asked to do something, I tend to look at the reasons why I can’t do it rather than the reasons I can. I think that is something that we just need to get over.

I think you can be exceptionally good as a woman going into traditionally male dominated industries. Because I think our insight enables us to look at things in different ways and to find different solutions in ways that may not be so obvious.

NMITE is one important measure in the fight to remove these barriers to success that many women face. For a start, it is led by an accomplished female engineer and educator, it aims to achieve a fully gender balanced student population and its approach to recruiting its students, from its admissions processes to the way its programme is delivered – in teams, learning from hands on engineering work and working with real engineering employers. There will be less room for ego and much more for collaboration and communication.

What do you think companies can do to support to progress the careers of women working in technology?

Companies certainly need to ensure they have more women around their Board tables and in senior roles. In my experience, women in the C-suite and on boards are pragmatic and  solution focused.  I don’t think we would have had the same collapse if it had been Lehman Sisters.

NMITE will play a role in this, as it will produce the sort of work-ready engineers that employers need so employers should support NMITE by recommending it to their own work-force or by helping as a partner providing engineering challenges for students to tackle. In the short term, employers could help by supporting NMITE’s ambitious bursary plans to enable it to provide financial support to students who might not otherwise be able to go to University.

There are currently only 17 per cent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

I would triple the pace at which NMITE grows from its launch this year! As that will make a massive difference to the opportunities available to thousands of young people, including women, who might be considering a career in engineering but haven’t to date had access to an innovative Higher Education provider. This would also benefit us all, we’d have more engineers which the country needs; more importantly, we’d have more female engineers and more engineers who are skilled and ready to tackle the great national challenges we face.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech, eg Podcasts, networking events, books, conferences, websites etc?

Join networking groups in the STEM/tech sectors you are interested in. In my field, the BioIndustry Association has great events, conferences, training and leadership events for women.

Find a mentor who can share their experiences to help shape your career and life.

Do look at NMITE, even if you don’t plan to become a student. They run events and seminars for everyone and focus very much on the sort of topics we’ve covered in this interview. They’ll give you a taste of the current debates in engineering and the work they are doing to help increase the number of female engineers.

Dame Kate Bingham DBE was recently interviewed for NMITE where she talked about her experience chairing the Vaccine Task Force (VTF); the similarities she sees between that and the way NMITE will be working; the need for more women in engineering and the impact she thinks NMITE will achieve in the future.