Professor Chris Abell FRS, FMedSci (1957-2020)

Cambridge Enterprise has lost a longtime champion and great friend, Professor Chris Abell, who died suddenly earlier this week. Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Professor of Biological Chemistry, Chris was a founding director of Cambridge Enterprise and a member of our investment committee.

A biological chemist, Chris pioneered the field of fragment-based drug discovery. A major focus of his research was understanding the mechanisms of key enzymes and the discovery of their inhibitors. This work could lead to new treatments for diseases such as tuberculosis, cystic fibrosis, and cancer.

The advances Chris made in fragment-based drug discovery led him to co-found Astex Pharmaceuticals, a world-leading company in this field, in 1999. It was acquired by Otsuka Pharmaceuticals for $886 million in 2013. Fragment-based approaches to early stage drug discovery are now employed throughout the pharmaceutical industry and in many academic laboratories.

Chris also made important contributions to the development of microfluidic picodroplets as a platform for experimental science, with applications in cell biology, chemistry, and materials science. This led him to co-found Sphere Fluidics (2010) and Aqdot (2013).

His success as an entrepreneur made Chris a natural ally in the creation of Cambridge Enterprise 15 years ago. His enthusiasm for commercialising academic research won over many who were initially skeptical and led the University as whole to see it as a worthy and important activity. “His intelligence, insight, drive, and huge influence were decisive,” said Iain Thomas, Cambridge Enterprise Head of Life Sciences. Equally important, he said, “Chris was not a man who sought the limelight, but instead supported the success of others”.

Teri Willey, Cambridge Enterprise’s founding CEO and now Executive Director at Indiana University Ventures, said: “I am saddened for his family, friends, and colleagues—and I am very sad myself. I am remembering with gratitude Chris’ support on the Board and his exemplary entrepreneurial work—as well as that of a scientist and academic leader”.

Tony Raven, Cambridge Enterprise CEO, said: “Even after stepping back from direct involvement, Chris continued to play influential roles in building strong support in the University for entrepreneurial activities and for Cambridge Enterprise through his enthusiasm and the high respect in which he was held”.

Chris also aided Cambridge Enterprise’s mission by grasping the unique and vital role that postdoctoral researchers play within the University and inculcating this view in a number of ways, including his service as the University’s first Director of Postdoctoral Affairs. Alan Fersht, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Chemistry and former Master of Gonville and Caius College, said, “In addition to all of his other activities, Chris was a prime mover for integrating postdocs in the University”. He added, “We scientists have lost an important member of our community, a real driving force for science”.

A digital condolences book has been set up at:



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