Glad scientists: John Stewart, The Wellcome Trust
30 March 2009
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As general counsel for The Wellcome Trust, John Stewart has found science to be a lot more interesting than it was at school. By Tom Phillips
Here is a tip: if you shunned science at school, take a trip to The Wellcome Trust Exhibition on Euston Road. The space is dedicated to the history of medicine and acts as a talisman for the country’s largest charity.
But first, a history lesson. Established in 1936 on the death of Sir Henry Wellcome, the trust is formed from Wellcome’s will, from which he vested the entire share capital of his successful drug company in individual trustees on the proviso that they use the income to support medical research.
Fastforward nearly 80 years and the trust is the largest charity in the UK, spending more than £600m a year on research to improve the health of humans and animals, including some of the world’s foremost research on biomedicine, malaria and the human genome.
“I hated science at school,” laughs the foundation’s general counsel John Stewart from its modern, glass office opposite Euston Station.
Stewart has seen the trust expand from its first flotation in 1986 into a AAArated investment house with a £13bn portfolio – and his fondness for the sciences has grown “enormously” to match.
The Washington DCborn lawyer moved from Shearman & Sterling 15 years after being instructed by Wellcome on one of the first sales of its GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) shares (the result of a merger between Wellcome and GSK in 1995). The last of those shares were sold off in 2001, but – with the boost of the firstever charity bond issue in 2006 (worth £500m) – the trust has experienced an average of 14.9 per cent growth every year. Money from its commercial operation is fed back into research, with many notable successes.
For the sevenstrong legal team, the hire of a lawyer specialising in investment work last year was testament to the changes a multibillionpound endowment on the open market brings.
“The first bond issue made us subject to legislation that we weren’t covered by before,” explains Stewart. “It enhanced our reputation in the investment world, which has also led to new, interesting legal issues as the investment team here finds new ways of investing.”
For the past 12 months, the legal team has been working on a plan to release more debt. But most pressing for Stewart and his lawyers is a £600m project to build a stateoftheart UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation.
Proposed to open in 2014 on a 13acre site behind St Pancras, Wellcome is working with Cancer Research UK, the Medical Research Council and University College London with the aim of creating a lab that would house 1,200 scientists and compete with similar facilities in the US.
“It’s a fascinating project because if we succeed then it’ll be one of the best centres in the world,” enthuses Stewart, who has the task of navigating some tricky problems before the doors can open, including planning permission issues and consultation with nearby residents over the necessary ‘level3’ containment facility for dealing with pathogens and an animal lab using mice and rats.
“It’s taking an enormous amount of time and resources,” he adds. “When you’re running a commercial project, lawyers tend to be realistic about how much things cost. It’s different for charities.”
Stewart admits it would cost a fortune to have external advisors working on the project, with so many interested parties, all of whom want the best for their charities.
“But that’s why I love working here,” explains Stewart. “When people come from the commercial world they can’t use a costs principle: this costs ‘X’ amount so the profit will be ‘Y’. We’re working on discoveries that won’t happen for another 10 or 20 years, so we have to learn other ways of decisionmaking.”
It is for this reason that it is hard for Stewart to outsource a lot of the work. Private practice has different drivers and complex, timeconsuming discussions between many parties does not suit the commercial lawyer. This is not a problem for Stewart who “loves” working at the unusual organisation.
Wellcome also operates a large exhibition space next door to its office, giving the whole organisation a creative, arts feel.
“One of the things I love about working here is that you have to understand how scientists think and what drives them,” explains Stewart. “They’re not business people and we have to help them occasionally with science funding. I’ve got the perfect job and I think myself very lucky to be here.”
Name: John Stewart
Position: General counsel
Organisation: The Wellcome Trust
Sector: Biomedical research charity
Reporting to: Chief executive Mark Walport
Company turnover: £600m (charitable spend per year)
Number of employees: 500
Legal capacity: Seven
Main external law firms: CMS Cameron McKenna
Total legal spend: £500,000
John Stewart’s CV
1977: Princeton University, Bachelor of Arts cum laude in Politics and Russian Studies
1977: Council of International Educational Exchange, Russian Program at Leningrad State University
1981: University of Virginia, Juris Doctor
1981-83: Associate, Kaye Scholer Fierman Hays & Handler, New York
1983-95: Associate, European counsel, Shearman & Sterling, New York, Athens, London
1995-present: General counsel, The Wellcome Trust