This week I want to write about a hero and friend of mine called Karol Sikora. I think his story is instructive because it shows how you can reinvent your career — after turning 60.
He was born in 1948, the son of a Polish army captain who came to Britain during the Second World War. He went to a state primary school and received a council scholarship to Dulwich College in London. He then studied medical science and biochemistry at Cambridge, where he got a double first. He obtained a PhD in molecular biology and was appointed as a consultant at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge at just 29. He spent 12 years as clinical director for cancer services at Hammersmith Hospital, and later worked for the World Health Organisation and in cancer research at a large pharmaceutical company.
He has also been the main editor of the textbook Treatment of Cancer for six editions over 30 years, is an author of more than 300 scientific papers, and writes for national newspapers.
He is a controversial figure in some quarters because he has criticised the NHS. For too many people, our creaking healthcare system is akin to a religion — and they attack anyone who dares to suggest that it doesn’t work very well.
In 2008, Professor Sikora celebrated his 60th birthday, but he was bored and wanted new challenges. So he became an entrepreneur and co-founded Cancer Partners UK, which rapidly constructed the largest network of private-public outpatient cancer centres in Britain. He raised venture capital and served as the clinical director for the business as it opened 10 state-of-the-art centres over four years, mainly providing radiotherapy treatment but also diagnostic tests and chemotherapy.
After six years, the company was sold for more than £100m to Australia’s GenesisCare, realising an excellent return for its backer, Apposite Capital.
During the same period, the restless Sikora was creating something else — the University of Buckingham Medical School, opened in 2015 with Sikora as the inaugural dean. It was his tireless endeavour that had brought it into being. He persuaded the medical and educational regulators to accredit the school; he helped to recruit faculty staff and students, devise the curriculum and find hospital partners for clinical placements; and he made sure the university kept faith with the project. The school, whose council I chair, has more than 100 undergraduates a year.
More recently, Sikora has raised more than £150m from investors as co-founder of Proton Partners International, which is building a series of facilities that will be the first to offer proton beam therapy in Britain. This produces fewer harmful side-effects than conventional radiotherapy, and there are more than 40 proton centres across the world — but none in the UK. Five centres owned and operated by Sikora’s company are likely to be up and running in the next few years, treating private and NHS patients.
I had planned to become a doctor but instead got a degree in physiology and pursued a career in business rather than medicine. One reason I gave up my early ambition was that I realised hospitals and the NHS are very hierarchical and institutionalised — and that wasn’t me.
Generally, entrepreneurs struggle within such cultures because groupthink can dominate and contrarians tend to do badly. Yet new techniques — be they ways of treating patients, funding health facilities or educating students — can widen choice, improve health outcomes and boost productivity. Unfortunately, public monoliths such as the NHS are poor at adopting new models or embracing mavericks.
Sikora enjoyed a stellar and varied career treating patients and carrying out research, yet decided to break free and do something radical and bold at an age when many are thinking of retirement. He used his reputation and knowledge to embark on a new chapter in his life, raising private money to offer innovative treatments to cancer patients and opening a ground-breaking medical school. He has created jobs, widened access to medical training and generated wealth for investors. Yet despite all his achievements, he has never received an honour, demonstrating just how bad the system is at recognising the real pioneers who are not easily pigeon-holed. Not enough British doctors seize the enormous opportunities that healthcare can offer to determined entrepreneurs.
Sikora is a brilliant example of how someone with energy and enthusiasm can make a hugely positive impact on society — at almost any age.