Public Success, Private Grief

The extraordinary life of a regular contributor to The Naked Scientists radio show, Peter Cowley - angel investor, cancer patient and dad...
24 April 2024


Peter Cowley and Liesbeth Blom


Peter Cowley (68) is a well-known private investor in early stage tech companies and a regular contributor to The Naked Scientists radio show, who has just published a new book about the extreme ups and downs of his life, the lessons he has learned – the hard way – and how he is using his science-oriented mindset to battle the terminal cancer he has been living with for over two years.

Here, together with his wife Liesbeth Blom, he gives us an insight into what you'll find on the pages of Public Success, Private Grief, which published this month... 

Peter has been hugely successful in his professional life. He studied Engineering and Computer Science before becoming an entrepreneur. He founded a dozen technology companies and then used his experience to become an angel investor, coaching as well as providing capital to startups. He has been President of the European Business Angels Network (EBAN), and a board member of the Global Business Angels Network (GBAN), he co-founded an investment firm, was listed in The Sunday Times’ impactful entrepreneur rankings, ‘The Maserati 100’ and, in 2014, won UK Business Angel of the Year. In 2023 he was awarded an honorary doctorate at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. He has lectured, published and spread the word about the realities - the joys and pitfalls - of angel investing all over the world.

That is Peter’s public face. But he documents in his new book an entirely different side to his life, showing the private tribulations and tragedies which have fuelled his drive and ambition.

In the book, Peter explains how he has coped with the suicides of two of his three sons, the most recent in 2022. But his troubles started much earlier. He lost a brother to leukaemia aged 21, and battled alcoholism for years, culminating in what he calls his “lost decade” in the 1990s while running his small technology business in Cambridge.

Peter: “I had started to drink quite heavily at university. My brother died soon after and we didn’t talk about this as a family, which led to me burying my feelings. My way of coping was to keep very busy and to take charge of my life more firmly by grasping an opportunity to move to Germany. It was a great chance that distracted me from the grief for my brother, but it didn’t help the drinking, as, at that time in Bavaria, a half litre of beer was cheaper than a soft drink! After returning to the UK, my drinking became more and more problematic, ruining my health, my relationships, my finances and threatening my life. As an example of the severity of the problem, I used to drink neat gin and vodka for breakfast, and alcoholism no doubt played a part in the separation from my first wife, the mother of my children. At the same time, I was what was called a "high-functioning" alcoholic: I managed to run the business with the help of staff, who would take phone calls if my speech was too slurred or drive me to customer meetings if I couldn’t. A particularly low point came in 1999, when I blew more than three times over the limit in a breathalyser test. This happened after climbing Ben Nevis with a bottle of gin disguised with orange juice in my pocket. I had taken my 15-year-old son up with me in the car, drinking all the way with the madness of the practising alcoholic, until halfway to Scotland he decided I was too drunk and phoned his grandparents to come and rescue him. I went on alone to climb the mountain, but on the drive back to England, I was finally caught and received a 24-month driving ban in the resulting court case. On the day of the court case, a very good friend encouraged me to go to my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Nevertheless, I carried on drinking until it got to the point where I decided I’d rather be dead than carry on as an alcoholic – my true rock bottom - and the same friend then helped me get into a rehab clinic. I finally got sober in March of 2000, although it took quite some time for my family to start trusting me again. Alcoholism is a terrible disease. Years later, it claimed my sister’s life, aged just 51.”

In 2009, Peter lost his middle son to suicide. “Having a child die is probably the most extreme tragedy that anybody can have, and I didn’t turn to the bottle to be anaesthetised by that.” He had been sober for nine years by then, and if there was ever a moment to turn to drink, that would have been it, but “I had already become very precious about the length of my sobriety by then. I knew how shit life was when I was drinking.”

One of the coping strategies he developed to deal with his son’s death was to understand what had happened and why, building up his own narrative, “so that I was comfortable and could settle into grieving without it consuming me”. Once again “busy-ness” helped as well, hence the working hours and dedication that led to his public success. Peter: “Not burying the grief, fully accepting it was there, but parking it in a way that I was protecting the grief and myself so I could cope in a public environment.” He decided to attend a business meeting the day after the death of his son and is aware how that could be perceived. “It was part of my coping mechanism.” He confided in friends and family and discussed at length the impact on his own mental health, as well as using formal counselling. But to avoid being consumed by the pain, he kept active.

These life events helped him put his own prospects in perspective when he received a diagnosis of non-small cell lung cancer (one of the types of lung cancer that are commonly found in non-smokers), in January of 2022. “After the initial shock, I started to feel that I had been through worse with the death of my middle son and my alcoholism. Then, just nine months later, in October 2022, my youngest son also took his own life, plunging us all back into terrible grief. It was extremely painful to go through that suffering again, almost more so because I knew at every step what was coming next.

Unlike these tragedies, I regard the cancer as something that I have a level of control over. It is a project, like all the other projects I am used to running in my professional life, but this time it is what I call a joint venture with my medical team. I am planning my way through it, keeping as much control over my life as possible. The cancer is just part of my life, I am not letting it take over. It is also important for me to do as much research as possible, understand the science, understand treatment options, know what is out there and what may be in the pipeline in the way of treatments.  My cancer is currently being kept at bay by a targeted therapy called osimertinib, a tyrosine kinase inhibitor which alters the cells to stop them reproducing, so the tumours can’t expand and gradually die off. It is taken as a tablet at home just once a day, in my case with few side-effects. At the moment, the tumours are still shrinking. However, the cancer will inevitably mutate, usually after about 18 months. In my case, this happened after 17.9 months, but only in one of the tumours, which was successfully irradiated. The overwhelming likelihood is that the other tumours will start to mutate and then I will be on to another trajectory, either a new drug targeted at the new mutation, or more conventional therapies. According to the available statistics, that day will come sometime soon, probably within the next 250 days. I am planning my time on a spreadsheet, making sure I spend time with people that are dear to me and doing the things I want to do. A clinical approach, maybe, but it works for me, and it helps me retain control.”

In the book, Peter recounts a fond memory of an appearance on The Naked Scientists radio show: “The week’s producer and I would decide on a current topic: AI, social media, security, food technology etc and then I would prepare to answer a few questions.  Chris had a habit of chipping in with a left-field question and this gave me great experience in thinking rapidly and answering to the limit of my knowledge and opinion without fabricating, whilst on live radio.  The most amusing incident was a live ‘outside broadcast’ in the BBC Radio Cambridgeshire studio car park on "drones".  I had bought a cheap drone and tried, briefly, to learn how to fly it in our garden, hampered by the trees.  On the night, we went outside; the drone took off under my control, flew, and then I made a mistake and crashed it, causing the words ‘Oh shit’ to escape me. Chris winced and then I said: ‘Fuck, I swore’. This was all broadcast live to many thousands of listeners in East Anglia.  In accordance with BBC protocol, Chris took over, apologised a few times while trying to sound sincere and not corpse live on air. And we re-recorded the clip for non-live audiences, at which point Chris (a couple of decades younger than me) took over the controller and flew it perfectly, despite this being his first time controlling a drone. The controller is identical to computer game controllers, but I had grown up before the advent of such games.”

Peter has been through more extreme highs and lows than many, and is determined to turn his grief to good in some way. He has chaired and contributed to addiction and suicide charities. After the cancer diagnosis, he started a podcast series on YouTube called Project Cancer, where he talks openly about his own experience, fighting the stigma around lung cancer, as well as interviewing medics, fellow-patients and scientists. He is remarkably open about all aspects of his life and the very tough lessons he has learned, both in person and in the latest book, saying: “I don’t want people to sympathise in any way. I want them to empathise and learn from what I write. I want to say to people: don’t waste your life. Grasp opportunities, contribute to others’ lives, but also find time for yourself.”

Public Success, Private Grief is available now on Amazon here. £2 of every sale goes to the PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide charity.