March 18, 2020

From good idea to biotech success

By Conor McKechnie and Dodi Axelson

Spinning out: from bench to biotech company

In this episode, Dodi and Conor chat about what it takes to spin a good idea into a successful biotech business. Interviews with an innovator and two people who help technology like his get off the ground.

CONOR: Dodi, we're just incredibly lucky in the jobs that we do. We've got clever people all around us, brilliant minds, great ideas.

DODI: Yeah.

CONOR: Just amazing technology. We're geeking out 24:7.

DODI: We are.

CONOR: Our industry is just this hotbed of innovation and new things. And we learn about all these amazing discoveries and things that we come across with products and processes and ideas and new science. They become treatments, technologies, medicines, all this stuff. And this is what we do our episodes on. Let's take a little step back from the techno joy of all the science and dig into some of the stuff around it. How do these innovations come to life, get discovered, get turned into real products and businesses that help advance and accelerate therapeutics?

DODI: I'm game for that. Let's say I might have a brilliant idea in biotech. How do I get it into the hands of the people that need it most and make a business out of it? Tell me that is what matters…

CONOR: …In this episode of Discovery Matters. Yes, it is.

DODI: So, Conor, you're describing innovators. I'm going to give you an example of an innovator.

OLIVER HARDICK: A lot of the drugs that are at the forefront of the industry today are incredibly expensive to manufacture, obviously to develop as well. The core route, widening access and making those available for a much broader range in the world, is to bring down the cost. So really, the focus of my work was looking at one particular operation in bioprocessing downstream purification and understanding whether we could make a radical step-change to the productivity of that unit operation.

CONOR: Okay, this is cool. Who is this and what is he talking about?

DODI: This is Oliver Hardick, Ollie. And yes, he is passionate about what his innovation can do. He is an entrepreneur. And he and his team developed a technology that can make a significant impact on the speed of a particular important step in the biomanufacturing of medicines. So, think about how you might want to speed up traffic on a monster freeway in the US.

OLLIE: We're not actually changing the process at all. The same separation is still happening that is being used today. We're just enabling it to happen at a much faster rate. Think about eight lanes that are just jam packed with cars. The ability to get through that is going to be impeded by the volume of those cars. And that's effectively what's happening in the current technology, materials blowing through that very, very slowly, and the output is still the same. You still get to your destination; it just takes a lot longer. If you then imagine that same eight-lane highway with no cars on it, you're the only one, you get to speed through there. Again, you reach your destination, the result is the same, but it just happens in a much shorter timeframe.

CONOR: So, speed is the name of the game here. Same process, but faster. But oddly, that's not what I'm curious about. I want to know what it took to get a technology like this from an idea in an academic lab and into the big industrial processes that power biomanufacturing around the world.

DODI: Yeah, I know what you mean. So really, the question is, How did Oliver get his start as an entrepreneur? How did he spin up a startup? And then how did he get acquired by a big global supplier to the biopharmaceutical industry?

CONOR: Exactly. This episode should be subtitled ‘How to make it big in biotech.’

DODI: You know your favorite saying, “Every day's a school day”? None of this happened overnight. And for Ollie, it all began, you know it, at school.

CONOR: I love it. I love it.

OLLIE: The last VHS video that I ever watched in my life was shown to me by my chemistry teacher during my A Levels. I was already doing a sort of scientific range of A Levels at that time. But I didn't know what I wanted to do at university. And my science teacher, she was good. She played me a video which the department at University London (UCL) of Biochemical Engineering had made as a presentation of ‘What is biochemical engineering’? I watched that, and I thought that's what I'm going to do. And that's all I applied for. And luckily, I got a position there at UCL and started in 2004.

CONOR: So, inspired by a great teacher. I mean, how many of us were actually that lucky? Just terrific. But look, what next? He made it to university. How did he go from an idea at uni into a business?

OLLIE: In a short answer, through a lot of support and help from many, many different people. So, the technology that we took out and spun out into Puridify in 2013 was something that I developed during my doctoral studies at UCL. That move into the entrepreneurial world was really spurred on by a number of factors. One was while I was doing my doctorate, I did some elective MBA modules at London Business School that UCL paid for, which was fantastic. I then managed to get on an enterprise fellowship program administered by the Royal Society of Edinburgh. It seemed like a fun idea. The technology that I was working on during my doctorate was proving useful. So, I thought, let's see if we can do something more with it.

CONOR: Okay. So, lots of commitment, lots of support, hard work, and an environment that fosters successful innovation. Easy, right?

OLLIE: I think the environment is really strong. It's not just in Silicon Valley in the Bay Area or in Boston, but also in Europe. I think we've seen the growth of it over years and a number of accelerator programs, a number of opportunities to make that translation of technology, wherever it came from, whether it's universities or within industry and being spun out. So, I think the environment's really, really strong at the moment. There's a lot still to be done here. The industry is fairly young. As it comes, I think there's a lot to learn and cross-functional requirements in terms of expertise. Thinking about things like digitization and the power of data, big data, artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things, people talk a lot about it. But ultimately, that's the kind of input that we're going to need in bioprocessing and biomanufacturing to ensure that we can make that drug cost as low as possible.

CONOR: So, he did it. He got bored. And in the spirit of full disclosure, so we don't get accused of being corporate shills, we should say that the company that acquired Ollie's startup is the company that you and I work for and which publishes Discovery Matters.

DODI: Yeah, we went far and wide to find this story.

CONOR: I know. It's just down the hallway. And it's a good story. So, anyway, enough of the advert. Back to the podcast.

DODI: Yeah.

CONOR: Back to Ollie. How does he feel about it now that his business is part of a big global organization? Has he had to sacrifice autonomy for scale, speed for reach?

DODI: Good questions, and the answers are pretty nuanced. I mean, people like Ollie are insanely smart. He says the only way for a technology like his to make it is through being part of an established and influential company in the bioprocessing industry, because of the nature of the industry itself. So, he is absolutely on board with signing on for the corporate life.

OLLIE: We've retained some of that small company spirit in terms of innovation and speed of doing things. But we get the benefit of having that big company support as well. And the many decades of experience that comes with that, which is fantastic. For us I think it was really the natural route. The industry that we're talking about here, bioprocessing, is incredibly conservative. And it needs to be, because of the safety and the efficacy of the drug products that are being made. So, that security of supply and ability to bring this technology into the big manufacturing players in the space required a big company to sit behind it and know that the technology was going to be available for years to come.

CONOR: Okay, what a story. So, what has he learned, and how are things different?

OLLIE: The end goal is still the same, right? I think people really want to improve the industry and ultimately have an impact on the end patient. Which I think is great. We still have that, but the way that's achieved is slightly differently. Obviously, approaches are different, but there's still a fantastic amount of core research that goes on in this environment, which is fantastic to see. I think potentially one of the gaps is the ability to translate that. Obviously, as a large company, the focus is very much on products and trying to tackle issues today. But there's a balancing act there, in being able to have a short-term view as well as a longer-term view.

CONOR: So, Dodi, you brought me an innovator. Thank you, that got us started. I want to go back to something he said. He said school, the teacher, learning, and the environment.

STEVE BATES: There's a story, I believe it's an apocryphal story, but it illustrates the point. The science minister from an Indian state came over to the UK to Oxford. And he said, “We're very impressed by your cluster around the Oxford area. Can you tell me how we could replicate it?” And apparently a senior figure in the Oxford network said, “Yes, start a university, wait 500 years, and then start to build your biotech cluster.” The point being that some of these things aren't straightforward, nor are they easy to do.

DODI: Okay. Who is this ally to your favorite saying that it all begins with education?

STEVE: My name's Steve Bates. I'm the Chief Executive of the UK’s BioIndustry Association, commonly known as the BIA.

CONOR:Steve heads the UK's biotech industry association, which represents its members, and they're companies of all different shapes and sizes in the UK biotech community. And he's also the head of the International Council of Biotech Associations. So, he has this extraordinary kind of high-level global view on what's making biotech innovation flourish in all the various clusters around the world. And Steve actually met Ollie and his team a long time ago, when they were called Puridify. Early on in their careers.

DODI: All right, so I'm guessing that Puridify was part of that mid-, early-2000s startup language that was...

CONOR: I know, it's brilliant, isn't it? It's like Spotify. Storify. Shopify. Salsify. We digress. Back to Steve.

STEVE: I first bumped into Puridify when they were a competitor in a business competition called One Star which enabled companies in life sciences to get some mentoring, go through boot camps, and ultimately compete for a hundred thousand pounds and some lab space at the Stevenage BioScience Catalyst. Ollie and the team won the competition one year, and I was invited to the finals. And I met Ollie and I sat through the pitch and said, “Congratulations, I want to introduce you to my gang, you've got a pretty interesting idea. And I think my manufacturing advisory committee would be a good network for you to get to know.” And I think he was sort of blinking and drinking the champagne about 11 o'clock at night.

But he did take my card, and he did email me. And then within a couple of months, I'd got him into the manufacturing advisory committee. I said, “Look, there's this new company, they're just starting out. They're thinking about a very new way of doing a downstream process. You guys should talk to him, because you can tell him if this is something that you would work with, and how it would work.” We've got a fantastic community in our manufacturing advisory committee, and I think Ollie immediately found some fellow travelers and some soulmates who he was able to bounce things off. And I think that also enabled Ollie to perhaps accelerate his thinking, his network, into a broader community that he hadn't yet engaged with.

DODI: All right, I hear networking, I hear connecting people. Champagne is always nice when you're doing that. But it seems that networking and connecting people is really important.

CONOR: Absolutely. It really is a case, though, of not just what you know, because that is critical, but also who you know. And who you know knows, if you can get your head around that. Building the right network of talent and connections is just a key advantage. I also asked Steve what common challenges he sees biotech startups having to overcome.

STEVE: I find all companies in BIA membership and in the life science sector in the UK to be unique. But they're usually based on a fundamental triangle of three things: great science; great team; and great money to support the endeavor. The science often needs to be supported with strong intellectual property (IP). So, we find common sets of problems around getting that IP out of universities or away from other companies or organizing that in a sensible way. So, there's a common set of challenges there around organizing that science.

Hiring your first person, often your founder or chief executive, isn't the biggest problem. You've got to build an appropriate team probably at pace and scale. Hiring persons two to seven or understanding which of those people you can beg, steal, or borrow from others or have part time, and all the rest of it, is where a strong network and a strong ecosystem comes in. And I think we see common challenges around that. And then the universal challenge of funding, we see unique opportunities in life sciences. But usually the common themes around are IP in science, IP around the science, building the team and the people. And how do you do that adequately? And crucially, how do you get the money? And how do you get the investment to be able to move the organization forward? And that links also to place. I know places like Alderley Park or Stevenage have schemes that can help companies grow and develop, and making sure you're plugged into that. And if you're not in a location like that, where you're not getting access to those networks or their support schemes, understanding that they are available in parts of the UK.

DODI: So, hold up a second. He said science, people, and funding. And then he said Stevenage. Is that a noun for the help you get from Steve, like, leverage? I got me some Stevenage?

CONOR: That's right. I mean, he'd love that. It's close. But no, Stevenage is a place just north of London. The Stevenage BioScience Catalyst hosts and supports biotech companies in their transition from startup to commercialization. And these clusters or campus accelerators as they're sometimes called, they're usually connected to a big anchor company, often a big pharmaceutical company that previously owned the site. And they have strong links to local academic centers.

DODI: They're also called incubators, right?

CONOR: Basically. The whole idea is to get innovation moving quickly. Then therapies and discoveries can be accelerated towards their end users as quickly as possible. Stevenage is the cluster where Ollie and his team first got started, so I wanted to branch the story out a little bit. And to do that I spoke to Kath Mackay, who runs Alderley Park, another biotech cluster in the UK. This time in the north, just outside Manchester. And her thinking, as you'd expect, aligns really well with the macro picture that Steve paints of science, people, and money being the cornerstone to the startup success.

KATH: We run an accelerator program which is powered by the BioCity Group. And that takes small businesses or pre-businesses and puts them through a structured development program to challenge their idea, challenge their business model, challenge who their customers are going to be, and really hone that business plan. So, when they launch, they are good for success. And there's a real role for science parks to grow innovative businesses, but also in terms of providing world-class facilities, open-access laboratories, for example, and access to capital equipment. Alderley Park is part of the UK network and in a field which is growing internationally.

DODI: So, does it work? Does Alderley Park have success stories?

CONOR: Yes, they do in spades and it's not just technology. It's also services. Kath told me about a company called ApconiX that was founded on an idea literally drawn on the back of a napkin. Classic, just amazing. They took it through all the parts of accelerator program. Let's see what happened.

KATH: ApconiX is a company that has expertise in safety, pharmacology, so they advise companies to make the best decisions. Drugs are essentially de-risked before they go into patients. The person who leads that company is an individual called Ruth Roberts. She went through a series of challenges through the people who lead that program and through the expert network. So, putting her and her group through their paces to think about who's your customer? How will you make money out of this? Who are your competitors? What do you add that your competitors don't already have? And just provide a series of robust challenges to that business plan and supported access to finance. An introduction to a chairman for that company was made as well. There was some hands-on experience in terms of landing people into that company that was provided, too. And now, the success at ApconiX is very profound. They are here with us at Alderley Park. And last year, they opened up a European headquarters as well. So, they're a company that we've really taken right from the back of a fact packet or back-of-a-napkin idea to being successful, now with a European hub as well.

DODI: So, science, people, and money, that triangle again. Which of these is the hardest?

CONOR: You're a step ahead. As usual. I've thought about this, too. Maybe the science itself is not always that hard. I can just hear our audience screaming. Maybe it's not always the toughest part of getting a business like this up and running. It's all the things you need to wrap around the science to make it into a viable company.

KATH: That's correct. And I'm sure not everyone would agree with it. But sometimes the science is the easy part. It's taking that idea and turning it into a commercially viable product or service that needs the support. And that's what we can provide here through the accelerator program.

CONOR: For Kath, it's the variety of the companies that she and her team are helping to grow that gets her really excited. And it's not just life sciences, but it's adjacent industries as well that can contribute to the success of these life sciences companies.

KATH: We have companies now on our campus working in areas such as animation, virtual reality, gaming. And having that diversity of company on our campus that isn't just focused on life sciences will be really beneficial as we grow the site. On the life sciences side we’re seeing more companies working in data-driven areas and digital areas. Digital health and artificial intelligence (AI) in the life sciences will be a huge growth area for us. Having companies onsite working broadly in an array of digital technologies and in diverse areas will be really beneficial in terms of knowledge transfer, and also that movement of people from company to company.

DODI: So that's all somebody would need: a good idea; great people; access to money; and good support from a friendly neighborhood biotech cluster. Sounds so easy.

CONOR: It does, it does. But even that might not be enough. Back to Steve.

STEVE: Ollie’s experience is not unique, but I wouldn't say that there are 50 of these a year. I would count them on two hands on an annual basis. Sometimes those exits are integrations into global players. Sometimes they are the combination of expert groups together. Sadly, sometimes we see companies go out of existence because they've run their natural course. But those people then pop up in new companies or integrated into companies which they've met in the network. Ollie’s experience is a great story. It's not unique, but it's not something that we see every single day.

DODI: So, this is a complex ecosystem. And if we cut the jargon, it's that old adage that it takes a village to raise a child.

CONOR: Yes, it does. And everyone in the village has a stake and has something to contribute. But perhaps we should leave the last word to Ollie, which is where we started, because through all the challenges and joys one thing appears to remain the same – the focus on making a positive difference.

OLLIE: I see great things happening all the time. And I see the struggle that sometimes people have in terms of moving those great things on into something that ultimately impacts patients or impacts the business in some positive way or has any other positive impacts. And I think that's what I like to try and do is to see what we can do better that ultimately has an impact.

CONOR: I have to say this was a tough episode to distill, Steve, Kath, Ollie, they've got so much deep insight from so many different aspects of what makes a success in biotech. But the one thing that I take away from all of them is just this passion for the purpose of what the industry is driving. They're focused on better health and medicine for more people. And for me, that just seems like a good thing.

DODI: And it seems like a never-ending thing, right? Because we've just scratched the surface, and the good ideas are going to keep coming. And that's the exciting thing that keeps the industry moving forward as well.

CONOR: Indeed, and I suppose some of them succeed, and some of them fail. And the people keep driving and popping up, as Steve said, in different places. It's a community of people that are just pushing the future forward. And that's part of the joy of working with it.

DODI: So, we hope that this episode of Discovery Matters inspires you to get in touch with a colleague, with a neighbor, with somebody. You know, if you've got a good idea, go make it happen. And that's it for this episode. Thank you and see you next time. Bye, bye.

Our executive producer is Andrea Kilin. Discovery Matters is produced in collaboration with Soundtelling Production with music by Thomas Henley.

Curious about the technology Ollie and his team are working on? 

Learn how GE Healthcare Life Sciences supports emerging biotech companies.

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