World-leading cancer researcher and entrepreneur Professor Tony Kouzarides offer some advice on connecting academia and pharma, setting up R&D companies and juggling several jobs at once

What is your background?

I've always been interested in cancer, especially the human genes that cause it. My basic interest is molecular mechanisms of cancer, and that's what my lab works on.

Essentially I've been working on epigenetics for the last two decades. Twenty years ago my lab found one of the first enzymes that modify histone proteins – CBP – and had the first evidence that it was involved in cancer because it was deleted in many cancers. That really convinced me that this field should be looked at with respect to cancer treatment. That's when I started thinking that this is a really cool field for cancer drugs and biology.

What is your day to day role?

I have several jobs. In my lab, my role is to give the direction of flow – i.e. where are we going, what are the things that we're looking at? The second responsibility is that I'm deputy director for the Gurdon Institute [a Cambridge research facility specialising in developmental and cancer biology].

I've also recently set up a new company called Storm Therapeutics, a spin-out of the Gurdon Institute, with Professor Erik Miska, who was my PhD student. This new company is investigating and trying to validate enzymes that modify RNA for cancer treatment and target them. This is a completely untapped field because there are over 150 known modifications of RNA, but the function of most of the enzymes is not known.

My other major job is director of the Milner Therapeutics Institute – which helps academic researchers collaborate with the pharma industry.

If I have a good idea I tend to put my money where my mouth is and do it, which is a flaw as well as a good thing. According to my wife it's a flaw!

How did the Milner Institute come about?

We had a collaboration with GSK a couple of years ago where I was on the scientific advisory board, and they showed me an epigenetic, small molecule that they were developing which they were going to take towards immuno-inflammation – but the data they showed me suggested that it might be involved in leukaemia. So I asked for this molecule and we showed that it would be appropriate for the treatment of MLL leukaemia. Based on those results, which were published collaboratively, the small molecule is now in phase I clinical trials.

I thought that everybody should be doing this, collaborating with pharma to help them develop their pipeline. I therefore gave myself the job of setting up a consortium of drug companies that would interact with the university, as well as two other institutions here, the Babraham Institute and the Sanger Institute. The pharma companies in the consortium – which are currently AstraZeneca, GSK, Astex and Shionogi – will essentially engage with them in collaborative work to develop their drug pipeline.

At the moment if a company wants to engage with an academic institution to give a drug to somebody it will take them 9 months to a year. So that is a huge barrier that has been overcome – it is essentially a fast-track way to interact with pharma companies.

This is a unique paradigm. There is no other paradigm like this, where so many institutions are collaborating together for research.

Do you think there's not enough interaction between academia and pharma?

Absolutely, it's a huge problem, but it's getting better. Pharma companies are not experts in everything and they're looking to academic institutions for support. For example in my lab, because we're experts in epigenetics, lots of companies come to me and say "Can you look at this small molecule and see if it's involved in cancer?". That's the way it's going, and this consortium makes it easier to have that happen.

What obstacles do academics face when setting up R&D companies?

It depends on the type of company. Abcam is a company that is based on a product, and that generates revenue, whereas Storm is based on a vision and requires a lot of money to go down the drain before you realise that vision, which might not happen.

For the first type, you really have to know that your product has an edge and you have a plan that's different to what's out there already. It really depends on the market.

In terms of the second you really need people that believe in your vision. For Storm, we had to convince the venture capitalists that this is not a short-term funded company, that we need money for 10 years at least to generate a drug. The venture capitalists that are associated with us have an evergreen fund, so they will support us beyond the series A round.

Is it difficult for academics to transition to CEO roles?

I think you really have to have a different skill set. It's remarkable how Jonathan Milner [co-founder of Abcam] went from a post-doc to a CEO, where you have to learn everything from scratch. You have to have certain qualities to be able to do it, otherwise you have to give the job to somebody else. Not everyone can do it.

Do you have any advice for managing your time?

I think the reason I'm able to cope is because I surround myself with really good people that can help me.

If you want to accomplish something, you really have to associate yourself with like-minded people. A good example is the Milner Therapeutics Consortium – essentially the only reason that was achieved is because I found some people in pharmaceutical companies that I knew very well who have a similar vision. Therefore it was easier to sign an agreement in those companies compared to another company.

It's not just an idea, it's not just hard work – you really have to surround yourself with like-minded and good people. That's essentially the key to be able to do many things successfully and still have a life, which I think I have.

Tony Kouzarides is professor of cancer biology at the University of Cambridge, deputy director of the Gurdon Institute and director of the Milner Therapeutics Institute. As a world-leading molecular biologist and cancer researcher, he was first to discover the enzymes that modify chromatin – the DNA-RNA-protein complex chromosomes are made of – and switch genes on and off. He is co-founder of life science tools provider Abcam and several other entrepreneurial ventures.