The industry veteran talks about how he’s helping to change drug discovery as chief business and strategy officer of the new Medicines Discovery Catapult

What is your background and current role?

I’ve an unusually broad background, encompassing diagnostics, medtech, medicines discovery and clinical research. Also, I’ve worked from research and development (R&D) right through to market access, marketing and business development. My current role is chief business and strategy officer at the new Medicines Discovery Catapult.

What does your day-to-day work involve?

I’m lucky to have enormous variety. This includes putting together research consortia and partnerships, strategy, marketing, communications and business development.

What is the key objective of the Medicines Discovery Catapult, and do you feel it is being achieved?

We are a national facility for collaborative R&D, set up to explore and develop new approaches to the discovery of well-targeted medicines, diagnostics and biomarkers. We’re particularly focused on helping UK SMEs to address the challenges they face. Although we’re a new organisation, we’ve got out of the blocks quickly and are getting cracking with projects. We have various opportunities for collaborative R&D so I encourage UK SMEs to visit our website to find out more.

Do you think open innovation is the way forward for pharma? Does the traditional R&D model still have a place?

I think collaborative research is increasingly important. Analysis by Deloitte found the pharmaceutical
industry’s return on investment in research has  dropped to 3.2 percent. That’s an all-time low. So change is essential, not least open innovation. Benefits of open innovation include access to knowledge outside the firm, as well as being able to draw on the best expertise to deliver research – even when that expertise resides outside the firm.

However, companies that had historically done most of the R&D internally face difficult changes to embrace open innovation. As well as the practicalities – such as managing teams of R&D scouts and handling IP – open innovation requires significant cultural change. Working in a highly collaborative manner is a big change for many companies and cultural change is traditionally very difficult. However, I’m hopeful that the need to develop new medicines will catalyse open innovation, resulting in increased R&D productivity. The Medicines Discovery Catapult is able to smooth the way and help SMEs in particular with collaborative R&D.

Could patients be playing a greater role in the development of medicines?

I believe it’s crucial that patients play a more central role in medical research. Only patients know what it’s like to live with a disease. For example, work by Asthma UK found that people with asthma’s top priority for research was to find a way to definitively diagnose the condition. I suspect many scientists wouldn’t have guessed this would be people’s highest priority. Moreover, patient-reported outcomes are increasingly important for market access, so industry benefits by giving patients a central role at the start.

Does the traditional R&D model still have a place?

Of course. I expect there will remain a place for this, but we’ll end up with a mixed economy of different models of R&D. It may vary by disease. In Alzheimer’s, for example, we may need more collaboration and pre-competitive research, because of the need to have a much better understanding of the mechanism of disease. Whereas other diseases that aren’t as difficult to tackle might not require this.

What do you see as the key opportunities for medicines development brought about by the government’s industrial strategy?

The Government has committed to raise UK investment in R&D to 2.4 percent of gross domestic product over the next ten years. That’s a major increase, which bodes well for UK science. The establishment of UK Research and Innovation offers a great opportunity too: to drive more interdisciplinary research. It’s often the case the interdisciplinary research can bring unforeseen but crucial innovation.

However, we’re already starting from a good base. The UK has three of the world’s top ten universities, for example, and England has a national health research system in the form of the NIHR that can coordinate research across the country. The UK punches above its weight in research. While the UK represents just 0.9 percent of the global population, research by Elsevier found that it accounts for 3.2 percent of R&D expenditure,  4.1 percent of researchers, 9.5 percent of downloads, 11.6 percent of citations and 15.9 percent of the world’s most highly-cited articles. Amongst its comparator countries, the UK has overtaken the US to rank first by field-weighted citation impact (an indicator of research quality).

What single thing could make the biggest difference to improving the success of medical research in the country?

Creating novel business models in the two key areas of market failure: developing new antibiotics and drug repurposing. It’s not easy for companies to make money from developing either new antibiotics or drugs that are off-patent, which hampers investment in getting them to patients. Consequently, we need creative business models to incentivise R&D investment in these areas.

What are your thoughts on Brexit, with regard to its impact on medicines development in the UK?

Brexit means that the UK needs to continue to sharpen its act, but I’m encouraged by the Government’s increased investment in research. The continued backing for the network of Catapults and Innovate UK is very positive too, because of their unique support for SMEs in the UK. We need this to remain competitive in medicines development.

What do you consider your greatest achievement to date?

It would have to be establishing the Government’s Translational Research Collaborations, because I was told they would be impossible to set up.