24 May, 2012 - 11:30 By Tony Quested

Simon Brocklehurst, co-founder of Ash Biotech

Simon Brocklehurst

Ash Biotech is a biotech equipment and device maker with a focus on the application of cutting-edge biology to drug discovery and pre-clinical development. The company has a biological focus on complex microscopic model organisms.

Its technology and product offering solves key problems in using these biological systems to establish the efficacy, toxicity and safety of new drugs; as well as understanding the basic biology of complex disease. With Ash Biotech’s technology, this can happen earlier than ever before in the discovery and development process by making high-quality, medium and high-throughput in vivo pharmacology and toxicology cost-effective.

Founded by pioneers in European biotechnology, and based in Cambridge, the company combines world-class drug discovery and biology expertise with a capability in the design and manufacture of high-tech electronics hardware and software products. The hardware systems the company makes, along with companion data analysis and informatics software, are derived from its internal research and development activities in a number of technology areas including imaging, fluidics, robotics and computer vision.

1. When and how did you first become involved in Life Sciences? My entry into the commercial Life Sciences sector was in 1997 when Cambridge Antibody Technology (CAT) approached me to join them to lead the set-up of capabilities in informatics, advanced software development, and robotics. Combining these kind of technologies with modern laboratory-based biology is really key to success because these enable experimental science to be done at scale while maintaining the highest scientific quality. At the time CAT approached me, I held a personal fellowship at the University of Oxford. My PhD is in Biochemistry from the University of Cambridge, and my research background is in both laboratory-based biology and in computer software.

I’m from the generation that was growing up when Acorn’s BBC Micro was released, so I’ve been developing software since I was a child. However, it was while I was at the University of Cambridge that I had access to the kind of advanced computing hardware on which you could develop really advanced software technology. While in academia, I licensed my life sciences software to companies in the US, Europe and Japan, and to hundreds of the world’s leading research institutions - places like Harvard, MIT, Yale and NASA.

2. What was the catalyst for Ash Biotech? When we looked at the clinical pipelines of big pharma and biotech companies, we saw that they were full of drugs discovered using science and technologies that we had pioneered, particularly automated laboratory-based screening technologies and computational approaches, most recently applied to the discovery and development of antibody drugs.

The success of antibody drugs has been a lifeline for the pharmaceutical industry, but they’re not the sole answer to the industry’s problems. When we founded Ash Biotech, we were looking at the big problems the pharmaceutical industry faces, particularly in the development of small molecule drugs which have been struggling to compete with biologics. We think the solution to the development of a new generation of small molecule drugs is to get a much better understanding the pharmacology and toxicology of drugs at early stages of discovery and development.

We’ve solved two big problems that have been holding this back from happening. First, we’ve increased the quality and reproducibility of results you can get from in vivo pharmacology and toxicology using microscopic model organisms. Second, we’ve industrialised the biology to the point where the cost of doing this kind of science is low enough to work at medium and high-throughputs.

3. How far do you think you can take the business? There’s no lack of ambition. During the next year or two, biologics will come to completely dominate the league table of drug sales. The potential with our technology is to really re-ignite small molecule drug discovery and create a new generation small molecule drugs; and, in fact, the next generation of non-antibody biologic drugs too. However, there’s a lot of work to be done.

We’ve been pretty pragmatic in the way we’ve developed our technology, making sure our offerings will fit in with existing ways of doing discovery and development. I think that’s a pretty good way to make progress on problems as complex as the discovery of new medicines - a mix of evolution and revolution.

4. Where do your greatest opportunities lay? I’d come back to the problem we’re trying to solve - the high failure rate of new drugs in late stage development. Our technology fits in really well in both pre-clinical development and drug discovery. The earlier in the discovery and development process our technology can be applied, the bigger the opportunities both for us and those who work with us. We’d really like to see medium and high-throughput microscopic in vivo pharmacology and toxicology find a place right at the heart of drug discovery.

5. What are your biggest challenges? The biggest challenges derive from the complexity of the biological systems we’re working with and previous failures in the industry. In recent years, a lot of people have tried and failed (and, indeed, are continuing to fail) to make this kind of science work well. There’s a natural human tendency to be “once bitten, twice shy.” So convincing partners we can make it work is the big challenge. It’s not unlike the situation we faced in the antibody space in the late 1990s when it was genuinely tough convincing potential partners to work with us on the development of a new generation of antibody drugs.

I was part of the core senior team at CAT going on the road around the world doing business development, and I’ve lost count of the number of people who told me that antibodies were never going to be important as a class of drug! Still, we did some significant deals, like the one with HGS that lead to the discovery of the recently approved new drug, Benlysta. Ash Biotech is now at the stage where we’re ready to work with major partners on significant projects, so it will be interesting to see how we do!

6. What is your funding strategy? There are essentially three ways to fund the development of a company. You can take money from investors, you can fund it yourself, or you can find customers and partners to fund it. We have chosen the latter route to build the company to this point. That approach has a number of benefits. First, we think that working with partners from day one is a great way to achieve a good product/market fit for our offerings. Second, it allows us to retain ownership and control while we de-risk both the technology and the market.

One of the challenges with life sciences businesses is that they’re a slower build than software businesses, which can often cause an impedance mismatch with venture capital funds. It’s particularly challenging now that IPO’ing is so difficult. That’s not to say we would never do an equity-based financing. It’s just to say that timing and structure is everything if everyone involved in a VC-backed company - investors, founders and employees - is to succeed.

7. How do you find the funding climate in UK life sciences at present? We’re not actively looking do an equity financing at the moment, so I can’t speak from first hand experience of what it’s like trying to raise money right now. However, for sure there are big challenges facing UK investors, and not only in life sciences.

There’s more than one way to build a company, though, and there’s more than one way to create a vibrant life sciences eco system. There’s no fundamental rule that says any particular investment strategy is a prerequisite for success. The key to success is the eco system, and people in all areas need to step up to allow the sector to flourish. I think there’s some evidence to suggest that they’re beginning to do that. As an example, the recently announced life-science only fund from Index Ventures, has serious money being put up big pharma players - GSK and J&J. It’s really exciting to see developments like this.

8. Do investors understand the life sciences? Sure. Investors are no different to people in any other field - some are really great at what they do, and some aren’t so good. I often hear entrepreneurs saying that investors don’t understand or are rude and disengaged.

If we take venture capital as an example, over the years, I think I’ve presented to pretty much every top tier venture capital firm in Europe and I’ve almost never had the experience of potential investors being disengaged in meetings. Quite the opposite, and at some of those firms, there are some truly exceptional people. In terms of business angels, I’ve had some great experiences working with life sciences investors from the Cambridge Angels group. It may be that my experience is skewed towards the top end, but I think if you have a great opportunity in the life sciences, there should be no issue with finding investors who can understand the opportunity, and I know that at least some of them are actively looking to invest at the moment.

9. What in your view are the strengths and weaknesses of the Cambridge BioMedTech Cluster? In terms of strengths, of course the University is massively important, not least because of the quality of the talent pool it produces. It’s no surprise that the most important BioMedTech regions in the UK are Cambridge, Oxford and London, mirroring the locations of our leading universities. Cambridge also benefits from good transport links to London, not only because so many great investors are based there, but also because London is such a great city culturally. That really helps attract and retain the best talent from outside the region.

Another important strength is that biotech has been going long enough in Cambridge that there have been some genuine success stories, like CAT. That’s led to there being a critical mass of experienced entrepreneurs and scientists in the region that know what success looks like, and know how to go about achieving it the second and third times round. In terms of weaknesses, I think there’s an assumption from the government that places like Cambridge will succeed, no matter what. The net effect of that is that growth probably isn’t what it could be if government got behind Cambridge more than it does currently.

10. Do you think CAT’s achievement of stimulating the region’s first and only blockbuster drug (HUMIRA) will ever be replicated in the Cambridge Cluster?

Well, I think it would be massively surprising if the CAT technology didn’t produce multiple blockbusters. All the investments that were made automating and industrialising the technology are really paying off only now because it takes so long for new drugs to come to market. For example, Benlysta, the new HGS/GSK drug, came out of CAT’s labs through its collaboration with HGS, in the same way that Humira came out of CAT’s labs through collaboration with BASF (now Abbott). Benlysta is the first new drug to be approved for lupus in half a century, and despite getting off to a slow start since it was approved late last year, it has the potential to be a blockbuster.

Since being acquired by AstraZeneca, CAT’s technology has helped create an early stage biologics pipeline for AZ that looks to have some real potential. Can that kind of success be replicated in other companies? For sure. Ash Biotech could do that in collaboration with partners with the ambition to make that happen. It’s about having the ambition, the right technology, and most importantly, the ability to execute.

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