Small molecules = big business
Professor Andy Porter is one of Scotland's most successful scientists – and one of our most successful entrepreneurs. The co-founder of Haptogen who pioneered a new way of targeting small molecules in the fight against the “superbugs” is also helping to create a new generation of biotech companies – and the next generation of biotechnologists trained in the commercial realities of biobusiness...…
One of Porter’s best ideas was helping set up Haptogen in 2002 and five years later selling it to one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies. And the ideas keep coming...
Porter, who is Professor of Biotechnology at the University of Aberdeen, is also teaching a new course in biobusiness and is one of a triumvirate at Grampian BioPartners (GBP), an angel investment firm which “talent spots” up-and-coming biotech firms.
Porter's story starts in the Rothamsted Research Institute, in Hertfordshire, where he specialised in plant genetics, trying to make oilseed rape more resistant to pests and disease. In 1991, Professor Bill Harris, the head of genetics in Aberdeen, persuaded him to head north to run his research lab, leaving a secure job to enter a completely different field of research. “I knew nothing about antibodies,” Porter confesses. “But I could see the revolution was coming.”
This was one of the first “educated risks” that punctuate Porter’s career. He did have a training in molecular biology, but spent the eight-hour train journey to Aberdeen “mugging up” on antibody engineering to prepare for his interview.
Soon, however, Porter was established in Aberdeen and spent the next four years managing the output from Harris’s lab. “It was an exciting place to be,” he says. Moving from plants to medical science opened up a new world of commercial applications, and combining his backgrounds in physiology, biochemistry and molecular biology, Porter became a true biotechnologist rather than just a “gene jockey.”
Porter's first venture into business was to help set up a company called Remedios, an environmental technology company spun out of the University of Aberdeen in 1999.
Three years later, this experience encouraged him to set up Haptogen with Dr Gillian Broadbent and Dr Keith Charlton, now his partners at GBP. According to Porter, they all had to decide at the time whether to accept offers to join the expanding biotech community in England or try and go it alone and set up a company in Scotland. “Our main driver initially was not really to deliver a commercial success but to stop the ‘brain-drain’ of antibody engineers from Aberdeen to Cambridge.”
The “big idea” at Haptogen was using human antibodies to target extremely small signalling molecules or “haptens” – aiming for targets “beyond the reach of other immunotechnologies.” The overall aim was to develop more specific and safer drugs to fight infections, inflammation and liver disease, and improve diagnostics, in the process pioneering a new approach known as Haptomics.
One anti-infectives programme involved targeting the signalling molecules rather than the whole bacteria themselves – a new approach which made it harder for the bacteria to develop resistance. “The bacteria don’t know they are under attack, and can even be encouraged to commit suicide,” Porter explains. “It’s actually hard for bacteria to infect us, so they divide and divide until there are enough of them to 'put on their armour and unsheathe their swords' and launch a co-ordinated and simultaneous attack.
The antibodies stop communication by switching off the signalling function and counteract the attack mechanisms (the armour and weapons).”
“This was serious science,” says Porter. “In antibody engineering, we were able to carve out a niche, making antibodies for difficult targets.”
Porter and his team also used antibodies from sharks to develop new therapeutic solutions. These small and robust proteins had the potential to be delivered orally and “reach parts of the body other antibodies couldn’t reach.”
Porter continues his interest in developing new anti-infectives therapies through his role as an Investor/Director in the Aberdeen spin-out company, NovaBiotics. Through the efforts of its CEO, Dr Deborah O’Neil, NovaBiotics is one of only a handful of biotech companies in Scotland with a mid-stage clinical product. According to Porter, its anti-fungal biologics (protein-based) drug Novexatin® has the potential to deliver “blockbuster” revenues (over $1 billion per annum) when it completes its clinical development path, hopefully by 2014.
Business lessons learned
Porter's research in antibodies focused on a specialist area which still has enormous potential. According to Porter, there are two protein-based (big molecule) drugs in the Top Ten today and within the next three years, there could be as many as six. “The “biologics revolution” is starting to gather momentum – especially among the smaller companies. For now at least, protein therapeutics are the future, says Porter, with medicinal chemistry approaches increasingly being reduced or cut altogether from drug company pipelines.
Haptogen succeeded very quickly because it managed to deliver and commercialise its science, but Porter observes that although Scotland is “great at the science,” we are not good at commercialisation. He also says companies have to take risks if they want to succeed – and be willing and able to ride out the bad times. “Most biotech start-ups are always only six months away from success,” he explains, “and six weeks away from going bust.”
Porter's career has evolved through a number of stages, from manager and scientist to entrepreneur and now includes his role as “biobusiness teacher.” He strongly feels that to succeed in the commercial side of biotech, you need the basic science, but he also recognises that not every student is cut out for business, stressing that what matters most is to understand how the pharmaceutical industry operates.
The biobusiness course at Aberdeen is one way that Porter is trying to put something back into Scotland, drawing on his own experience in business, and he hopes the course will soon expand beyond its successful base in biological sciences and into other areas of science at Aberdeen.
Biotech companies are also beginning to send their “bench scientists” on to parts of the course. “Companies now realise it is important that their scientists, not just their business teams, need to be business savvy,” says Porter. “Whilst small biotechs can see the benefits of the entire team understanding the industry, these same companies often don’t have the time or structure to carry out this important training in-house .”
At the start of one biobusiness class, Porter says to his students: “You’ve found a compound/bug at the bottom of the ocean that could be a cure for cancer, and in six weeks you will make a presentation to apply for a new round of funding. Now get on with it!”
Every year, Porter fears this “student-led” approach to the subject will be a “disaster” and every year the students produce what he describes as “brilliant projects.” As well as teaching general communications skills and preparing the students in the art of the “elevator pitch” (selling your message in a couple of minutes), Porter also deals with basic business questions such as whether it is better to license a new technology or set up a new company, the different roles for technical and business skills and how to approach tasks by dividing them up into more manageable chunks.
Sometimes, the lessons are tough ones. To describe the commercial realities of drug discovery, Porter uses the example of lung cancer versus breast cancer. Sadly, people with lung cancer don’t tend to live very long after diagnosis so if you test a new drug, it is easier and importantly quicker to measure its effectiveness. Breast cancer has typically longer survival rates, so you have to wait longer to see the results. The longer the drug development path, the more the 20-year period of protective patent life is eroded. Lung cancer thus offers “good” commercial potential for drugs, shortening the development path and extending the patent-protected revenue window –
and that's a fact of business life which Porter passes on to all his students.
When he teaches biobusiness, Porter also likes to sum up the “madness” of the industry by telling his students: “Biotechnology makes nothing, sells nothing and has no customers.” Yet as Porter himself has discovered, this is not a barrier to commercial success.
In the Scottish biotechnology sector, says Porter, most companies end up with a split business model, pursuing their core research at the same time as earning money from consultancy and other related activities. “Most Scottish companies are forced down the revenue route,” Porter adds.
His perspective on the biobusiness also sheds light on the financial realities. For example, one company may have revenues of £100 million a year and be valued at £400 million, while another company has revenues of £50,000 and is worth over £1 billion, because it is based on a validated drug-engine and/or blockbuster drug pipeline.
So what is his advice to Scotland's budding biotech entrepreneurs? “Think global and promote yourselves globally,” says Porter. “In Scotland, we have a tendency to be insular, but young companies have to get out there – decide what are the most important commercial conferences and don’t just attend them but present from the platform. It’s about building a brand and getting yourself noticed.”
It is also a tough and some would say a crazy way to try and make make money, says Porter, who also advises new start-ups to get as much investment as they possibly can and “focus, focus, focus” the spend on key value-building milestones, like drugs into man. “I understand the fears they have,” says Porter, “because I've been through it. The fear of failure's never far away but the thrill that comes from being at the forefront of your science is very seductive.”