Guest Blog by Woon Tan
Sir Gregory Winter, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge and serial entrepreneur believes that for cleantech to become mainstream, the sector needs game-changing innovation. Sharing his decades of entrepreneurial experience, Greg was speaking at 'Futures 2018: Cambridge Cleantech Annual Conference', hosted by Cambridge Cleantech, which brought together thought leaders, senior businesses and leading academics in the sector.
Lessons from disrupting big pharma
Greg who is best known for having founded biotech companies Cambridge Antibody Technology (bought by AstraZeneca) and Domantis (bought by GSK) shared the important lessons cleantech can learn from the pharmaceutical industry.
In the early 20th century, the pharmaceutical industry was lead by chemists. This first waves of innovation focused on synthesizing active chemicals from plants at high purity and in huge scale which lead to important medicines such as aspirin and contraceptive pills. Later on, chemists started exploring protein targets to block certain functions which led to drugs such as the ACE inhibitors for treating blood pressure and therapies against HIV. Then came the 70s and 80s where the drug of the future was in antibodies.
Greg explains the challenge: “Initially, chemists were not impressed and the very success or the pharmaceutical industry led them to think medicine has to be chemicals designed by chemists, synthesized by chemists, formulated into pills by chemists. Large pharma struggled with the idea that antibodies which were large proteins made by animals without any intervention by chemists can be considered medicine. So unlike chemical products that could be swallowed, antibodies had to be injected. The industry which had multiple waves of innovation, left the development of new medicines to academia, startup companies and biotech.”
Greg remarked that once it has been shown that antibodies could make good medicines and promises to make a lot of money, large pharma bought up the technology. Greg said, “I came into the antibody story with my first startup Cambridge Antibody Technology in 1990. In 2006, it was acquired and absorbed by AstraZeneca. They were one of the largest pharmaceuticals that bought up this wave of innovation. This was after it was set to become Humira, which for several years now is the top-selling drug in the world. We started and we grew the company in a field that moved from the fringes to the mainstream within the 16 years of its existence and you may find parallels with cleantech as it moves into the mainstream.”
Here are five of Greg’s advice to startups founders:
1. Be comfortable with negative response especially if the idea is truly game-changing.
“Don't be surprised if industry experts are cold about your ideas. Learn to present your ideas simply. Listen to feedback. Don't get depressed, especially if your ideas represent a major innovation or they overturn long-held practices. The industry is much better at understanding incremental innovation and adding to what it already has.”
2. Work with an established industry partner early in the growth of the company.
“We had early dreams of making our therapeutic products, but given the limited funding, we were forced to take contract research later. We managed to set up a co-development deal that led to Humira, the antibody I mentioned. And we did that with an established industry partner who paid all the cost in exchange for small royalties. Not only was this a good deal, but we learned a great deal working closely with the partner, so sometimes you have come from quite a lot by working with another company.”
3. When developing your technology, be OK if the technology is not perfect as long as you meet the agreed project's milestones and be just ahead of your competition.
“At Cambridge Antibody Technology we struggled with the technology but we only just kept ahead of the milestones. We kept pushing through it step by step as we worked on other people's money on contracts. Technology doesn't have to be perfect, just has to be good enough and each key stage whether a new concept or to meet contract milestone.”
4. Be willing to set up offices in places where people are more receptive to your idea.
“Consider whether to set up an operation in another country might be more receptive to your ideas? With Cambridge Antibody Technology we made a mistake. We sat up in the UK at that time. We found that most of the industry interest came from the US, we had almost no UK interest. It would have helped bring in business and investors if we'd set up operations in the US as well. And we've done that with the other companies I helped to found. I suspect the similar considerations may well apply to China for cleantech.”
5. When it comes to funding, explore all sources.
“If you can't get funding from the usual sources, try others. Don't be too proud. We were unable to get funding for Cambridge Antibody Technology from the pharmaceutical industry, or Venture Capitalist. In the end, I got funding from an Australian company on the fringes of the horse racing industry. We thought our technology was really cool and they were happy to take a bet. As importantly, we got very quickly as a result, we could lay down some key intellectual property on which the company came to depend, just ahead of our competitors, wouldn't have happened if we hadn't taken that funding money.”
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