Lessons for success from a biotech pioneer

Lessons for success from a biotech pioneer

By Dylan Adlard (L6, S)

OC Philip Astley-Sparke (Xt, 1989) is not your typical ‘Local Boy Makes Good’, unless your definition of good starts with ‘world-first’ and ends with ‘modest’. 

Philip was profiled in last week’s newsletter after he gave a motivating talk to several science classes, and I had the privilege to follow up with an interview.  I was particularly interested in how those of us interested in a career in biotechnology could benefit from lessons he had learnt during his meteoric rise through the competitive and complex biotech landscape.

Expanding on his lecture, he confided. “If you want to run biotech companies, it is beneficial to have broad early experiences, not just in science related areas, but to have financial training as well”.  He emphasised that although one can enter the research side of a biotech company, once at the top of your institution, raising capital inevitably becomes a key management requirement, which makes financial understanding crucial in overall success.

During his talk Philip had emphasised that there are three key features to success; persistence, judgement and luck. Good judgement clearly paid off when he relocated BioVex to Boston, and when I asked him what Britain had to do to catch up and regain the biotech lead, he explained his motivation for that move. “Britain has done a lot of good things over the years at government level to foster innovation, such as developing academic centres of excellence and implementing generous R&D tax schemes. The problem, however, is that it is very difficult for Britain to replicate the largest free health care system in the world, which is based in the United States”.

Britain should accept this demographic reality, he reasoned, but keep several functions of biotech companies in this country, such as research and development.  “Which is what we did with BioVex, and as other British biotech companies mature, they should also keep one foot in Britain, whilst expanding elsewhere. We’re launching a new UK based company as we speak, which will very probably follow the same route”.

Biotechnology often revolves around engineering mirco organisms to achieve some therapeutic goal, or a productivity or pest elimination advantage in the case of agriculture. I raised the point that in the past this has raised the fear of inadvertently creating Frankenstein’s monster (fortunately not possible to do), and asked whether there are still legitimate safety concerns.

“Whenever you have a new innovation, there are always those concerns” he responded, “but over time, data builds up, and people get more comfortable with the safety profile”. He added, “the accumulated weight of safety evidence for approved products has really overcome the fear of how detrimental genetically altered viruses might be”. (For an introduction to gene therapy click here). 

My final question was, when was the breakthrough moment? He related the story of a 74-year-old lady, who had severe cancer in the liver and lung, and had little hope of survival. She was given T-VEC (previously called OncoVex) and within two years the tumours had disappeared completely.  “The doctor ran out with tremendous excitement, and we didn’t even know if we should believe him. That was the key tipping point, and that’s when I knew we had to stick with this, however hard it is, until it succeeds!”

Philip Astley-Sparke is an incredibly smart and driven Old Cheltonian, of whom the College can be very proud. The lessons he shared with us go far beyond the life sciences, and are a true motivation to succeed.

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