Lighting the touch paper for next generation nucleic acid therapies – transcript

Conversations in Healthcare


VO: Conversations in Healthcare from Clarivate.

Michael Ward: Hello, everyone, I’m Mike Ward and welcome to Conversations in Healthcare, a series of fireside chats brought to you by Clarivate. This is an opportunity to hear firsthand, the challenges and opportunities facing the healthcare industry and how business leaders in the sector are actually managing them. In recent years, we’ve seen that by harnessing the power of DNA, it has been possible to achieve success in treating previously incurable hereditary diseases or even in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, whether the answer is cell or gene therapies or RNA vaccines, one thing that they have in common is that they require DNA in some form or another as the starting material. Therein lies the problem because conventional techniques of producing DNA are not fast or precise enough to actually produce the volumes needed. It was this challenge of making synthetic DNA more efficiently that inspired today’s guest Jonny Ohlson, a serial entrepreneur with a background in the advertising industry to establish Touchlight, which has developed a novel synthetic DNA vector and an enzymatic manufacturing process to enable it to produce DNA at unprecedented speed, scale, and purity. Jonny, thanks very much for joining me today.

Jonny Ohlson: Thanks very much for having me, Mike.

Michael Ward: Before we jump into exactly what you’re able to do at Touchlight first, I would like to understand how you actually switched professional horses. As I mentioned, you started your career in the advertising industry. What prompted that switch?

Jonny Ohlson: Well, actually there were a number of careers in between advertising and biotech. I suppose it was somewhat serendipitous. Every time I switched career the one thing that united it was that I was working with great people. I started off in advertising. I ran an advertising agency when I was relatively young. I started working with Nick Jones in developing Soho House.

I got into energetic medicine. I founded a charity and then I founded Touchlight. One thing that united all of that is that I was working with creative people and managing creative talent. Whilst from the outside, it looks a real stretch to get from advertising all the way through to biotech, to me at the time, it seemed entirely logical.

Michael Ward: It’s interesting, Jonny, so you’re talking about creative industries, but I was just wondering with a lot of entrepreneurs or people who are found in biotech companies that do actually have a science background. I was just wondering, how did you go about doing the due diligence without having that deep domain science knowledge and actually given your background, which stakeholders when you were trying to bring them together were the most difficult to win over to your vision that you have at Touchlight?

Jonny Ohlson: Yes, that’s a very good question. The reason that this came about, any entrepreneur starts out a business is they start off with an idea. I had an idea at the turn of the millennia, which was desperately naive, which was– If you looked at the 20th century, it was defined by the computer. We got there by understanding coding and algorithms. At the turn of the millennial, we sequenced the human genome thereby unleashing the code for all of nature.

Coding changed the 20th century. The thought was imagine what DNA could do in the 21st. Again, serendipitously, I met a scientist who was an entomologist and was somewhat of a polymath and actually was working on a theory at the time that links quantum mechanics and astrophysics, but had some ideas about what you could do with thermophilic bacteria. I said, “Well I’m really interested in those.” Her name is Dr Hill. She said, “Well, look, you could use thermophilic bacteria as a vector.”

Like all these things, I thought this was very interesting, but I had no expertise in it. When we looked at, I did my own background reading, but I pulled an expert and to do, due diligence into the ideas. I was fortunately introduced by Dr Hill to Professor Sandy Primrose, who wrote a lot of the early books in DNA, and Dr Neil Porter, who was the first employee at Senova. And I funded them for a year to do diligence into Dr Hill’s ideas. Actually the main idea within a month, they came back to me and said, “Look, we don’t think this is something you should go forward with, but did you know how you made DNA?

I said, “I haven’t got a clue how you made DNA.” He said, “Well, you inserted gene of interest into a circular bit of DNA called the plasmid, and you put in a giant vat of  ecoli, and then you’ve got a complicated license and purification process, and you end up with a tiny amount of material. I thought, well, if DNA– If genomic medicine is going to evolve, that’s not the process you base it on. They said, “Well, we’re pleased you said this because Dr Hill has been trying to amplify a really complicated gene that bugs don’t like.” It was the dystrophin gene and she’s been trying to co-opt two enzymes to be able to amplify it.

I thought, “Well, that sounds very interesting.” We then used the next 11 months of diligence to look around the patent IP around synthetic DNA and nobody was developing anything anywhere. This was 2007, a long time ago. To answer your question more directly, I have relied all the way through this on very brilliant scientists and I see my role as helping those scientists get towards the goal and finding the finance, finding the further people, finding the team, being ahead of where the need of the business was, in thinking about how this business could advance such that we could build a successful company out of it.

Michael Ward: All right. Could we do a little deeper dive into the key components, therefore, of that core technology that 11 months of due diligence was– I guess focusing on and you mentioned it was in 2007 that you were doing all this. I’d also be intrigued to understand how has the technology and the science that underpins Touchlight’s offering? How has that evolved since you founded the business?

Jonny Ohlson: Neil Porter amazed me in so far as he could troll through endless IP and map out where the white space was. For us, there was tons of patent whites. Nobody was investing in or inventing inside the space. First of all, we developed technology roadmap and actually the technology roadmap that we worked on back in 2007 is still continuing. That was the core IP, was enabling DNA to amplify outside bugs.

That’s where we started off. We recruited, we filed our first bit of IP back in 2009 and genuinely, nobody was working in the space. We recruited some really brilliant, innovative ideas-based scientists and said, “Look, this is the first core IP that we wanted, that we were going to develop.” The fulcrum of the business as it went forward was always going to be more IP and filling in this patent white space.

We recruited these scientists under the belief that they would disrupt our own IP and in doing so, they would come up with better processes that we could advance and scale the technology, that we could look at automation to how we grow the technology. Each time we came up with an innovation, we filed IP on it. As such, we’ve developed over, well, we’ve had got over 100 granted patents, now we’ve got 15 patent families all the way around the world. We’ve had a very much an innovation culture under the core belief that it’s a better way to make DNA outside bugs, outside bacteria.

We are looking at new novel molecules, single stranded DNA and the like. Obviously, I’m not going to go into our unpatented IP, but we’ve very much got an innovation culture and I have a big team here that is pioneering how this whole area is going to evolve in the future as you rightly said in your introduction, as this new space of genomic medicine evolves. We’ve always tried to be one step ahead in what we can do in terms of scale, in terms of automation, in terms of fidelity, in terms of having the manufacturing platform for the future.

Michael Ward: How does Touchlight interact with other stakeholders within the ecosystem? Do you co-create some of these processes with partners?

Jonny Ohlson: Actually, we have a load of collaborations with both academic group and industrial groups. The core IP is developed here in Hampton in the UK, but we have a load of collaboration around the world. We’ve actually worked during COVID with Pfizer, and that ended up being a license that we transacted with them last year. We work with many CDMOs, our CDMO itself is making the synthetic DNA is growing at over a new customer a week.

With that, we are having interesting conversations with people who are looking at new demands as this field rapidly expands. We’ve got collaborations with beast testing, on some new molecules that we’re developing, with gene editing companies around the world. We’ve got collaborations in animal vaccines. We’ve got collaborations in the next generation of prophylactic vaccines. We have a collaboration with Gates, for example, in looking at where DNA vaccines may go in the future, which is utterly fascinating. Indeed, we’re spinning out our own oncology company in looking at how we could potentially get into prophylactic vaccines for cancer, which would be utterly brilliant, should it evolve through the clinic.

Michael Ward: Yes. That answers actually the question that spring to my mind. Did you have any ambitions beyond being a high-tech CDMO to actually creating your own medicines based on the technology? It sounds like the vaccine route is a potential route that you might want to go down.

Jonny Ohlson: Absolutely. Yes. Right from the beginning, and I know everybody says this in the space, but genuinely, I entered this not just for a commercial entity, but also I wanted to do something that add social benefit as well. I’d set up a successful charity before, and I’d got the taste of what that was all about. I’m absolutely compelled by the ability, potentially, of DNA vaccines being used in a cancer setting or a rapid solution should any new horrible virus appear.

Frankly, when I die, if we treated one person through this evolution of our platform and they were in remission for cancer, then I would die a happy person, genuinely. That’s not somebody who’s feigning false hopes or anything. I genuinely believe this platform has a potential to really advance genomic medicine, which is why we congregate around the line, the making of DNA, which is not just about making DNA, it’s all about advancing the sector.

Michael Ward: Yes. I often in these conversations in the healthcare would ask my guests what ultimately would success look like. I think you’ve actually answered that already in terms of your own personal ambition or vision of what you would like to achieve. Do you have any sense, though, how long it’s actually really going to take for us to be able to achieve those milestones and that vision?

Jonny Ohlson: It’s been 15 years so far. To be honest, when I founded the company, I really didn’t think it was going to be this long. They always say it takes longer and costs more, and that’s a truism. We’re going into the clinic with a therapeutic cancer vaccine, BioNTech and Moderna are evolving it. I think we’re in a beginning of a new dawn. Clearly, COVID and as you rightly highlighted through your introduction, has advanced mRNA in a big way. I think this is the start of nucleic acids therapies and prophylactic vaccine. I think we’re learning a lot and it’s moving very rapidly. I think the next five years will be remarkable in terms of how we see some of these nucleic acid modalities move forward and then moving forward at pace.

Can I just also bring you back to the question because I think it’s too easy to say the sole ambition is to treat people and cure people of horrible disease. The other important factor is making everything whole for those people that supported me, supported the company along, and indeed the employees along the way. If you’re going to find a biotech company and [laughs] people look at you and say, “Well, hold on a second. You worked in advertising, you worked in clubs, you worked in there.”

It’s not exactly a likely route and you’re not going to have VCs banging your doors down to invest in you. There were people that took remarkable leaps of faith and at some point, including employees who loved the vision of what we were doing, but they were taking a gamble with their career. I want to make them whole. As such, every single person of 150 or so employees we have at Touchlight, own options in the company. That’s a philosophy we’re going to continue.

Michael Ward: Right? Yes. You mentioned about the financing. Many biotech startups, they’re bankrolled by specialist venture capitalist funds. Many of those have got many years of experience. As I understand it, some of your original financial backers, however, came from what we could describe as non-traditional backgrounds… i.e. being progressive rock stars, et cetera. I just wondered, what did you show or do to convince people like that to back your vision, invest in the business?

Jonny Ohlson: First off, I put my own money in and I think those people wanted to know that I was putting my neck on the line as well. The first cohort of investors were friends of friends, and then that widened, and then we had a few people. A great friend of mine sadly died in a tragic boating accident. Was boss of Sky Media, and he invested and said, “Look, I don’t know what you’re going to do, but I’m behind you,” and put in small amount of money under EIS, and then some other groups of people came in and then they knew somebody who would do diligence for them.

We had a former head of banking of one of the big banks in healthcare. They invested PIA another group invested PIA and they lived next door to somebody who managed the money for the people you’re referring to bands, who were progressive rock stars, but they also live next door to people– If you look down our cap table, it’s ridiculous. We’ve got actors, professional tennis players, we’ve got pro rock stars. It’s a remarkable cap table, but we’ve also got people who really understand the space and could buy into the vision of where synthetic DNA is going to go.

Michael Ward: I mentioned in my introduction that one of the things is that the DNA vector and the enzymatic manufacturing process has been designed to enable you to produce DNA at unprecedented speed, scale, and purity. Could you give us some sense of what that actually looks like? If I was a potential partner, I’m going to be interested in your, “What’s in it for me? Can you give the headline?” “This is what we’re able to do for you.”

Jonny Ohlson: It’s a five-day process and that is not fully optimized yet. We think we’ll get it down to a two-day process for, during COVID, to put it in the context from sequence to multiple gram GMPI clinical material batch, we were under three weeks. We think we can get that down to, well, certainly less than half of that. That is speed. When you’re looking at, let’s say, the next pandemic, clearly if it should, let’s say, if it doesn’t happen, but if it did, you’d need to get a lot of material very, very, very quickly.

In terms of scale, we’ve built the biggest DNA manufacturing plant in the world where we’re in theory, able to make a kilogram of DNA a month, which is a lot of DNA. The facility has been set up to cater for that expansion. Speed is unprecedented. If you go to a plasma provider at the moment, they’re backed up. There is a bottleneck in getting it, so you’ve got to get a slot.

You’ve got big fixed equipment that needs to be cleaned down. You’ve got the propagation process. It’s a different paradigm in terms of speed and not just in terms of pandemic, but if you are looking at bespoke cancer therapies, we’re going to need to get pure DNA very, very quickly. That’s what our platform affords. It’s not just about speed, and it’s not just about scale, it’s also about purity.

This is where I’m delighted about the advance that the team has done here, in we responded to a regulatory pool, which was, they were concerned about the variable quality of plasmids. Hence we were called to a meeting with the FDA last year and we were encouraged to submit a drug master file, which was for our platform, which was accepted I think in December, maybe early January this year. There is that purity aspect and the ability to control a process. What we’ve done with synthetic DNA is shifted from being a biological process through a biochemical process. Ultimately, we see this moving towards chemistry, and a lot of our new IP is related to the underlying chemistry of what we’re doing.

Michael Ward: Absolutely fascinating, and great progress, particularly with the FDA Master File. I’d just like to revisit the fact you came from a different background, right? It wasn’t the traditional background of most biotech founders, which is scientific, academic, they were running laboratories or they’ve come from the pharma industry. I just wonder, what do you think or how do you think your background in a creative sector, such as advertising has actually influenced your management style as you’ve been building Touchlight? What are the relative like strengths and weaknesses that you have observed over the last 15, 16 years that you’ve been building Touchlight?

Jonny Ohlson: I think it’s a fair point to say, if I was asked to write an ad, it wouldn’t be very creative. If I was asked to cook a meal, it wouldn’t be very good, if I was asked to build a house, it would look like a pile of rubble. If I was asked to do a DNA experiment, I wouldn’t know one end of the path from the other. I think in that is an important lesson is that, the evolution of our technology, it’s clearly nothing to do with me. It’s to do with brilliant scientists. Brilliant scientists need a home, they need a direction, they need finance, they need legal support, they need HR support, and actually somebody’s got to lead all that stuff.

Actually I think it was an advantage from not coming from the sector in a way that I could be really objective about that. To be honest, I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since I founded the company. I’ve had to think much harder than most would because it would come naturally to somebody who would be in the sector. Also, I’ve had to rely incredibly heavily on brilliant people because I won’t be in a room to talk science because it would have no credibility.

In going to an investor and saying, “Look, this is where we’re going to get you, where the company is going to go, this is where the plan is, this is how we’re going to get there.” I think I serve a decent function and I think that is evident in how far Touchlight has come.

The interesting thing is people didn’t look at science companies or biotech companies as creative industries, I don’t think. Actually, if I did a exercise when I looked at the government’s own definition of what the creative industry is, and biotech and science aren’t there, and yet the definition of the creative industry is taking an idea, turning it into intellectual property and commercializing it, which is exactly what biotechs do. Why not come from advertising and see– In advertising, I wrote the brief, I persuaded the clients, writing the brief is writing the strategic plan.

The client was in fact your financial master, and so we were going to the investors and saying, “This is what we’re doing and this is where we’re going. This is our direction of travel and this is how we’re going to commercialize it. This is how we’re building the model, and this is the market opportunity. The fact that I couldn’t do any of the science meant that, a, I knew what I had to do. I certainly couldn’t do the science, and, b, I had to rely and have very trusting relationships with utterly remarkable people who I dearly respect.

Back to the analogy of not making ads. One thing, I think, anybody who manages creative people, is that they have deep respect for those creative people. One thing to this day, it’s been 15 years, but I’m in awe of the brilliance of the scientists that we employ and what they’re doing and how they can evolve their practice to further the advancement of the field, whether in immunology, molecular biology, in manufacturing, whatever it may be. These guys are utterly brilliant and I have deep respect for them.

Michael Ward: In one of your answers, you mentioned that it’s been 15 years since you founded the company and it’s taken a lot longer than you had initially envisaged. I was just wondering, knowing what you now know, if you could start again, what would you do the same and what might you do differently?

Jonny Ohlson: Well, firstly, I would, I’d readjust my time expectations. That’s the first thing, I mean you know I didn’t foresee COVID, I didn’t foresee Brexit. You know probably, if I had a crystal ball back in 2007, you’d probably say, you would set up in America because 70% of the genomic medicine biotechs are based there. Proximity is, is helpful, that said, Britain is a brilliant place to innovate because there’s some very, very, very brilliant scientists and it’s very under underutilized and the scientific talent pool that we have here.

I absolutely do not regret a single scientist that I’ve met along the way. As I said, we’ve got 150 of them here. Actually, the temptation would be to go to America, but I think here is a great place to innovate. Probably, if I did it all over again, I would’ve hoped that we got there wherever there may be a little bit quicker, and then we could have ridden the COVID wave for DNA vaccines in the way that mRNA did. We weren’t ready at that time, but we’ve made massive advances in the last 2 years.

I guess anything I would’ve done differently would’ve been around time, but I actually genuinely, I have no regrets, but I’ve had to think too hard. I wish I met some people earlier and I wish I’d cracked sleeping better than I have.

Michael Ward: I’m thinking actually, also given the fact that you’re based in Hampton near Richmond, which is probably one of the nicest parts of London, you’d be pretty hard pressed to find somewhere in the US that came anywhere close to that.

Jonny Ohlson: Can I just pick you up on that, Mike, because in 2 weeks time, we’re going to open this new facility here in Hampton. It’s utterly remarkable, it was and this goes, I’ve mentioned serendipity before. I met a chap by the name of Andrew Black, who was the founder of Betfair, who’s a wonderful man. He said, “Look, I’ll look at your biotech. If you look at my building when I was looking for finance in 2010, I think it was. I thought that was a bit of a strange request, but then he funded diligence into Touchlight and said, “Look, I’m going to invest now, come and look at my building.” I said, “Well, okay, that’s a bit strange,” but I came here and came onto this site.

I said, “What do you want to do with this building? It had been dormant for 70 years, and it’s a huge, huge water pumping station.” He said, well, I want to turn it into a hotel, and I said, well, I can promise you it’s not going to work. He said, why? I gave him five reasons, and I said, well, actually to cut a long story short. If you make it good for us or make part of the building good for us, we’ll move in here. He said, “Well, how am I going to get a return from that?” I said, “By investing in the company,” and he liked that thought.

Gradually, we’ve taken over the whole site and it’s beautiful. It is really, really iconic and it is as I say, it’s going to be the biggest manufacturing plant in the world. Part of the belief of running Touchlight like a creative industry and that I discussed with Andrew Black back in the day, was that if you create wonderful spaces, you attract wonderful people. Scientist so often …well, science itself was so often regarded as a subterranic activity but if you could make really beautiful labs then it would inspire them to do really brilliant science and that’s what we did. I urge you to please go and have a look at our website, look at the building we’re going to announce it next couple of weeks but it’s absolutely beautiful. We did it with our own money, with Bert’s money and Andrew Black’s money and I’m very, very, very, very proud of what we’ve created.

Michael Ward: I think that’s a very positive note on which to stop, end our discussion. It’s great talking to you and I’ve really appreciated you coming here and I think that the journey, the observations that you’ve shared with us are going to resonate with many of our listeners. On that point, I’d actually like to thank our audience for taking the time to listen to this Conversations In Healthcare Podcast.

If after listening to this broadcast you’d like to tune to future Conversations in Healthcare, follow our LinkedIn page because that’s where we’ll be posting alerts for future episode releases. In closing, I’d like to thank Jonny again for joining me and also you, the audience. I’m Mike Ward and I hope to see you on the next episode. Goodbye.

VO: Please follow and listen to other editions of Conversations In Healthcare where you can hear the thoughts of key opinion leaders from across the whole of the healthcare ecosystem. Now available on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Spotify or other podcast directories. Share, like, review or join the conversation with your comments on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook by clicking on the share link.


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