What Makes a Successful Biotech?


How does it feel to have co-developed the most successful drug in the world? This is something Jane Osbourn, now Chair of the Board at UK cell therapy biotech Mogrify, knows only too well. 

Early in her career, Osbourn was working as a postdoc in Cambridge and was persuaded to join a small, and at the time quite unknown biotech called Cambridge Antibody Technology. Almost 10 years later, the company’s antibody drug Humira — now the world’s best selling drug — was approved by the US FDA to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

The success of Cambridge Antibody Technology attracted the interest of big pharma. In 2006, AstraZeneca bought the company, which it merged with another acquisition, a US company called MedImmune, in 2008. Osbourn decided to stay on at the company and was site leader of the Cambridge branch of MedImmune until earlier this year.

What attracted you to a career in biotech?

I was doing a postdoc in academia in cardiovascular disease and I was quite enjoying that, but it was a competitive environment. It didn’t quite feel like we were working on big problems jointly. Everyone was doing good work, but it felt a bit fragmented. I did a couple of years of that and got some papers out of it, but I just felt it would be nice to be in a more integrated team.

I ended up moving to Cambridge Antibody Technology, my first biotech, partly because I had been interviewed by people from there for the postdoc. Two years down the line, I was sitting in the coffee room in the biochemistry department and saw an advert for Cambridge Antibody Technology and thought, ‘wow, those guys are still in business! The systems that they were working on must have done something.’ So I thought I’d apply.

I decided that I wanted to move into more of a small company, focused environment, even though I knew it was quite high-risk in terms of how it might play out. Being able to better link what I was doing into patients and do that more quickly in a more integrated way was really appealing.

Cambridge Antibody Technology has a pretty illustrious history. What was it like to work there?

It was fun. There’s a lot of hard work when you move into a biotech. We really had to get the technology up and running, and demonstrate it was robust. I was hired as a relatively junior scientist with a group of people that came in at the same time. We basically spent three years doing PCR and building libraries and putting the time in the lab, but it was good because we had this goal that we were going to build a hopefully world-leading human antibody library and we were all behind that.

It was very collegiate. Everyone had a really good sense of humor even though we had some real ups and downs. I think we also had a sense of pace. It was really focused. My immediate boss was asking how things were going on almost an hourly basis just because he was really, really interested and wanted to help.

How did you feel when you realized the hard work would pay off?

I’m not quite sure when we realized it was going to be successful. It was always a challenge to make sure that we were bringing in revenue, that we had the right partnerships. We were really fortunate that we had a really good early program, which was a partnership that ended up delivering Humira.

We didn’t really understand what the power of the technology was. We had ideas on how it could be applied, but I think the big turning point was when we had a patient come in and talk to us very eloquently about how taking Humira had improved the quality of her life in terms of simple things she could do around the house.

Humira is now the best-selling drug in the world, but we didn’t think about the commercial side of it. It was just seeing the fact that you could make a difference to one person – it was really compelling.

How was the transition process after AstraZeneca acquired Cambridge Antibody Technology and merged the company with MedImmune?

We spent about six months just sharing science and getting to know each other before we made big decisions about what we were going to do and how we were going to structure ourselves. It’s very important to build relationships and face-to-face communication. Certainly, the team at Cambridge Antibody Technology realized that and did a lot of traveling and conversations, but equally, our US colleagues were very open to that and did a lot of reciprocation.

I think internal communication is really important and setting the right cultural tone and the right values, focusing on the science, the patients and the long term.

You always have your challenges when you’re going through the classic forming, storming, norming team evolution. But in the end, I think we came out with a really nice shared global vision.

Did you still have freedom to innovate and develop as a company after the acquisition?

The guys at AstraZeneca were told not to contact people at Cambridge Antibody Technology, because we weren’t very many people and we would just get swamped. I think there was a sort of empathy and awareness of how a small company needs to operate.

When Pascal Soriot came in as CEO of AstraZeneca he had come out of Genentech and understood a lot about the challenges of biologics. That gave us space and runaway, and enabled the development of the biologics pipeline in the long term.

I think one of the really important requirements for success is having long-term vision and commitment. We actually set some goals around delivering one new biologic to the market by 2016 when we were merged. We set that goal in 2008, so we gave ourselves a few years to achieve that and we managed it.

What are your plans for the future now you have left AstraZeneca?

It’s a great time to be doing new things in drug discovery, and I thought that I would like to go back and build some new platforms. I can now see a series of opportunities around cell therapy, different approaches to antibody drug discovery, some ideas in the chemistry space as well, looking at different modalities, different ways of bringing drug discovery forward.

I’ve already taken on being the chair of Mogrify, which is great. That’s a very interesting company and technology, which is all about transforming cells from cell A to cell B without necessarily having to go through a pluripotent stem cell stage, and that’s built on 10 years of really excellent academic research.

I’m also interested in thinking about different ways of developing antibody therapeutics. I think there needs to be a paradigm shift around making antibodies to specific targets. The classic drug discovery approach is: you have a target, and then, you make a small molecule or a biologic target. This has reaped some really good rewards, but I think we’re starting to struggle with genuine innovation in the target space.

Will cell therapies become the new antibody therapies?

I think they have the potential to be the next big thing. I think we’ve learnt a lot from how the biologics field evolved. We’re starting from a higher baseline in terms of understanding how we can structure our trials, but I also think nothing is going to be the next big thing in isolation.

I think we’re going to have to make sure we’re using cell therapy in combination with the right supporting drug regimes or digital therapeutics. I think we’re a lot more sophisticated than we were 25 years ago in terms of how these things can be applied and used. I think there’s huge potential in cell therapy.

With Mogrify, the idea that we have the potential to build allogeneic [off-the-shelf] treatments and more treatments that can be, not so much for the masses, but for defined populations in a more controlled and scalable way… I think that’s the real opportunity. We really hope we can make that reality.

How do you know if an idea for a biotech startup is going to work on a commercial scale? 

I’m on the board of Babraham Bioscience Technologies, which is an incubator.  What we’ve done at Babraham is run a number of accelerator programs and pitching opportunities for companies. We make sure that we have really engaged mentors and that we think through what the business model is, what the management team looks like, what the management team needs in terms of support and what the quality of the science is. Those are the key elements.

We look for something that has the potential to be disruptive. It’s a little bit high risk, but I think having a balance of risk and an enthusiastic, positive, ‘can do’ attitude goes a long way. I think you’ve got to be really open-minded when you listen to pitches. You can have ideas like, ‘I’d probably never invest in x, y or z,’ and then you can hear a surreal, novel take on it and think, ‘actually, maybe that’s ok.’

I think the nice thing about the UK – Cambridge especially because of the density of the ecosystem there – is that it’s a relatively safe environment to take a risk because people understand that you need to do this and people are looking out for each other. People are incredibly generous with their time, their money, and their ideas in the UK biotech sector.

There has been a lot of talk about needing more women in biotech, particularly at senior levels. What’s your position?

I think it’s a case of taking the time to just understand what individuals need in terms of their career development. I did quite a lot of mentoring at Cambridge Antibody Technology and MedImmune and did actually try and encourage women, particularly women who’ve had a career break to have a child, to get back into the workplace and take on additional responsibilities.

I was very fortunate. I had two maternity breaks and each time I came back, my boss actually gave me a promotion, which was a real challenge, but it was what I needed to build my confidence, and I could do it. It’s gradually getting yourself out of the comfort zone to say, ‘okay, I can take that charge, I can do that, I can go on that panel.’

It’s not just about gender diversity. It’s about diversity of thought and ideas and just having people with different cultural backgrounds, different company backgrounds on any leadership team, any board, or any team really. If you haven’t got that, you need to find a way of getting that.

What have been your biggest management lessons from your career so far? 

Find ways to listen and to encourage people to contribute. Particularly in science, everyone thinks everybody else is an expert in their area, and nobody is.

Being able to really condense your messages out in a way that anyone can understand and not assuming that anybody ever remembers anything that you tell them either. Just over communicate in a clear way!

The other thing is to always try and be generous with your time, and also assume that people’s motivations are good. Don’t complain about things. Find solutions.

How do you keep learning every day and how do you decide what to learn? 

I think the most important thing is to make sure you’re doing something that you’re truly interested in and passionate about. I think if you do that, then it’s not a chore. Take the time to work out what it is that you want to learn about. You do have to sit down and read the literature. Then you have to try and take a step back and think, ‘what does that really mean? Why would the immune system do that? Why would a plant make that?’

I am much better than I used to be about learning from others just by informal conversations. I think one thing that has been really valuable to me, particularly over the past 10 years, is that I have built up a really good network of colleagues and collaborators who I can go to and ask and learn from.

What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time to when you started in the industry?

I would tell myself to have confidence. Not believing that you can do something is often the reason why you don’t do it. It’s so much better to give something a try, and even if it doesn’t work out, you learn so much from getting out of your comfort zone.

We’ve talked about the success of the MedImmune pipeline and a number of molecules which made it to the clinic, which is phenomenal, but there were so many that failed as well. We learnt from them and they all added to that story.

Just be prepared to have a go at something that takes you out of your comfort zone and learn from it. Hopefully it will work. If it doesn’t work, then take that learning back and do something else.

Design via E. Resko

Explore other topics: AstraZenecaCell therapy

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