10 Questions: Dr Marie Labus

June 1, 2020

Dr Marie Labus, who has a BSc (hons) in Biochemistry (Immunology) and a PhD in Molecular Biology, has spent her career leading research, product development and managing spin-outs in the life sciences sector. She currently splits her time between AMLo Biosciences – a spin-out dedicated to developing a prognostic test for early-stage melanomas, where she is CEO – and Newcastle University, where she is business development manager in the medical faculty

What was your first break in business?

I was very fortunate that my PhD and subsequent post-doctoral fellow positions were part-funded by industry, and so very early on I was exposed to the commercial world. My PhD supervisor was quite entrepreneurial, which was very unusual at the time and he was really keen to spin-out a company from the university. When he did, he offered me a position as R&D manager and, after that, I didn’t want to return to academia. It’s the best decision I ever made.

What did you want to be growing up?

I grew up in a small mining village in Central Scotland, on a council estate which had high unemployment and poverty. Going to university was such a massive aspiration for me that I never thought much beyond that. My career is based on my belief that there’s nothing I can’t achieve if I put my mind to it.

What attracted you to your current roles?

I love a challenge and I love learning new things. I am a scientist at heart but I enjoy the business side of things too. I was, and still am, a part-time business development manager at Newcastle University and when they gave me the opportunity to be CEO for AMLo Biosciences – a spin-out for Newcastle University – I jumped at the chance. I had worked closely with the other two academic founders since the technology was conceived so it was fantastic to be able to drive the product development forward.

What is AMLo Biosciences’ mission?

Patients are at the heart of everything we do. We recognised early on that in a large number of cancer indications there is no accurate way to determine the risk of disease progression or spread at an individual patient level. This is incredibly stressful for patients. For example, in the case of melanoma, a patient may be told that their cancer is ‘low risk’ as they only have a one-in-20 chance of recurrence or spread. Our tests aim to provide more accurate information. Our mission is to improve patient outcomes but another benefit is that we can save healthcare providers a significant amount of money by letting them manage the genuinely low risk patients more appropriately.

How do you get the best out of your team?

I’m very fortunate that the AMLo team is still quite small and we all know each other very well. We have the same motivation and ethos about why we are doing this. One advantage of being such a small team is that we all have to pitch in to do a
bit of everything so there is a real camaraderie in everything we do. It also lets people try different roles within the company and discover skills or aptitudes they may not have otherwise.

What has been your career highlight?

It isn’t easy to single one out. I started out developing vaccines for farmed fish and it was a great day when a vaccine I’d developed was licenced for use in the real world. To see something I’d made, single-handedly in a university lab, being mass-produced and used to vaccine millions of salmon all around the world was humbling. It was also my first experience of technology transfer and patents and it gave me a real hunger to learn more.

What has been your biggest challenge?

Managing an SME is a huge challenge, especially in healthcare, as you are literally burning cash while you try to get your product into the marketplace. I’m very used to doing things on a shoestring and finding more creative ways to make the cash stretch. Every day is different and I have to adapt to whatever is thrown at me.

Who or what inspires you?

I’m inspired by women who have been successful in male-dominated industries. Management teams in the life sciences sector, for example, still lack female representation. Someone I admire is Lady Hale, who is the only woman to be appointed president of The Supreme Court in the UK. She is an inspiration as she’s fought her way to the top in an almost exclusively male environment, without losing her integrity.

What are your company’s short and long-term goals?

In the short-term, we want to get our first product, AMBLor, to market to help improve outcomes for melanoma patients. Longer term, we want to expand the product range into other cancers. As a company, we also want to grow in the North East. Too many people think you have to be based down south to be successful, we want to help the North East expand its life sciences ecosystem, create jobs and grow the local economy.

How do you achieve a good work/life balance?

It is a challenge. As I split my time between AMLo and Newcastle University, it’s very easy to find I am doing two full-time jobs rather than two part-time ones. I’m lucky I have a black labrador who needs a lot of walking so she forces me to step away from the keyboard and get outside. I’ve often solved some of my most challenging work problems on these walks, which is a bonus.

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