On topic: Marshalling innovation in biotech

July 20, 2019

Dr Fiona Marshall studied a BSc in biochemistry at the University of Bath and a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Cambridge before carving out an exceptional career in life sciences – working in and consulting for multinational pharmaceutical companies, niche biotech enterprises and venture capital firms. She was the chief scientific officer and founder of Heptares Therapeutics, a spin-out of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology and later sold to Sosei Group, and is now vice president head of neuroscience discovery and head of the UK Discovery Centre for MSD Research Laboratories, which will support the next generation of innovative drug development. The scientist and entrepreneur has been recognised in her field multiple times including, in 2012, when she was awarded the WISE Women of Outstanding Achievement for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and in 2015 when she won the RSC Malcolm Campbell Memorial Award for chemistry. Last month, the fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and honorary fellow of the British Pharmacological Society visited The Biosphere at Newcastle Helix – the city’s new 24-acre innovation zone for science businesses and research – where she met four North East life science entrepreneurs. Alison Cowie spoke to Dr Marshall afterwards to find out more

What sparked your interest in science and biochemistry?

I enjoyed science at school, and I had some inspirational teachers. I went to an all-girls school so there wasn’t the assumption that boys did STEM subjects and the girls did something else. We thought we could do anything.

I considered studying medicine at university but as the time drew nearer, I realised I was more interested in the research aspects and understanding the body’s mechanisms. I applied to study biochemistry at the University of Bath, where I became more interested in the chemistry of the brain and so afterwards, I completed my PhD in neuroscience at the University of Cambridge.

Tell me about your early career?

After my PhD, I worked in a large pharma company for ten years and then began moving into smaller and smaller companies. I started working for a biotech company that involved a lot of international travel. It was difficult to balance this with having a young family and so I took an academic position at the University of Cambridge. While I was there, I kept being asked to go into biotech companies to help them and ended up working with about 30 different companies – sitting on the board of a number of them. And I also started consulting for venture capital companies that were looking to invest in biotech.

Working with the biotech companies, I could see what they were doing right and what they were doing wrong and got a unique insight into the sector.

What led to you starting your own company – Heptares Therapeutics?

I had a change in my personal life, and I was looking to move out of consulting. Then, by coincidence and a bit of luck, one of the venture capital companies I was working with asked if I would look at a new opportunity in Cambridge. I went to the labs and met the scientists. I was so convinced by what I saw that I went back to the venture capital company and said, ‘if you invest, I’ll help set the company up’.

What did Heptares Therapeutics set out to achieve and what’s been its greatest achievement?

The company uses a technique called x-ray crystallography to create three-dimensional shapes of proteins, which can be looked at on a computer to find unusual drug-binding sites. You can then design a drug that fits into that pocket. One of the very first programmes we worked on – when there were only five of us in the company – resulted in a drug that’s now in clinical trials for cancer partnered with AstraZeneca.

In April 2018 you were appointed vice president head of neuroscience discovery and head of the UK Discovery Centre for MSD. What does this involve and how is the research centre set to impact drug development in the UK?

I have two roles at MSD: one is the global head of neuroscience discovery while the other is heading the new UK discovery centre. The discovery centre will eventually look to support the drug development process – from basic research through to clinical trials, development and marketing. We’ve recently rented some research labs in London with the intention of acquiring a permanent building. Our focus is on diseases of ageing, particularly neuro-degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The aim of our global organisation is to have a research site in London to connect to the excellent academic and clinical research we have here, recruit local talent, and to provide a gateway into Europe.

What are the opportunities for life sciences entrepreneurs today? What are their biggest challenges?

The rate of change in science is challenging but it also presents opportunities. Pharma companies cover the whole [drug development] process from discovery through to clinical development to commercialisation. They can’t be state-of-the-art in everything, so there are opportunities for life sciences entrepreneurs to find the bottlenecks and come up with innovative solutions. One of the critical challenges for biotech companies is funding. It’s relatively easy to raise seed money from angel investors, grants and start-up venture capital companies, but it becomes more difficult for UK companies when they want to grow. It’s much more difficult to secure an Initial Public Offering in the UK compared to a US-based company.

What would help this situation?

The Government’s Life Sciences Industrial Strategy is looking to help companies grow by increasing access to capital in a number of different ways. UK companies also need to become more globally connected. Even small biotech companies need to be visible in key territories to be able to access international funds. That’s what we did at Heptares Therapeutics – we attracted investment from the US, as well as from a Swiss pharmaceutical company.

You visited the Newcastle Helix last month where you met four North East life sciences companies. What were your impressions of their enterprises and what was the main advice you gave them?

I saw four companies – Alcyomics, Biosignatures, Newcells Biotech and Iksuda Therapeutics – which are working in different parts of the [drug development] process. They are doing very exciting, innovative work using cutting-edge science, but I asked them to think about their business plan, their product offering and how they’ll grow their companies. Also, to think about gaining intellectual property and patent protection around, for example, the methods they were developing.

How do life sciences companies balance that technical, scientific experience with the business acumen?

You can’t do everything yourself and so you have to get advice. One of the benefits of being in a [sector] cluster is that you have similar companies around you that you can talk to. Also, don’t be afraid to bring in people who can cover the different components of building a company.

At Heptares Therapeutics, we made sure we had the right people in finance, business development and the legal side of things. Those people don’t always have to become part of the company – you can use external firms and consultants if necessary.

What do you think of the facilities at The Biosphere and Newcastle Helix and how will it impact companies who choose to base themselves here?

There are a number of benefits. One is the flexibility of the space. A small company can take smaller space and grow as they want or need to. Often, small companies are managing a limited budget but have to commit to taking a large amount of laboratory space from the outset, which wastes a lot of money. There are also local connections through the universities and the hospitals and having the UK National Innovation Centre for Ageing and the National Innovation Centre for Data [both part of Newcastle Helix] is of considerable benefit. The proximity to the city is also important. A lot of people who have gone to university in the North East find themselves having to move to Oxford, London or Cambridge to find jobs that match their skills. Building alternative opportunities for their abilities in Newcastle – and across the country – is really important.

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