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The UK's Catapult to Drug Discovery Collaboration


Pharm Exec speaks to Chris Molloy, CEO of the newly established Medicines Discovery Catapult, which aims to establish new approaches to grow and sustain the UK's reputation for innovative, fast-to-patient drug discovery.

Pharm Exec speaks to Chris Molloy, CEO of the Medicines Discovery Catapult, about how the organization aims to establish new approaches that draw on the combined strengths of the UK’s private, public and not-for-profit sectors to grow and sustain the country’s reputation for innovative, fast-to-patient drug discovery.

In August 2016, Chris Molloy was appointed as the first CEO of the Medicines Discovery Catapult (MDC), the latest not-for-profit, independent technology and innovation center set up by Innovate UK to connect businesses with the research and academic communities and help them to access expert help and specialist facilities. With 26 years in the industry - from helping to build GSK’s capability in high-throughput screening and informatics to leading the global executive recruiting firm RSA - Molloy brings to the role a national and international perspective with experience in discovery science, technology, informatics, and talent recruitment from both small and big companies. Here he outlines his vision for positioning the UK as “the premium nation in medicines discovery”.

PharmExec: How did the Medicines Discovery Catapult come about? Why do we need it?

Chris Molloy, CEO, The Medicines Discovery Catapult

Medicines discovery in the UK has a stunning heritage. 25 per cent of the world’s top 100 medicines were discovered to some degree in the UK. But we all recognize not only that the global market in pharma is changing and needs new thinking around discovery, but also that there has been a change in the presence of big pharma in the UK and fluctuations in the way biotech is funded.  We have also seen the rise of the service sector in the last few years. All of those changes have placed bubbles in the pipework. Some are science and technology issues, some are process issues, some are regulatory issues, many are “people” issues.  If we look at the UK now, it has a small number of major pharma companies and it has a biotech community that is optimistic and traditionally strong, but needs greater breadth and size.

What are the Catapult's short- and long-term objectives?

In the short term, the Catapult will enable stakeholders to generate technology and process solutions to clear and present problems in today’s medicines discovery pipework, whether they are disease models that fit the disease better than the models of yesterday, technologies that enable us to see into diseases and better predict the outcomes, or enabling molecules to move faster through preclinical validation. We need disease models, informatics and process solutions which can be pushed back through the service sector to the entire community

In the longer term, our mission is to put the patient at the beginning of discovery rather than at some point later in the process. By doing this we hope to facilitate groupings of stakeholders, where product profiles are visible and patient led, and where charities can pull through many of the assets they have fostered through basic research into translation and into the SME community. We also aim to open up new routes of financing, bringing new and additional money into the activity of patient-led but industry-managed medicines discovery.

It’s early days, but what activities has the Catapult been involved in so far?

We’re starting to work with medical research charities, drug R&D biotechs, platform biotechnology companies, and informatics companies who have a key interest in modeling and simulation or collaboration informatics. All these companies are coming to us, looking for ways in which their technology can be assets or where assets can be technology, and where they become proven by that interaction.

It’s not just a matter of resources, it’s about combining them with intellectual input and industrial understanding to get a confluence of ideas, resources and experience at the table, guiding the development of better discovery models. Whether those models are developed through better understanding of real-world data and biomarkers, better culture techniques or analytical technologies, these things should combine to ensure that the way we select, optimize and prove our molecules pre-clinically will give us additional pillars of knowledge to increase the likelihood that they will work when they get into patients. 

How are you funded?

All Catapults are funded by Innovate UK. Our core funding, which reaches out over a six-year period, enables us to provide the facilities and expertise for the community to come and use. It also allows us to take risks and be disruptive in areas where others cannot. We are also able to orchestrate and prime Innovate UK competitions, on behalf of the SME community.  40 per cent of the biotech SMEs in the UK have less than five people, so it is very challenging for these companies to find resource to bid for, to win and then to administer these competition grants. We can help overcome that barrier and put more of the money towards the science.

The industry has changed from everything being behind the walls of pharma to innovation outsourced to biotech, then outsourced to an extent to academia and to a lesser extent the CRO sector. That waterfall of outsourcing has changed the market dramatically and made it more complex. It has introduced more opportunity and more brains at the table, but for the SME community particularly, it’s a challenging space.

Will the the Catapult be engaging with European and international projects?

We’re a global industry and the UK cannot act as a small island. It is an integral part of the pharma industry and has been for decades. What the Catapult wishes to do is provide the best possible R&D community for medicines discovery in the nation, which will by its very nature attract people from outside to want to come and work and collaborate with firms here. It will also allow our firms to export their experiences internationally. It is very much about making sure that the strengths of the UK community are enhanced in challenging and uncertain times

The timing of your launch fell not long after the Brexit vote. Is the Catapult more vital for the UK than ever in light of the coming changes?

The Brexit vote brings a very new flavour to the community in the UK and to the work of the Catapult. The change and uncertainty that has been introduced to the market will influence our work significantly. But this is counterbalanced by opportunities and we should recognize and maximize our strengths and develop capabilities that perhaps we relied on others for in the past.

We are looking at how we develop better packages of data to enable our regulators to move drugs into patients fast. If we can do that, we help the community here and we light a beacon for the UK internationally as an agile and forward thinking community in medicines discovery, able to take safe but innovative steps.

What kind of template is the Catapult following?

We are fortunate here to be able to look towards the UK’s Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult, which now in its fifth year, as a trailblazer for the activities of a group setting out to genuinely help the community. This has demonstrated clearly that it can support a community to great access by addressing the barriers it sees.

Internationally, we see Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute as an exemplar of applied R&D platforms on behalf of an SME community. The Fraunhofer has been immensely successful in supporting specific communities by providing what none of the individual stakeholders could supply or access by themselves.

How much will you be drawing on your experience in executive recruitment in your new role?

Every day. While we all get excited about the science and technology, this is a people industry. It relies on the skills, experience and passion of the people to keep going in an industry where we all know most things fail. Getting the right people, giving them the right experiences and enabling them to succeed is critical path. MDC is committed to enabling the next generation of leaders to have access to today’s generation of leaders.

It’s a painful statistic that there are more biotech CEOs in their 70s than in their 30s in the UK. It’s vital that we enable that older generation to hand down as much of that experience and wisdom as possible. There is no shortage of assets and ideas here. What we hope we can add is the insurance of rigorous, industrial decision making to help make sure that only the very best ideas make it to the patients.