Watch a replay of the live session here or read our top takeaways below…
This year’s conference kicked off with the CEO Champions panel, chaired by Amber Tong, Senior Editor at Endpoints. The three fantastic and experienced CEOs spoke about running their different companies and the enormous passion for the work they do in our exciting industry.
Amber began by reflecting on the pandemic, on the way it has shone a light on the life sciences sector, attracting widespread public interest and making companies within the industry household names almost overnight. She asked the panellists to talk about their accomplishments, inevitably in the light of the pandemic, and reflect on what has been achieved over the last two years in very unusual circumstances.
All three panellists pointed to the exceptional adaptability of their staff during a period that saw Oxford Biomedica roll out 10 million AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccines to save lives; Calliditas Therapeutics conduct a Phase 3 trial before filing for FDA and EMA approval on time; and Redx Pharma after going into administration in 2017, secured deals with AstraZeneca and Jazz Pharmaceuticals before turning its attention to growth.
John Dawson, Oxford Biomedica CEO, spoke of the enormous commitment demonstrated by the unsung heroes among his staff, who worked day and night and throughout Christmas and New Year, to enable the company to rise to the challenge of manufacturing millions of doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid vaccine. Redx, under the helm of CEO Lisa Anson, has undergone a refinancing, completed a Phase 1 trial for its porcupine inhibitor and has another drug – a unique, selective ROCK 2 inhibitor – move into the clinic. Lisa has recruited 50 staff since the start of the pandemic, taking the total headcount to 70 and, while Redx had no direct involvement in the vaccine, she is proud of her staff who volunteered to help with PCR testing, set up vaccination clinics and lend equipment.
Renee Aguiar-Lucander, CEO at Calliditas, lauded the ability of the life sciences industry to adapt to working throughout the pandemic, commenting on the capacity of the biotech sector to leverage technology. She pointed out that, while not everything is do-able via Zoom, virtual capabilities suit small, multi-tasking biotech companies.
Resilience is key
All three panellists spoke more broadly about the skills needed and challenges faced by CEOs running biotech companies. An inherently unpredictable sector, and a highly regulated industry that is inevitably fraught with failures, it requires its leaders to pivot and adapt rapidly. The key quality is ‘resilience’ plus the ability to inspire, motivate and communicate no matter the setbacks. As leaders of small biotechs, Lisa and Renee spoke about the inevitability of scientific failure as a component of working life and the passion across Life Sciences for delivering answers to patients, giving those in the industry a special ‘crazy’ quality that drives perseverance in the face of numerous obstacles.
Asked to elaborate on the setbacks and how they have managed to overcome them, John spoke about the challenge of raising money at 2 pence back in 2016 before Oxford Biomedica underwent its meteoric rise to reach a market cap of £1.3 billion today and sit within the FTSE 250 index. He spoke about the challenges of explaining a drug failing to the market and the need to have the right team in place so that in a crisis you can rely on your Chief Medical Officer to run the science while you concentrate on getting the strategy and financing right. It is important to keep evolving the model, as exemplified by Oxford Biomedica’s diversification into a Contract Development and Manufacturing Organisation (CDMO).
Investment outlook & hot topics for the future
Amber turned the panellists’ attention to the investment outlook for the sector. All three speakers pointed to the increasing investment available within Europe. No longer is it necessary to go to the US to raise capital as, while the landscape remains volatile, there are significant funds to be deployed and US investors are increasingly migrating to Europe. Renee shared her views on a Nasdaq listing stressing that financing should not be the only reason to consider a Nasdaq IPO, rather it must run alongside an operational and strategic emphasis on the US. Lisa added that the public’s newly found interest in the life sciences sector has led to investment coming in from outside, perhaps from those who do not always fully understand the risks associated with this industry.
Finally, the CEO panel touched on the ‘hot topics’ looking ahead. They spoke about the increasing importance of considering all aspects of ESG (Environmental Social and Governance) but also about the need to be realistic. When a company is in survival mode, ESG will not be top of the agenda, however, as it becomes more established, it is important that companies focus on what within the ESG framework is relevant to their business.
Artificial Intelligence was raised. Labelled as the current ‘Wild West’ there was agreement that, while there will be fantastic breakthroughs, there will be many failures as well. It remains to be seen how AI can really make a difference and who will be the real winners, and importantly, to what extent does it make R&D more effective and efficient?
A common thread running throughout the session was our leaders’ admiration for the scientists that develop the products and technologies. Lisa spoke openly about her desire to enable Redx to realise its potential following the necessary sale of its BTK inhibitor – LOXO-305 – a molecule that had been developed by Redx scientists and which is now successfully entering Phase 3 trials under the ownership of Eli Lilly which acquired Loxo Oncology for approximately $8 billion, Loxo having acquired the asset. Her challenge as a CEO is to translate Redx’s fantastic science into a great company. She stressed the need to make tough decisions rather than take the easy path, holding out for investors who believe in the company. Lisa finished by emphasising the crowded nature of the biotech sector and the value in staying true to your capabilities in order to distinguish yourself – don’t try to be everything to everyone but rather concentrate on where, as a company, you can add value.