Expert opinion on the state of healthcare innovation - An interview with Professor Peter Dobson

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Author: Sandra Nwokeoha Edited by: Chandan Seth

Prof. Dobson is currently the Principal Fellow at Warwick Manufacturing Group, University of Warwick, has visiting professorships at UCL and King’s College, London and was previously the Academic Director of the Begbroke Science Park at the University of Oxford. He has considerable expertise in the field of healthcare innovation from spin-offs that he successfully founded in the areas of nanotechnology and biosensors. In this interview, he has shared his expert opinion on the biotechnology research and policy landscape, and redefines the hard lessons for innovators.

Sandra (Interviewer): What are your thoughts on the current ways in which University research is translated into commercial activity?

Prof . Dobson: There is currently a strong desire to create spin-off companies and this can consume a huge amount of time, money and energy. Many spin off companies don’t succeed, they may get by for a few years but eventually fail or end up being bought by either a competitor or predator, often overseas. We might be able to do a lot better if instead of spinning off a company we file the patents in the normal way, but then we go into a licence agreement with an existing company and work together for 2-3 years to establish whether the business idea is really going to work out rather than starting up alone. The company puts up most of the risk money and in return gets exclusive use of any IP coming out of it.

This strategy is a collaborative research business model but there exists reluctance of some universities to adopt it. Universities are not allowed to trade because they are not trading companies and have charitable status and they also tend to over-value IP. Perhaps they should stick to their core purpose i.e. training and educating students in ways that equip them for a variety of careers.

Thus, “the collaborative research model” – which is being adopted (but not openly) at some Universities   – offers companies the opportunity to work alongside their academic partners in the early stages; and if the ideas work, the company can take them forwards and ideally in 3-4 years the university should receive royalties. This solution could partially mitigate against the UK’s poor provision of capital for spin-offs. Currently spin-offs never raise enough funds in the first instance, so they must go back for a second and further rounds that dilute the equity of the previous shareholders, making them unhappy and consequently the inventors too – a recipe for disaster. There are signs of an improvement with funds such as the Oxford Science and Innovation Fund that has over £600M for early stage companies (https://www.oxfordsciencesinnovation ).

A rule of thumb for sound investment should be an investment whereby as you move from discovery through to commercialisation, the ratio of money goes from 1 to 10 to 100, to 1000 in going from Technology {Readiness} Level 1 to 4 to 7 to 9. In other words, if your initial research costs a million you may have to raise a billion before you can create a truly new major company. There are many examples from successful solar cell companies, battery manufacture or biosensors companies, where this kind of ramp up in investment was needed.

Sandra: What were some of the struggles and smoother aspects of setting up Begbroke Science Park and how do you feel about the current landscape of science parks; has government funding improved or not in the creation of these?

Prof. Dobson feels he was fortunate that he had a small team working alongside him that shared his vision and this helped smooth some of the difficulties. However there were many times when he felt despair at the lack of urgency and confidence on the part of the University and senior academics in what he was trying to achieve.

He adds, ‘There are still clearly many academics who do not see the point of translating their research into commercial activity. There is a landscape of activity in the UK where academics are able to translate their research and move closer to the needs of industry’. He cites the example of Warwick's Manufacturing Group moving out of their Engineering department altogether (due to a significant income created by focussing directly on the needs of industry). He is hopeful that such a model could be repeated elsewhere.

On the funding front, he remarks that ‘it's been stagnant, govt funding has only gone into science parks indirectly usually through infrastructure such as rail and road networks, and local initiatives, and we could have certainly done with more local support for Begbroke in the difficult early days’. There is no “one solution fits all” and the development of science or innovation parks needs to take account of the local skills and expertise of the nearby universities.

Sandra: There's been a big emphasis on the pharmaceuticals with respect to the healthcare sector than biotechnology, which comprises equipment and services. Do you think this trend is here to stay whereby the pharmaceuticals will be leading the healthcare sector or do you think that there will soon be a shift of interest to technologies such as non-invasive tools (e.g. HIFU, contrast agents) or Mobile Health, even?

Prof. Dobson: Growth is likely to arise in biotechnology because there is less regulation, so it will be more attractive for a company that's already partly in the healthcare area to invest in something where the regulatory hurdles are smaller. Anything non-invasive or external to the body, smart prosthetics, exoskeleton-type concepts, mobile health especially for disease detection will all be big areas for the future.

This also says something about the pharma mentality, which is looking for some low hanging fruit where it doesn’t have to invest a lot of money in extensive trials. If you can use an existing drug that is getting toward the end of its patent life and you can re-package it with a new delivery system, you get another 20 years of exclusive use’. Dobson predicts that ‘we will see some of the drugs that are currently at the end of patent, being re-packaged in delivery systems such as nano-capsules or nano-sponges so that the drug can be delivered in a different way. The regulatory rules will be based more on the device rather than the already approved drug, and that’s where the breakthroughs are going to happen.

Prof. Dobson postulates that other non-invasive techniques such as hyperthermia, ultrasound and electrotherapy, may become hot topics of biotechnology research in the future, notwithstanding the relatively small amount of research going into electrotherapy. He comments that ‘the only area where electrotherapy is being applied currently is in the treatment of severe epilepsy. Patients have a little wire implant to detect whether they are about to have epileptic events which can trigger electrical impulses that prevent them from happening. An under-researched method seems to be electrical impedance tomography but its resolution isn’t high enough at present. A sleeve could be placed over part of a patient for example, with a large number of electrodes to sense electric fields. The electrical potential on those electrodes could be monitored and with a very fast tomography algorithm you could build up an image of what’s inside the body that influences electrical conduction. This might hold the key to nerve imaging.’

Sandra: At which point would you start thinking about commercialisation and spinning out. Amidst of the innovative technologies that do very well at pre-clinical stage and brutally fail at clinical level, what are the key missing elements that would lead to more successful commercialisation?

Prof. Dobson: I would start by really establishing if there is a need for the new idea. I would make sure that the clinicians want it and if they don’t, I’d stop. However, it is also worth having multiple opinions on the subject before discarding the idea or moving further, perhaps by organising a “workshop”, that brings together clinicians, scientists and engineers, and even patient focus groups. The next thing would be to map out exactly what you have to do to satisfy the clinicians’ needs. Two other things to think about are regulatory issues, and scale-up.  We are in a situation where there are first rate scientists and clinicians around, but not enough dialogue between them and a poor engagement with engineers who can provide the solutions’.

He recommends careful thinking through all business ideas, critical identification and assessment of risks.

Sandra: In recent years, we’ve heard of a speculated anti-lobbying clause, which was ultimately scrapped by the government. What are your general thoughts on how the government is dealing with research related bodies?

Prof. Dobson: There is a lot happening at the moment and the landscape is changing, especially in the past two years. Dobson points to two very important reviews published by the government over two years ago: the Dowling Review of Business-University Research Collaborations and shortly after the Nurse Review of research councils ‘which had set out to see how to improve research councils and the government agency Innovate UK. While Nurse’s review was not very conclusive as it didn’t state why improvements needed to be made and what could be done to make it better, he brought forward the idea that there should be more joining up of research councils so that they would be all under a close knit umbrella organisation, making the boundaries between the EPSRC, MRC and BBSRC a bit less obvious. This should become apparent in a new organisation called UKRI. The role of Innovate UK has been assuming increasing importance, and it will be included within the remit of UKRI. Many of the new initiatives introduced by Innovate UK in the past 3 years are starting to show considerable benefit for the translation of research via SMEs in all sectors and this is very welcome.

Sandra: Do you see the idea of scientific research integrating into public policy becoming a reality?

Prof. Dobson: Hopefully the new UKRI will underpin the idea of science and technology becoming a part of public policy and industrial strategy. We have been waiting for some time to see what the Government means by “Industrial Strategy” and this might become clear in the weeks ahead.