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Elodie Siney 

Hello everyone and welcome to the BioEscalator company spotlight. I'm super excited to be speaking to the CEO of Ochre Bio, Jack O'Meara, and also the CSO, Quin Wills. Um, Hello.

 

Quin Wills

Hey.

 

Jack O’Meara

Hi, Elodie, nice to talk to you.

 

Elodie Siney

I thought we could kick things off with Jack, you giving us the best elevator pitch for Ochre, just to introduce everybody to the company?

 

Jack O’Meara

Okay, well, I'll frame it with the problem we're solving. So many donor livers that come into transplant centres have too much fat on them and can't actually be used for transplant, despite one in six patients passing away each year while waiting for one. We're using a combination of new technologies to develop therapies that would help to rejuvenate suboptimal donor livers. We have a heavily genomic-based approach to how we do our target discovery. We've got a computational element to how we figure out combinatorial SI RNA therapies, and we are an ORAN AI company. And then lastly, we have an exciting Oxford-based collaboration with OrganOx to test out our therapies on their perfusion device that keeps donor livers alive outside the body. Our interest, as I mentioned, is trying to solve this problem in transplant but more broadly, we've been interested in fatty liver disease inside the body as well as outside the body. So that's it.

 

Elodie Siney

Thank you. Um, you were recently interviewed for the razor programme, so we will, we will add the link to that so people can find out a little bit more. Um, but Quin, you were talking about using artificial intelligence in the imaging to identify these areas of ballooning degeneration in the livers. Could you talk a little bit more about that, please?

 

Quin Wills 

Yeah, so you know, again, I use the word AI in the broadest sense, as many of us are these days. What I specifically mean are machine learning algorithms that can automate the throughput and identify things quicker and better than humans can do it, right? And so one of, one of the problems we face in our field, this deep phenotyping field where we want to really understand lots of phenotypes, so the tissue level, the single-cell level, the imaging level, is you need to find ways to standardise stuff, otherwise, what are you measuring against, and then histology is often something that's very poorly done in the liver, you know, it's difficult to get a histopathologist to agree with him or herself between from morning to afternoon and how we score these livers. So one big sort of focus for us was to use these algorithms to just standardise things, you know, no room is going to call it one way, and it won't change its mind from morning to afternoon, which is, of course, great. It also speeds things up for us, which is fantastic and it also allows us to think above and beyond standard histology because of course, computers are really good with lots of data, which human minds aren't and so it can see things that we can't. And we used that in one particular way and that was to really very quickly zoom in on different parts of the liver that are showing different stages of disease. So it doesn't matter, most of us, if you have this disease, it's not like we look at the liver, and it's just the disease everywhere. You'll still have healthy bits, you'll have early stages, later stages and so they're able to very quickly find that and then in an automated way, go and sequences those very particular niches, it's very much a big computation, whole AI problem that we've been using.

 

Elodie Siney

Are you going to use these areas that you've identified to then have a look at the RNA treatment that you're developing?

 

Quin Wills 

Exactly. So lots of, lots of biology that we understand is really something that plays out at that resolution and very difficult to see if you just sequence across the whole liver or you just look broadly across the whole liver. What the follow up to this app is that we're doing will be a single cell Atlas and in this Atlas, we're actually perturbing all the different cell types and looking at how those different cell types are affecting the disease outcome.

 

Elodie Siney

And you're proposing a six-monthly treatment, is that correct to rectify some of the issues with the genes associated with fat metabolism?

 

Quin Wills

Yes. As you have chatted about before, I think, one of, one of the big things for us was not just to be a deep phenotyping company, the technology, we love the technologies, it's great, but we want to, want to do, basically do things properly, in our minds, is how we translate and one of, one of those doing things properly was to find a modality of treatment that we believe ticks a lot of boxes and one of the very important boxes for us was that it should be one soft treatment that lasts for many months and this particular therapeutic and sort of sugar that we add to it allows us to specifically target the liver and have that one soft effect. Will there always be the formula for us years down the line? Probably not. But we think this is, this is a good one in terms of what we need for the liver space right now.

 

Elodie Siney

And what's the roadmap to the clinic going to look like for this, this therapeutic? Do you have any ideas of timescales at the moment or, is it too early to tell?

 

Quin Wills

I'll let Jack jump in with that one.

 

Jack O’Meara

We've got a pretty aggressive timeline, as has been the philosophy since the inception of the company, but we, we plan to, this year is all about selecting our lead candidates, so you remember Quin mentioned we, we built this 1000 liver Atlas now to really study disease biology at a tissue level, and have identified a host of exciting novel targets that we think are really interesting for this, this application. So this year is all about testing those out, testing out our SI RNAs to knock down those targets, finding interesting combinations, potentially, of SI RNAs, and ultimately selecting our lead candidates for the clinic by the end of this year. And then beyond that 2022, will be spent in clinical readiness mode and getting things ready for, for clinical study and we hope to get into a transplant trial by the beginning of 2023 as our stake in the ground, so pretty aggressive timelines, considering they're in, we're in target discovery mode just last year. So yeah, let's hope we can do it and get into, get into impacting patients relatively quickly.

 

Elodie Siney

That sounds great and an impressive timeline, but you've already been quite impressive. You were incorporated in November 2019. You moved into the BioEscalator in March 2020. You raised further investment. You've, you know, you've already been quite a meteoric rise, as things go, so yeah, I wouldn't think that that timeline is, is too out of your capability, judging on your past performance already. Um, one thing I wanted to ask you is, what do you think are the keys to the success of this rapid rise? And also, we know that you're in the BioEscalator, so you're in the Medical Research Campus, you're surrounded by the clinicians, you've got the hospitals where the liver transplants are happening, and all the academic resources there, but what, what do you think are the key, key factors that have helped you with this rapid success?

 

Quin Wills

Jack can start that one.

 

Jack O’Meara

I'll start and I'll let Quin fill in. I think we've been very fortunate as, as you alluded to, to be based in Oxford, there's a lot of fantastic, well, academic, scientific partners we can work with, as well as people we can bring onto the team, so we've been able to get together a really fantastic group of individuals who are equally as motivated to, to move these medicines towards the clinic as fast as possible and get to impacting patients. So I guess the first one I would say, was the environment. The second one will be the culture that we've been able to create by virtue of having the scientific talent within Oxford. We've really got a great group of, we say an innovation-focused culture or being able to make decisions quickly, rather than spending years debating what we always should to make the decision and let's just get, get going as quickly as possible. That's something we've really tried to cultivate as a team within, within the Oxford ecosystem. And then equally, we, the last one is, is the financing which kind of enables a lot of the rest of it. We were quite aggressive with trying to get seed, seed funding and enough seed funding that we could move as quickly as we needed to move to get to, to clinical, clinical trial. So we did spend a little bit of time in California and I met some really strong investors over there who believed in the vision, who got behind the well-defined plan that we laid out, and kind of gave us some of that injection fuel to move quickly and not be scrambling around looking for grant funding and stuff so that we could just get going and, and not wait for um, not wait around. So we've been able to get going quickly and we're pretty excited to keep up those timelines keep up to speed but uh, those are my three, three takeaways. Quin on the spot, what would you...

 

Quin Wills

You and I always agree on this, so there is not going to be debate otherwise. I think just to add to what you've said, yeah, for me, if I had to choose one, it's just, it's people. There is no substitute. I was lucky to find one of the best co-founders in the world ever to set up a company with and there's no doubt in that, that's a big important part of the success story and, and our sort of our focus to find the right phenotypes for this science. There are a lot of smart people out there. It's a very difficult game, playing biotech. You have to think fast, you have to be brutal with yourself as to what size is working, what's not, when to call cards when to persist. And it is not, it is honestly not a game for a lot of people and to find the right phenotypes who get that balance of being really quick, doing meaningful innovation, not just blue sky every day because, of course, we have to translate, and having a can-do attitude and certain magic mix that will make or break a company like this.

 

Elodie Siney

Yeah, totally agree. It's one of the big things with start-ups is recruiting the right talent. It's finding the right people. Something that comes up time and time again. And you guys seem to have found the right team. You're quite a vibrant bunch, and you seem to have a lot of fun and also get on with the work. Though, with COVID obviously, it's affected, everybody. As you know, the campus has remained open because of the work on the vaccine or the testing. Um, we've been fortunate enough to keep the BioEscalator open because we've got companies working on COVID. Um, I know that you guys maybe haven't been around so much, but I know that your scientists have been in the lab and they've been incredibly busy working away. So how, how has Ochre as a company coped with the whole COVID restrictions?

 

Jack O’Meara

Yeah, I think as well as we could, I mean, it's a difficult time for everyone. It's really hard to build a team culture. You're trying to get, get to know people because everything's over zoom and zoom is so formulaic, not that this zoom call is not wonderful, it definitely is, (laughter), but I wish we could have more time together to get to know people as you bring on new team members and new people to work together, which has been a bit of a frustration, but I mean, we did try and be careful about how we set up, Quin can speak to this more than I can, but in the lab, setting up rotas, make sure people were minimising their time and exposure to each other, which is wonderful from a COVID perspective, but very challenging, maybe from a social perspective. But um, but we've had to deal with it, I mean, most of our work got on without much of a hiccup, the only big casualty for us this year was our transplant work, so our work on perfusions of suboptimal donor livers. We really had kind of hit a wall there just because all of the transplants across the UK were, were really slow, slowed down quite a bit, so that's been, that's been a bit of a challenge. But I think more broadly, our scientific timelines haven't, haven't been hit that hard. But I would love to spend more time with the team. I think that's been one of the big challenges for, for me.

 

Elodie Siney

I've definitely missed the socials. Can't wait for those to come back again. And ice skating? That's I think that's the first thing we're going to do. (Laughter)

 

Quin Wills

I might have to just watch that one?

 

Elodie Siney

No, you've got to come and join in you have to!

 

Quin Wills

We'll debate this one offline.

 

Elodie Siney

Talking about collaboration, you mentioned the collaboration with the liver transplants, how important is collaboration to your business?

 

Jack O’Meara

Well, our, our business is fundamentally a collaboration business. So, I think Quin explained the three kinds of silos, not silos, the three very general buckets of work that we do, target discovery, target validation, which is all in Oxford, and then, and then the perfusion work with a partnership of transport centres. The two bookends, so the genomic space target discoveries is super heavily outsourced. We work with a lot of really great people all over the world, from Austria to San Francisco to Taiwan now, which will be the next big, big reveal and so it's a very distributed team that we work with there. And then equally on the, on the perfusion side when we, when we get our SI RNA, so we think we've got conviction on, that's, that's also very distributed. We work with Birmingham right now but are opening up a group in Montreal, and hopefully as far as Australia over the next, next few months, so we're are very virtual. The time zones are a challenge, but we are super proud and delighted to have such great partners that are equally as excited about the science as we are. So yeah, I think we've got a good mix. Quin, anything you'd like to add on that or?

 

Quin Wills

Something your, your biotech’s talk about a lot, it's finding that right balance, right, is because you've got to find great people who will commend what you do. But the more you do externally, the more you're tied into other people's timelines, and their will, and their processes. And so I guess, again, finding that right balance, I don't think there's a magic formula. This is just not even worth preaching about it. But finding that right balance is a toughy, something I think, I think we're doing okay with that for the moment, it seems to, seems to work. Let's, let's see what happens once the world opens up again, then sort of the new normal is not the new normal anymore.

 

Elodie Siney

Um, jack, if I can ask you, your background is in engineering, biomedical engineering?

 

Jack O’Meara

Yeah.

 

Elodie Siney

So I'm wondering, for all those sorts of scientists out there that might be interested in entrepreneurial innovation, um, what's been your journey from, from a biomedical engineer to, basically, the CEO of a successful biotech?

 

Jack O’Meara

Yeah, I guess I went the other route to the, so I started off in the lab as a tissue engineer, particularly interested in tendon engineering, but found myself more interested in talking to the other scientists than actually doing the work in the lab, so, I quickly kind of pivoted careers and went over to the US actually, I spent, I spent a lot of time in the US. It was the home of a lot of these breakthrough medical innovations working with early-stage companies, which is always my kind of passion, was small teams working on meaningful products, trying to get, trying to get businesses off the ground and I got great exposure to both, kind of, all across the healthcare ecosystem, from med-tech to digital health, all the way through to some of the more cutting edge, advanced therapeutics and really fell in love with the advanced therapeutic space, just because of the scale of the impact that you can have on patients. I really wanted to figure out, okay, I know I'm not suited to the lab, but what can I do to help engender science getting from, from early-stage innovation to actually meaningful impact for patients? So that was kind of what I spent a lot of time doing, was figuring out all the work in between, from very early stage business case planning to financings to regulatory approvals to manufacturing, so kind of all the backend work that goes into getting scientific products to the market. So I spent a number of years doing this and then came back to Ireland, well, came back to London, close, close enough to Ireland and I kind of figured I needed to get out of the US, I was starting to get an American accent, which was causing me a lot of stress and my identity was being questioned. So, I knew I wanted to do something super early stage and when I met Quin and heard of all about his research, I was like there's nothing else I should be working on right now but helping get this, this innovation off the ground, which could have so much impact for patients across a broad spectrum of diseases. So that's, that's my story, I guess.

 

Elodie Siney

It sounds like you had a great education, um, in America.

 

Jack O’Meara

Yeah, yeah, yeah, no, very different. Very varied, yeah, very varied, which was I think, what I needed just to see different parts of the healthcare ecosystem and how it all kind of works together to get products onto the market.

 

Elodie Siney

Do you think you could have done that in Europe or do you think it was important for you to go to the US where they're particularly good at commercialising science?

 

Jack O’Meara

They're very good at commercialising science and they're also very good at, I think, throwing, Europe, I don't know, this is fair to say but, I think things can be more formulaic and there's kind of a stepwise process, whereas, I think in the States, people, that kind of can-do, go do it, attitude gives you a lot more exposure to a lot of, kind of things that are maybe more difficult to see in Europe at a, at an early career stage. So I think that was particularly useful for me to get, getting exposure to translating science at a high level early on in my journey and give you the belief that if the Americans can do it, the Europeans can definitely do it. So yeah, yeah, I think us is really impactful for me.

 

Elodie Siney

I have to ask then, with everything that you saw out there, what's the one thing that you would say you definitely shouldn't do as an entrepreneur, from everything you've experienced over there?

 

Jack O’Meara

Yeah, well, I think Quin mentioned it earlier but, it's so important to work with people that you've really fundamentally, what, they get you out of the bed in the morning and make you more and more excited to, to be a part of the journey. And I, as I said, as kind of echoing Quin, Quin's sentiment, but I'm so glad to be working with, with Quin, with such an, such an incredible visionary scientist with, with a clear plan for, for what we need to go and do. I think one of the things I'll comment on is that some of the organisations I was involved with just had very unclear end goals. I think that is so dangerous for a small fledgling business project, company, whatever, whatever it is, as long, if you have a very clear end goal in mind, all of your decisionmaking can, can figure it, can, can work around the end goal, but when, when the end goal is a little bit amorphous or unclear, it becomes very difficult for everyone in the organisation to kind of collectively get excited about where we're going. So I think that's been one of the things I've been so excited about with Ochre Bio was that there is a, from, from the moment I met Quin, we kind of had a roadmap for what we needed to do scientifically and, and then everything else was about how do we figure out the infrastructure, and the needs to engender and enable that, that, um, that plan, so that's been a great thing.

 

Elodie Siney

That's great advice. Thank you. Quin, If I can kind of ask the same thing to you because, you've had over 15 years experience in, in liver science, you're a real expert in your field, so how did you go from, you know, purely being a scientist into becoming a CSO for Ochre Bio?

 

Quin Wills

It was a pick and mix, and then you realise pick and mix works really well for you, you know, contrary to I think how a lot of scientists are trained to be super-specialists. I think the thing that I'm most grateful for in all of that is the same thing that jack is grateful for, is you just get incredible exposure, you know, even, even my academic background is everything from, you know, I started off life chopping people's organs out of their bodies as a medical doctor, to genetics, to sort of big computation, and even within computation, there are lots of different subcultures and a way all this stuff is going and when you see this, and when you start companies, you know, one of my earliest companies, you know, we set up very quickly out east and so you, you see how people there think about how to do things, and it just, it's just, you just learn so quickly what are the commonalities and what works and, and what is just overall that's just, yeah, that you need to have this particular science or, you know, this particular setup thing. Um, and that just allows you to, I think, my, personally for Jack and I, it gives you a certain sense of self-confidence because you've just seen a lot of things, so you get a sense of, okay guys, trust us, this will work. And that is something that I'm truly grateful for whether it's, you know, academic, commercial, or purely biological or computational, all of those things have really helped shape a sort of personal sense of, okay, this is where we're going to go with it.

 

Elodie Siney

Thank you. We've talked a lot about the team and the people, um, I think you've grown from, from two to a team of twelve, um, in less than a year? I think it's quite impressive. Uh, one thing I wanted to ask you about was the team jackets, if you're, if you're happy to talk about those, there, they look fantastic. You can't help but notice them.

 

Jack O’Meara

The jackets or the jumpers, we went through a jumper phase.

 

Quin Wills

(Laughter) Go on Jack, tell them the story!

 

Jack O’Meara

As you alluded to, it was Quin an I for quite some time, travelling around knocking on doors trying to get going and eventually got, got money in the bank so we could build a team and we brought aboard a few folks, wonderful folks who are trying to think about what's a great way to kind of welcome people onto the organisation with this, this notion of a company swag. So I was really trying to scratch my head about what would be a little bit different because, everyone does this standard like t-shirt or hoodie or whatever, and I'm trying to think of something a bit more creative, and Quin's boyfriend is actually a very creative guy, really a wonderful guy, who helped me brainstorm about what we could potentially do. So one evening, I was thinking, I was sitting in Quin's house and we were watching Eurovision and this song came on by the Iceland Eurovision Song Contest, which is, you got it, I can't pronounce the name of it because it's Icelandic but I will maybe send the link into the chat or something but, it was just like my favourite music video ever about this, um, this Icelandic family singing to their, to their grandparents and whatnot, at a Christmas Eve type event. It reminded me loads of my upbringing in Ireland where we had to do a talent show and sing to all the locals. Anyway, they had, each of the band members had their face, right, in this kind of quirky, sort of designed way on the chest of their, of their jumper, so I thought we would steal that design for the team. I don't know if it really was a good idea in the end. They don't necessarily want to wear their face on their jumper but, as a token it was, it was quite a funny and unusual thing. Then we said okay, scrap that, we'll get stylish jackets and now we've moved on to very sleek, stylish Ochre Bio jackets, which is a bit more, a bit more cool, but I like the original, unusual, quirky, quirky version. But yeah.

 

Elodie Siney

I love that story. I thought it might have been like The IT Crowd graphics.

 

Jack O’Meara

Yeah.

 

Elodie Siney

I thought it was it was a nod to the crowd. But yeah, you're saying it's Icelandic?

 

Jack O’Meara

Yeah, I'll send you the link, you got to check out this music video.

 

Quin Wills

It will change your life.

 

Jack O’Meara

Yeah, it will change your life big time.

 

Elodie Siney

Well, finally, um, if I can just ask you for your, your advice to any aspiring entrepreneurs out there, what, what would be your key pieces of advice that you would say to people thinking about starting, not necessarily a biotech, but, but any kind of business?

 

Jack O’Meara

I'll go first, and then I'll let Quin fill in the more, more intelligence commentary, but mine would be just I think is wonderful learning in early-stage companies because you get to see, you know, across the spectrum of, um, of what how to set up a business. I think, I think worth going for and worth trying it out and getting a taste for it, even if it doesn't end up massively successful you learn a tonne in the process and maybe the counter to that will be equally there's great value in working with big companies. I think getting a flavour for how organisations work with small and big areas in your career will be really helpful for you if you do ultimately want to go and take on setting up a really high potential, high growth company. But either way, exposure and jumping in at the deep end, I think, is always a good model in this field.

 

Quin Wills

Should I go for something a bit more controversial?

 

Elodie Siney

Yeah, go on.

 

Quin Wills 

I've used this one before, but I think it's a, I think it's a goodie. It is be careful of the advice you take. When you start a company, particularly coming from science and you're not familiar with us, you're going to be inundated with a tonne of bad advice. Everybody's going to give you tonnes of feedback and how to do this and how to do that and you know. The man behind our lead investor in California has an incredible saying, he says one of the most, I think one of the most powerful, one of the most important things you can ever do in your life is learn which advice not to listen to. And I think that is and it's a tough one. That is the toughest, one of the toughest life skills you'll ever pick up because, it will sometimes come across as you don't take advice or you know it, or you won't take advice and it ends up not being the right decision for you. But that one without a doubt, particularly for scientists, I think it's a good one because coming from a purely scientific academic background, you're just thrown into all of this. You know, know what you're North Star is. You need to listen, but also know when to, when to say thank you but, no thank you, I know what's right for us as a company and where we're going.

 

Elodie Siney

That's great advice. Thank you so much, guys for your time today. Um, I will put some links in the bottom for people and thanks so much. We look forward to seeing the future success of Ochre, so thank you.

 

Jack O’Meara

I look forward to ice skating!

 

Quin Wills

To socials.