Annual Review 2020

Highlighting the activities of Oxford University Innovation

Life Sciences

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the two teams comprising OUI’s Life Sciences group have continued to deliver consistent results.

Teamwork and creative solutions have been a reoccurring theme in a year that has been anything but normal.

Deputy Head of Group Angela Calvert, who leads the group’s Pharmaceutical and Diagnostic team, is particularly proud of how her team have exceeded deal numbers and financial forecast targets for the year. Angela’s team alone met the revenue forecast for the Life Science group at the start of the financial year and brought in the highest number of deals in L&V, amongst them the partnership with AstraZeneca on Oxford’s COVID-19 vaccine.

“While our primary mission is achieving positive societal impact, the revenues that we receive from commercial partnerships provide valuable funds that can be reinvested in the University’s research, and which are also in many cases shared with charitable funders of this research, leading to further public benefit,” said Angela.

Delivering the deals

The University’s Jenner Institute has become synonymous with the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine, but Angela’s team has led several other deals involving Jenner vaccine technologies, including a deal with the Serum Institute of India on a clinical stage malaria vaccine from Professor Adrian Hill’s group, which is now moving into Phase III trials.

While the group often deals with very focused technologies with one specific disease application – such as vaccines – other innovations provide platforms for a variety of uses. Senior Licensing & Ventures Manager Christine Whyte highlighted her work completing several deals – 6 over the past 6 months – associated with SpyTag, a “biological glue” laboratory reagent platform that can be used in lots of different ways by different companies. By establishing a model to allow non-exclusive or field restricted access by different partners to the same technology, Christine has ensured that the Oxford research is able to have maximum impact, coupled with financial returns that also scale with each new deal.

Bob Fishleigh, another of the group’s Senior Licensing and Ventures Managers, illustrates the diversity of projects managed by team members within L&V. In the last year Bob was able to balance the needs of both public funding bodies and private investors to create Gyreox, a new spinout with founders from both Oxford and Aberdeen addressing unmet needs in peptide drug discovery. Bob also led on licensing the IP underpinning a dietary supplement for dementia which has since been launched on the market, and brokered an innovative deal with Rising Tide Foundation to combine external IP with Oxford academic support to form MitOx, an upcoming biotech spinout seeking to discover new anti-cancer therapies.

“MitOx saw loads of people contribute from across the organisation,” said Bob. “It reflects how this company operates in terms of forming teams, which happens not by compulsion but organically. The classic Tuckman team formation approach of forming, storming, norming and performing has evolved to see less storming, and the team seamlessly dissipating once our goal is achieved.”

While the focus of the L&V teams is on forging new commercial partnerships, OUI remains actively involved once the deals are signed, especially where spinouts are concerned. Benedicte Menn, Senior Licensing and Ventures Manager, was the lead for OUI in supporting exosome drug delivery spinout Evox in two strategic deals involving sub-licensing the Oxford technology to major pharmaceutical companies; with Eli Lilly for the use of the technology with RNA interference and antisense therapeutics; and for a rare disease collaboration with Takeda, worth approximately $1.2 billion and $882m respectively in upfront, development and commercial milestones.  Benedicte commented: “Sublicensing to larger pharmaceutical companies with the wherewithal to invest the huge sums necessary to take drug products all the way to market is a common strategy and one that we are acutely aware of when establishing licensing deals.  Supporting our licensees to execute these deals is vital.”

Looking beyond the headlines and deal successes, Angela believes that core to achieving these results is the ‘hidden’ work of skilled IP management, often complex stakeholder relationship management, commercial and technical insights, and individual creativity in identifying the right route to commercialisation.  L&V Managers need to embrace team working and show an openness to try new approaches and identify improved ways of working. Sharing of best practice and ‘war stories’ is a valuable part of developing the technology portfolio as a whole and in enabling opportunities to be created and realised.

James Groves, Senior Licensing and Ventures Manager in the Digital Health and MedTech team led by Fred Kemp, highlighted that this teamwork across the unit and organisation is what keeps him engaged:

“The COVID-19 related lockdown has shown me that one of the favourite parts of my job is my colleagues. This isn’t just because they make me smile and laugh on a daily basis, but also because I work with people of exceptional talent. Their knowledge, skill, experience and tenacity means that I am always learning and always thinking about how I can do a better job. This comes not only from asking my colleagues for help, but also being challenged by my team to answer their questions!

“Adapting to WFH meant adopting Microsoft Teams – a piece of software that felt surplus to requirements in a pre-COVID world – but which has unexpectedly increased many areas of team working. The informal chat facility has meant that the team members engage in frequent and dynamic discourse about subjects ranging from tax law to the data protection act, as well as the non-work-related chat that helps us maintain our interpersonal cohesion.”

Planting the seeds

The need for teamwork runs through many of the group’s projects. Philippa Christoforou, Senior Licensing and Ventures Manager, has, together with colleagues, spent many months supporting researchers in the University’s Plant Sciences Department, particularly with its BRAHMS natural history collection management software. BRAHMS represents a diverse range of practical tools for collection management with features that support research in systematics, biogeography and the analysis of diversity, all encouraging and facilitating publication of data otherwise locked up in collection archives. With OUI support, BRAHMS is now deployed globally and is used to manage some of the world’s largest herbaria, botanic gardens and seed banks.

“I’m delighted that BRAHMS is going from strength to strength – I’ve led a small team that has helped us grow the number of licenses by 30%. I was really proud when the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) chose BRAHMS as its new database management system – it was and still is a great team effort with the academics and the OUI team, and we have built a great relationship with the RHS.”

Echoing James’ comments, Philippa also said that although the pandemic has been challenging, it has been collaboration that has enabled her to consistently deliver.

“The last few months have been tough, as the thing that makes me thrive at work is my colleagues and being able to bounce ideas off them. However, with the help of Teams we’ve still managed to do this, and I think it has brought our team closer together. There has also been the added benefit that I’ve grown a lot through the enforced independence, so I can make challenging and difficult decisions myself without feeling the need to sense check them all – although I do like to ask colleagues for second opinions now and again!”

“Ad hoc teams form across the group as needed,” added Angela. “People work together really well, and benefit from an open atmosphere in which advice is freely sought and given. We’re problem solvers, and we solve those problems together.”

Teamwork and creative solutions have been a reoccurring theme in a year that has been anything but normal.

I’m delighted that BRAHMS is going from strength to strength.

Phillipa Christoforou,
Licensing and Ventures Team