A head for heights: Sir Greg Winter reflects on his experiences
A scientific enterprise can be an uphill journey — something that bit.bio board member Sir Greg Winter knows well. He’s a Nobel prize winning scientist with an extraordinary record of leveraging world-class science into new industries and company success. He knows what it’s like to aim high, having been a guiding light in the Cambridge technology scene over the past four decades. And he also knows what the pitfalls and roadblocks can be.
In this blog, he reflects on this experience of transformative company growth, the hurdles that need to be overcome and and how that is proving invaluable for directing bit.bio through a similar moment in time.
From academic to successful entrepreneur
Since the mid-1990s, Winter has managed a dual career as a research scientist and company founder, always driven by a deep dedication to seeing his inventions used therapeutically in the clinic. His first stable of inventions, on processes for “humanising” antibodies, and their wide licensing by the Medical Research Council (MRC), led to the development by licensees of many therapeutic antibodies, including Herceptin, Avastin and Keytruda, and ultimately to a range of game-changing therapies. His second stable of inventions, on processes for making fully human therapeutic antibodies, was developed by his first company, Cambridge Antibody Technology Ltd (CAT), which received from the MRC an exclusive licence to the patents. This led to the development of Humira by CAT and BASF Pharma, to date the world’s best-selling antibody therapeutic.
Key motivators for success
“My successes were based around technologies that had arisen in the course of my academic research. I therefore started the companies with a deep knowledge of the technology, its potential and the underlying intellectual property."
His key motivators were unlike those of a typical entrepreneur. “I founded CAT for all the wrong reasons. Not to make money, but to further my research and its application.” This commitment to clinical application galvanised his efforts. “In the case of CAT, I was working seven-day weeks for about seven years — four days for academic research, and three days for the company. Forget work-life balance! But the most rewarding thing is when the company goes all the way and produces an important drug.”
Learning path and source of inspiration
His journey is proof that from humble acorns, great oak trees can grow. “In the early days, we got a shack out at Babraham that still smelled of goat, but we liked it, and it reminded our first venture capitalists of their beginnings in garages. We had to learn everything ourselves. My colleague, David Chiswell, had a load of self-help books, like ‘Business for Dummies’, from which he drew inspiration.”
They had faith in their technology, even before the rest of the world started to buy in. It was not until the late 1990s that market sentiment towards therapeutic antibodies finally changed. Now, at Winter’s latest start-up, Bicycle Therapeutics, he is again breaking new ground, developing bicyclic peptides as novel therapeutics. Again, the tipping point might still be over the horizon for most, but it is within Winter’s sights.
The FDA approval of drugs
As well as invaluable hindsight, Winter brings optimistic foresight. “You have to learn on the job. It’s frustrating and hard. From 1989 to 1996 I’ve never worked harder. I was so busy that I never had time to wait for the world to come round — if I ever thought about it, I felt frustrated that others couldn’t see what was in plain sight. But I knew that one day things would come good.”
When buy-in came, around 1998, with the FDA approval of Herceptin and the realisation that antibody drugs could command very high prices and thereby generate huge revenues, it was a big moment. “I felt excited that antibodies were reaching the market and finally treating diseases.”
The parallel for bit.bio
“I think that cell products could have huge potential. The current challenge is to find the ‘killer’ applications and to show how to make the cells in a cheap and efficient manner acceptable to regulators. I hope that my experience with antibody and peptide therapeutics will bring new perspectives to the management and board of bit.bio.”
With no time to look down the hard work has paid off. “Setting up CAT allowed me to develop a technique for making antibodies and achieve my research goals. And also, in 2018, I got a Nobel Prize!”
“The phone rang and a somewhat robotic-sounding voice asked ‘Am I speaking to Gregory Paul Winter?’ At first I thought it was someone calling from my bank security, and so I started checking my bank account online, and then they asked me to wait. I waited a minute, and, by then suspecting it was a “phishing” call, hung up. Then someone called back, saying, ‘Is this Gregory Paul Winter? I am the chairman of the Nobel Prize Committee on Chemistry. We want to offer you a Nobel Prize’."
Winter reflects on the conversation with a smile: "I wondered whether I was fully awake! There was a long pause. ‘Well, do you accept it?’, the voice asked. And I felt I had to say something. I blurted out, ‘Well… yes… I should think it would be very impolite to refuse it!’. I heard a ripple of background laughter from the Nobel Prize Committee boardroom; they were probably all taking bets on how people would receive the news.”
And now bit.bio is able to leverage all of this experience and expertise with Winter on the board. “I think we are still in the foothills when it comes to the use of human cells for therapeutic applications but there’s a path emerging to the peaks. With access to potentially unlimited numbers of human cells at defined states of differentiation, we could do so much more for patients — whether researching difficult-to-treat, complex diseases, screening potential drugs on human cells, or developing precision cell therapies at an affordable cost. bit.bio’s opti-ox™ technology seems to offer a realistic path to scale those peaks.”
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