Science without boundaries: The Crick Institutes bold new approach to translation

The Francis Crick Institute is pursuing a bold and audacious research and translation strategy that it hopes will put British science on a different level to any other globally competitive institute. Biotech and Money quizzed David Roblin, ex-Head of European R&D at Pfizer and an experienced biotech executive, who has been appointed as the institute’s new COO and Director of Translation, on the Crick’s novel approach, how it intends to overcome its challenges and what he feels are the key success factors for translation.

B&M: David, can you begin by summarising the mission and purpose of the Francis Crick Institute?

David Roblin: Our core mission, described in our strategy, Discovery Without Boundaries, is to make scientific breakthroughs in the understanding of human pathophysiology.

The Crick won’t be just a biological institute, it will be a multi-disciplinary institute, with chemistry, physics, engineering, mathematics, computing and also industrial science at its heart - a blend of different abilities applied to that central question of understanding human pathophysiology. Our aim is to translate our research into patient benefits and to generate economic opportunities for the UK.

We also have a role to play in creating future science leaders who will then move on to other institutes and universities.

And lastly we aim to make science more accessible to the public, which our building and central London location will provide superb opportunities to do.

B&M: Collaborations are clearly critical, could you elaborate a little bit on how that will work and what make them unique at the Crick?

David Roblin: The Crick’s founding partners are six of the world’s most influential and respected scientific organisations: the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust, UCL (University College London), Kings College London and Imperial College London. This unprecedented collaboration will be vital to the success of the Crick’s interdisciplinary approach to science. We will also consider collaborations with others that offer capabilities and expertise that we don’t have within the Crick. This will include the venture community, biotech, and big pharma.

B&M: Tell me about your role particularly? You’re the COO and Director of Translation. What does that actually mean?

David Roblin: As COO I’ll ensure that the Crick runs efficiently, the science platforms work effectively, and that we accommodate world-class science. As Director of Translation I will focus on the scientific agenda, identifying and developing translatable science.

B&M: What do you think are the biggest obstacles to delivering that?

David Roblin: Traditional biological institutes have not systematically dealt with translation - their vision is the understanding of basic science, not necessarily the application of that to generate health and wealth benefits. Our biggest challenge is to engender the culture that asks the question: ‘how can my science be applied?’ Then to develop the skills and resources to allow that journey to begin.

B&M: What steps are you taking to engender that culture?

David Roblin: I need to say this is a long-term plan. It won’t happen overnight and is difficult to do. Few institutes have been very successful. Translation is a very different discipline, and we will need to work on mechanisms, culture, and support for our scientists to ask those questions of applicability. So I want to see skilled practitioners, some from the venture background, some from biotech, and some from big pharma, working with our scientists.

I also want to recognise those scientists who are doing translational science well - there are already a number at the Crick’s founding institutes (the Medical Research Council’s National Institute for Medical Research and Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute). I envisage seminar series and subject matter experts to help others start the journey of translation.

The scientists I speak to are keen that their science translates into patient benefits and the issue is often skills and time to do this. We will seek to address this.

B&M: How are you going to ensure that you capitalise and exploit the IP that’s generated at the Institute and turn that into commercial viability?

David Roblin: The first thing is an understanding of where IP really is of value. That sounds like an obvious point but I don’t think it’s always considered carefully enough. Most of the IP in the industry concerns composition of matter, not around scientific insights or even medical uses. And actually patents are filed rather late in the process of translation, so the basic understanding of pathophysiology is non-exclusive. My view is it’s best practised in an open manner bringing to bear many disciplines and skills, including those of industrial scientists. IP and exclusive relationships can hinder this engagement.

Clearly IP and patents are important and without them we won’t get the investment to turn projects into commercially successful collaborations. We will therefore need to recognise when there are particular insights that are novel and so can form the basis of IP and a patent claim. That’s usually later in the process of translation, and where we’ll need to be astute within the institution and with our open science collaborators to recognise the need for protection and patents.

The role of translation in the Crick will be to accelerate our science programmes. Commercial valuation is less important than getting a partner who’s got the capacity and capability to drive the science forward. In any technology transfer that we engage in, our primary concern will be whether the collaborator is fully committed to the IP and are bringing resources to bear that will move things forward. It’s important that we get value for money but our focus will be to accelerate our science.

B&M: How are you going to bring the necessary level of commercial rigour to the Institute without compromising the intellectual and academic freedom that is traditionally associated with these institutes.

David Roblin: The Crick is about scientific discovery. Curiosity-driven research is its focus. The translation strategy will recognise that to get a third party interested in funding and moving the science forward there needs to be a business plan detailing next steps, how to reduce risk, the level and timing of investment required, and what the commercial opportunity looks like. But ultimately the best quality science will govern what we do.

Turning the question on its head, if you are over-reliant on commercial value to drive decision making, you risk doing science that is not high quality.

B&M: If we turn now to the funding side of things, what is The Crick’s view and strategy on funding? How are you going to help fund the development and commercialisation of translatable science?

David Roblin: We’ve got generous, supportive founders who are terrifically committed to the Crick’s strategy. They have provided capital funding for the building and will provide operational funding for the institute. Our scientists will also apply for grants and awards.

The translation agenda will be part-funded through these sources; however, when we have a translatable opportunity we will look to collaborate quite early. That could be collaborating with the HEIs and working within their academic health centres for example. And of course collaborations with a biotech or big pharma will be important too.

B&M: The availability of capital is obviously one of the biggest issues facing biotechs. What are the specific relationships that you’re cultivating and building to help address that need?

David Roblin: We are finalising the translation strategy. It will envisage the involvement of venture capitalists, biotechs and pharma in the translation process at the Crick. We may have entrepreneurs in residence - experienced biotech entrepreneurs who are looking to create new companies, looking to identify science that could form IP - to help our senior scientists think about how they might apply their science.

B&M: How do you see the role of the relationship between pharma and The Crick Institute?

David Roblin: Pharma is a key part of the process of translation, as it offers complementary different skills and expertise to those at the Crick. Pharma will bring an applied science mindset that is used to taking something into the clinic and into phase 2 for testing. Pharma has assays, chemical and biological probes and platforms that can help us prove our science quicker.

So I’m envisaging the sort of collaborations that you’d recognise and expect, as well as others that take advantage of open science. This means saying we’re working together to advance science in the first instance and we’re looking for a mix of curiosity and applied science in an interdisciplinary approach to scientific understanding. This is something which really hasn’t been achieved previously and could be unique.

B&M: Do big pharma and other industry stakeholders share this vision you described?

David Roblin: Some do, but not yet all. The philosophy is understood. For me it’s a natural extension of the pre-competitive arena and it could benefit us all. Institutes such as the Crick are well placed to do this and I do hope we manage to achieve a good mix of this open science with industrial involvement. It’s part of the bold audaciousness of the strategy which is not to do something that’s been done before, this is about doing something that’s quite different that puts British science on a different level.

B&M: Let’s talk about the industry as a whole. Is there anything in the wider healthcare industry that is really concerning you at the moment?

David Roblin: To take a UK-centric view for a moment, the Crick’s research agenda, the magnificent institute we’re going to build, and the insights and science it’s going to generate will require a supporting eco-system to maximise our impact. The availability of capital, entrepreneurs and big pharma to drive ideas forward and benefit patients and the UK economy is critical. When you see the potential for big mergers and acquisitions (such as the recent Pfizer bid for AZ) the thing that worries me most is whether there is a commitment to maintaining industrial R&D capability, capacity, and importantly leadership in the UK - in a sense that’s almost more important than which company is driving it.

B&M: What are the specific threats to that? What do you feel are the biggest threats to developing that eco-system?

David Roblin: The biggest threat is probably being a bit too British about it! Let’s be audacious, fully commit and make it happen. It’s absolutely clear that there is a significant amount of great science in the UK. And our politicians are committed to life sciences being successful in the UK.

B&M: What about the availability of capital for translation?

David Roblin: I’ve got faith in the notion of capital following ideas. Perhaps in the past we’ve just not been good enough in describing the opportunity and convincing people that if the opportunity exists then the skills and capability exist in the UK to drive it forward. If we can do that better then the capital will come.

B&M: Are you broadly optimistic then for the prospects of UK biotechs?

David Roblin: I’m hugely optimistic. At a personal level, that’s why I remain in the UK and Europe, and didn’t go to the US. We’ve got some of the greatest science, we’ve also got some of the greatest companies. Many of the world’s best medicines came from these shores. There is the political will and commitment and that’s demonstrated by the level of investment in the Crick from science funders.

B&M: If you had to sum up the key success factors to translation, what would you say they would be?

David Roblin: If we’re talking about science it’s to get into the human model as quickly as possible! Use human models, organism, tissue, cells as early in research as possible - closer to the scientific discovery that happens in the laboratories. In a sense it’s reverse translation, it’s making human tissues and cells more available for testing. It also means getting to people in the clinic early if you can, because you get insights there that you wouldn’t get from any other species. As we design any translational programme, this has to be important.

I’d also point out that one shouldn’t over process things. You need some governance but frankly above all you need to be entrepreneurial and opportunistic. We need to measure science moving forward but it’s not through one simple set of milestones.

Follow outstanding science, commit and be optimistic.

This interview was taken from our August edition of Drugs & Dealers magazine. To read more great articles, like the above, from Imperial Innovations, Edinburgh BioQuarter, UCL Business, Isis Innovation, Cancer Research Technology, The Wellcome Trust, Marks & Clerk, Coller IP, J&J Innovation, BBSRC, GSK, Apposite Capital and Silicon Valley Bank Download it for free and become a Biotech and Money subscriber.

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