BioBoss

#09 - John Dawson: CEO of Oxford Biomedica

July 29, 2019 John Simboli Season 1 Episode 9
BioBoss
#09 - John Dawson: CEO of Oxford Biomedica
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BioBoss
#09 - John Dawson: CEO of Oxford Biomedica
Jul 29, 2019 Season 1 Episode 9
John Simboli

"My job is to decide. If we can't get consensus, I decide, I call it. That's what I get paid for. That's how I do that, but l also say when you've got something wrong, fix it as quick as you can." – John Dawson, CEO of Oxford Biomedica

Show Notes Transcript

"My job is to decide. If we can't get consensus, I decide, I call it. That's what I get paid for. That's how I do that, but l also say when you've got something wrong, fix it as quick as you can." – John Dawson, CEO of Oxford Biomedica

John Dawson:

My job is to decide. If we can't get consensus, I decide; I call it. That's what I get paid for. That's how I do that, but I also say when you've got something wrong, fix it as quick as you can.

John Simboli:

That's John Dawson, CEO of UK-based Oxford Biomedica. Listen in now to hear the conversation I had with John when he was in New York. I'm John Simboli. You're listening to BioBoss. This afternoon. I'm in New York speaking with John Dawson , CEO of Oxford Biomedica. John, how'd you find yourself as CEO at Oxford Biomedica?

John Dawson:

I've been doing it for a while now, about 10 and a half years, and I originally came onto the board back in, let me think, 2008, I think it was.

John Simboli:

How did you decide you wanted to lead a biopharma company?

John Dawson:

I don't think you decide that. I think you get the chance sometimes. I think my job at Cephalon was I'd got in there as middle-ranking. I came out , headed Europe thereafter, four years I think it was, and then we built the company there. I think we spent $1 billion building that in Europe. I got on to the main committee back in the US, Executive Committee, 10 people in a company of 6,000, so that was good progress. I was very pleased with that. But that was never planned. So I did well. I got recognized. It went very well for me. Then came out of that, literally, I had six months off deciding what to do in my life after that because I'd had a pretty hard 10 years doing that. And then after that decided what I wanted to do and I wanted to lead a company. So I looked out for opportunities, this one came along, and, I said, this is what I wanted to do.

John Simboli:

You must've had a lot to look at and a lot of things to sift through and a lot of opportunities. How did you decide that this was the one that was going to allow you to do what you had set out to do?

John Dawson:

It's a very difficult question to answer, that, because you don't really know where the company's going at the time. Because I'd been a specialist in sales and marketing by that point. So I was used to taking drugs to market and the regulatory side, working with the teams, promoting sales forces, less regulatory and clinical, but a fair bit of it. Now my life changed completely going into early stage biotech, working on drugs that weren't approved, working on trials, working on new drugs and processes of manufacture. So it was a completely different job for me to come in to try and do. It was quite a challenge at the time, a lot to learn because gene and cell therapy is complicated, but actually it was a great job to take and I'm so glad I did.

John Simboli:

So when you run into someone who knows you a little bit but hasn't been in touch for awhile , maybe it's some sort of gathering on a social level and they say, what are you doing? And then you could say, "I'm the CEO" and give a lot of technical answers. But when someone says, what's your job, what do you say?

John Dawson:

Well , I don't normally disclose that much about my work life to friends; I don't talk about that much. If I do, it tends to captivate a dinner table. So if I talk about what I do, so you talk about what you do for a living. Well, I'm involved in curing cancer for children and we, if we're successful, it's working in leukemia. I'm working on drugs for my company that may actually cure c hildhood blindnesses. And then people suddenly stop and listen to you. And that's actually quite captivating. Now. I don't do it to tell people stories about work. Health care became v ery interesting to me. Y ou k now, I'm an accountant by background, so working i n h ealth care i s quite an oddity, at times, how it works out that way. But, it's been really exciting to work in that. And I l earned very early, e arly o n in my time at Cephalon, I 'd been at Serono before that, t hat working with patient groups was such fun. I got so involved in that. So it became something I was really quite passionate about. So b uilding a company, t aking it forward. I 'd done it once already w ith Cephalon; I built that from, I was the third person in Europe, I think when I left i t w as a thousand people. I 'm going and doing something else to build something again; it seems natural thing to do, it's a very different type of business. It's a very different set of skill sets. But management is management and if you get it right, get the right people around you, things tend to come together.

John Simboli:

Can you remember way back to when you were eight or nine or 10 years old and what you wanted to do and how that has anything to do with, or not anything to do with, what you're doing now?

John Dawson:

My ambition, every ambition in the world, mine was to be a footballer, which was one possibility. Or, more likely, what I wanted to do was be a pilot for British Airways flying 747s.. I lived by the airport. It's what I always wanted to do and it all lined up to go and do it. And , at the time when I came out of school, you could go and do the various types of degrees to fit that and they had enough pilots at that point in time so they closed the college down. I actually went for the interview and everything was going okay, but they're not taking people on that year. I didn't change tack , completely, decided to go and do a math degree instead. So that's changed my life somewhat.

John Simboli:

As you can remember from when you started to where you are now, in terms of what people call management style, what have you learned about your management style? What works, what doesn't work for you?

John Dawson:

I think when you start out you've got a lot to prove. So you come out far more aggressive on decisions and you push harder and don't sleep very much because you're always working. I think what you learn, at the time, is a good team allows you to actually delegate much more. Style is actually a lot of consensus. My job is to decide; if we can't get consensus I decide.I call it; that's what I get paid for. That's how I do that, but I also know when you've got something wrong, fix it as quick as you can.

John Simboli:

John, what's new at Oxford Biomedica?

John Dawson:

The change in the popularity of cell and gene therapy has just changed completely since the approval of Kymriah back in the middle of 2017. So before that, we were working with Novartis, but it didn't seem to get recognized by too many people. Once that drug was approved, the world realized cell and gene therapy was here and it would be approved in the US to be treating patients. A massive step forward and it changed the awareness of companies and investors. So I would say, since then, our world of actually doing deals and having new partners to come into work with us has been revolutionized. We've taken our B- D department from one and a half to seven, I think it is now. But actually something changed in the world of what we did. We had this platform called LentiVector® which is a delivery vector we've used to get cells into the brain or put back into t-cells for cancer, back into the body again. And it can, actually, ex vivo and in vivo. If you're going in vivo, we inject into part of the body or the eye or something; that's where we go straight in. If we go ex vivo, we take blood from the patient, extract the cells you want to work on, work on them, back into our vector and back into body again . So that's quite a big process. You take blood from the patient at hospital, take it back into the center. We actually put that, with our vector h aving worked on it already, back to the h ospital, back into the patient. So that's a change in t he way we d o things and that's what's made our business very different now to what it used to be. So the new stuff is we're working on the ex vivo gene therapies or cell therapies, as t hey're sometimes called, working on those. It's changed the world of demand in what we do completely. So I would say without t hat having happened, our business would be in a very different place today to where it is. That h aving happened, we are in great demand to work with lots of people.

John Simboli:

John, when people people ask you who is Oxford Biomedica, how do you like to answer that?

John Dawson:

We're a world-leading cell and gene therapy company and the backbone of our company is our LentiVector® viral delivery system. With that, we can treat chronic disease in patients both in using it in vivo, in the body, ex vivo. Cell and gene therapies, along the lines of the Kymriah drug and Novartis and that, allows us to treat patients with a once-only injection.

John Simboli:

Does gene therapy, in some ways, truly offer the potential to have a one- time transformation--a one time cure? Do you use the word cure? Is it possible through gene therapy to, in one intervention . . .

John Dawson:

In certain diseases, yes, that's the answer. If you take Stargardt's disease, in the eye of the children, one of our partners, Sanofi, has that; that's our drug we license to them. That is a defective ABCA gene in the back of the eye. We go and inject a new corrected gene into the back of the retina and theoretically that will correct vision. So, yes is the answer, we can take that away. And that's permanent. If you think about other things such as wet AMD, we have treatments there where we inject into the back of the eye with endostatin and angiostatin there to stop the scarring in the back of the retina. Again, that is, once it's in there, it's permanent. So it expresses about six years now without diminution of expression. So we are seeing things we can change permanently and it's a once-only injection. So in Parkinson's, we don't cure, we alleviate the symptoms. We place dopamine in the part of the brain where it's used, rather than it's being made somewhere else and passed out by the synapse. So, effectively, we're doing it a different way, but it is taking away symptoms; it will disrupt the whole of health care, eventually. There will be many companies that will have to come into cell and gene therapy because long-term revenue generators for them have been replaced by gene therapy.

John Simboli:

When you make a presentation and you do your best to clarify and afterwards, over a cup of coffee, they say to you, "Oh I understand that this is the focus of your thinking." When people don't get it right, when people don't understand the story that you're trying to tell, what do they misunderstand and then how do you address that?

John Dawson:

There are misunderstandings around various parts of cell and gene therapy. For example, people think that the only vector type that you can use in the body is AAV . People think that's in vivo and LentiVector® is only for ex vivo . That's incorrect to say. We actually can do both. So we tend to target the eye, the brain, lung, liver and, of course, the ex vivo cell therapies, as well. So we can do all of those things. AAV can't do all of those things we do, b ut they complement us in the market. So we have places we can go and t here a re places where they can't go, and vice versa.

John Simboli:

And then when you explain that to them, what's the response?

John Dawson:

Still, if I don't quite get the model sometimes about how we are a manufacturing company with partners with long-term financial interest there alongside doing our own products, sometimes. That's become more in vogue in the last six months or so. That was a hard one to sell two or three years ago. Now people love selling gene therapy. So it's an easier sell—the platform type approach.

John Simboli:

What makes Oxford Biomedica different from other companies in your field or in your space?

John Dawson:

We lead the world in the engineering of lentivectors. So that's our backbone of our business. We can work on that; we have IP around it as well. So we work with very big partners who pay us royalties up to the end of our patents, and beyond, because of our know-how. So we have the know-how alongside the IP, which is really important to us, but we also have the ability to engineer vectors. So when we work with somebody like Novartis with Kymriah or the pediatric leukemia, we can take their drug in its early stages out of Pennsylvania University. We engineer it back at our laboratories. We optimize it and then w e go into o ur manufacturing s uites and make it after that. So we have the ability to temper and design a process that fits exactly the drug we're trying to make a t that time. That tends to be quite unique.

John Simboli:

What makes a good partner for Oxford Biomedica?

John Dawson:

Generally, a collaborative partner we can work with, we can understand and work with them, and improve what they have. So it's a joint effort, sometimes, to make these things work. If we go to Novartis, they've been very supportive to get us where we are today. We had to have through the FDA inspections, systems in place. We didn't have those. We had to have those developed and they schooled us through. We had to get those in place and get us ready for those inspections, working with us day by day, sometimes over the weekends as well. So nowadays we are much better at that—have the right people in place to run that quite normally. It's just a process now, but at the time we had to learn it. They have been supportive to us, as well, in our more tricky days of cash flow. So they've always been supportive ,as a business, in people and in making sure we had the right support in place at the right time. So that's great. The other guys were like working with closely would be Orchard—very close relationships there. The teams work extremely closely and I think probably our teams speak to their teams nearly every day, as well as Novartis, too. So there's an ongoing relationship. It's not something that they just forget about and leave us to do and it happens afterwards. It's too important to them. They can't do what they do without what we do. Vice versa ,of course. But they need us for their drugs to work. Without question; there i s no substitute.

John Simboli:

What kind of people are a good fit at Oxford Biomedica ?

John Dawson:

We need to have, people who are actually very good in the labs working in the science for us, and, again , we're very careful who we take into that. We've had to find a lot of people very quickly. So I take you back to January 14, we're 80 people. By the end of December in '18 we were 432 and by December 19 we'll be 600. So that's big growth. And that's going across the business. That's manufacturing, that's accounting, that's HR. That's everything you can think of, as a company, to do that. I t's also making sure we're beefing up our research and development side of things. So we've got that right. Last year I was very happy with that, pushing that forward very hard. But now I'm going to build a business around the drugs as well we might ourselves. So a rapid expansion o f brings with it many issues. But, you'd be s urprised how things like car parking and desks people have to sit a t and, and, and . . . become a problem. But we a r e e xpanding very, very, quickly,

John Simboli:

At this stage, do you allow yourself to think how your work will affect people's lives if it's successful?

John Dawson:

Always. It's not something that I don't think about every day because that's what we do it for. I mean , I learned a long time ago working in health care—this is my third company now. I did it because I really enjoyed what I saw and what I worked on and the benefits you're bringing forward to, first of all, patients; that's where we do it for The shareholders have to do well with you, otherwise you don't have a company, as simple as that. You have to have the ability to go and get money when you need it and shareholders actually fund the company. You give them a turn based upon how you succeed in making patients' lives better. You have to mix the two up. Understand that at some points in time, either one has to rule, but the ultimate goal is to make patients' lives better.

John Simboli:

And my limited understanding of this is, you're not talking about incremental change. You're talking about transformative change.

John Dawson:

In certain situations, absolutely. Kymriah gives 82% remission in pediatric leukemia for children. There's nothing like it in the world, yet. And that's the first thing to do that in that indication. If you can reverse childhood blindness, if you can go in with a once-only injection. And look at the other retinal diseases, as well. Parkinson's, we're working with Axovant i n Parkinson's. If you c an actually go in and take away the most symptoms o f problems people have with Parkinson's—life changing e ffect here and, you know, you're giving people their lives back.

John Simboli:

Is Oxford Biomedica planning to establish a presence in the U.S. at some point?

John Dawson:

It's something we look at very carefully. We have had them in the past. In San Diego, we had an operation a few years back. The economy turned against us and we had to close that down before my time, but it was here. It's something that we think about. Would it be better to have certain functions over in America in a certain situations? But that could be the case. Not something that we jumped at just yet, but, as a board, we think about it very regularly and we haven't yet decided what exactly that would be people-wise, but we'll address that as we need to.

John Simboli:

If you were to establish a U.S. presence, would that, in any way, be advantages as far as access to capital?

John Dawson:

Having people here, it does not make that a slam dunk case at all. We come from Europe. we're used to funding being tough to get hold of. Drug development there is not well-financed anymore. So coming to America to find money for that could be an attractive thing to do for us at some point in time. But I would say that the European side of things has driven us to have a P&L t hat balances. Now we're profitable and plan to be so going forward if we can be. Looking at that situation, yes. I think coming to America, having people here, it would take more than just being here with people to actually have access to capital. You can do it by not putting anybody here, anyway. You can just actually have people investing into the UK company from here i f w e choose to do that. So I don't think p utting people into the U.S. is a crunch point for getting that part of it done. If you were to list here or d u al l i st h ere, then yo u w ould need some sort of presence and some so rt o f people here.

John Simboli:

What do you find are useful ways for you to stay in touch with people in your field and find out what new ideas are and give a chance for you to tell them what you're thinking?

John Dawson:

I don't get to go to all the conferences I used to go to, but the ones I would really try and go to would be the ARM conferences; I try and present there, normally. If I don't, one of the guys does. And we go to the big banking conferences—J.P. Morgan, in particular, because everybody is there so I can go through, in four days, a number of people it would take me months to see otherwise, so you'd bump into so many people and arrange to meet so many people. And the other banking conferences around the world are really quite useful. And specialist banking, gene therapy conferences, as well, which we find very useful to go to and all the guys who we want to talk to are always there .

John Simboli:

What's the nature of the partnership and the relationship with Microsoft?

John Dawson:

Microsoft came to us to work with us, which is a great place f or us to be. They want to work in industry and manufacture for pharmaceuticals. So they picked us to actually work with to understand how to do that and roll out a more generic platform for the people. So coming to us, i t's a great benefit f or u s because we can look a t our manufacturing data. We have an immense amount of data coming out every single batch we make. A batch takes us about six weeks to make and probably another three or four months for testing just to release it. So all of that data comes through. If we know about problems sooner, earlier, faster, and have all the data crunching it to find out what's going on in the b ack, even as it's being made in some cases, then we'll be able to do that. But the volume of data is too much for the human eye to process. So putting it up o n t he cloud with Microsoft is t he perfect way to work with them and see analytics coming from that, which a llows us to improve what we do. So it's a way o f going forward with artificial intelligence, machine learning, but also having a very robust set of data we can work from and improve on. Our big thing has always been improving what w e're doing and getting the yields better. So having t he data in the background today, t hat w ill be absolutely gigantic, f ast. It will disrupts the whole of health care, eventually Many companies have to come and test cell and gene therapy because l ong-t erm revenue generators for them h ave been replaced by cell and gene therapy.

John Simboli:

John, thanks for taking time to talk with me this afternoon.

John Dawson:

It's a pleasure. Great to see.you.

John Simboli:

In my conversation with John Dawson, he told me how, as a young man, he loved airplanes and planned to become a pilot. As it turned out, John became CEO of a biopharmaceutical company at the forefront of gene therapy. Not exactly the same as being captain on an airplane, but close enough to make me see how either the pilot or CEO path would suit John. He has the ability to see the big picture while zeroing in on details in real time. We think of pilot Chesley, Captain Sully, Sullenberger as a man who knows what decisions he needs to make and when to make them, but as Sully says, "Not every situation can be foreseen or anticipated. There isn't a checklist for everything,." Which brings to mind something John Dawson told me during our conversation as he described his role as CEO. "I get paid to decide things, but when things get off track, you fix it as quickly as you can." I'm J ohn S imboli. You're listening to BioBoss.