Today we welcome, Damian Crowther, Entrepreneur in Residence, to the OSI Life Sciences team.
Damian is an experienced entrepreneur and joins us from AstraZeneca (AZ) where he was responsible for leading early drug discovery for neuroscience. He is an honorary associate professor at UCL and co-founder of the website GPnotebook, the UK’s premier clinical information service for primary care physicians and medical students – 75% of UK GPs use the site each month. More recently, Damian invented and led the development of a novel therapeutic for systemic amyloidosis while at AZ. The therapeutic was awarded pre-seed funding and selected for spinout.
As the first player from Biopharma to take on the role, Damian represents a major milestone for OSI. He brings biopharma know-how and multi-national organisational experience in therapeutic product and business development, combined with over 25 years of basic and clinical neuroscience expertise.
The world’s toughest problems require the brightest minds, smartest solutions and the support of industry-leading experts.
At OSI Damian will be a member of the Life Sciences team and work closely with Uciane Scarlett and others within the team. He will embed himself within Oxford University’s world-leading academics to identify credible scientific breakthroughs to form the basis of an innovative new company – capable of tackling a major unmet need in the field of neuroscience and make a real-world impact.
We spoke to Damian to find out what attracted him to Oxford, why he has taken on the role of EiR and his ultimate ambition.
What attracted you to Oxford and OSI?
Oxford has been a special place for me since I was a clinical medical student here in the early 90’s. I was inspired by the emerging role of the clinician-scientist whereby insights from laboratory studies are tested and applied on hospital wards and in clinics. However, the work involved in translating science to the bedside is only the first step on the road to meeting the healthcare needs of a global population.
Promising projects require expert support and careful company creation to make an impact.
I am guided by the principle that if we focus on unmet health needs, with neurological disease being of particular interest to me, we will naturally support companies that create enormous value for all stakeholders.
For the investor, Oxford appears particularly attractive, not only because of its scientific and clinical excellence but also because the University’s science is relatively under-exploited. This is world-leading science that has the capability to take on our greatest health challenges such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and motor neurone diseases, not to mention more common conditions such as chronic pain and migraine.
Why did you decide to join OSI as our newest Entrepreneur in Residence?
My role at AstraZeneca involved spotting new and exciting targets for neurological drug development and then creating the teams needed to develop the best modality drug (small molecules, antibodies and others) for each application. I was effectively nurturing a small biotech within a larger organisation, and I gained invaluable experience of how to invest resources at an early stage to reduce risk and increase value. At each round of investment decision making, I challenged the traditional “go/no-go” binary outcome with the third option of “spin-out”.
In my efforts to support project externalisation, I became acquainted with a number of investment teams, particularly in Cambridge, London and Oxford. OSI’s track record of success in biotech creation including Miro Bio, Base Genomics and more recently T-Cypher was particularly attractive.
OSI shares my belief that efforts need to be focused on the earliest stages of project development to rapidly create value, and it is this hands-on approach to investing in the Biosciences that attracted me most to the company.
How do you plan to approach your new role as an OSI EiR?
I see my role as having three components. Firstly, by providing in-house expertise when new investment opportunities are introduced to OSI, I hope to support the efficient identification of promising projects. Secondly, I will support established company creation and development projects, particularly for neurosciences. Thirdly, my ultimate goal is to build a company, define its investment thesis, and to jump on-board in a managerial role.
What real-world problems or unmet needs in the field of neuroscience are you most passionate about?
The brain lives in splendid isolation from the rest of the body and the rest of the world. Behind its blood-brain barrier the pathological processes that underpin common dementias, such as Alzheimer’s disease, proceed almost in secret. The difficulty of measuring what’s going on in the brain is compounded by the challenges we face in delivering therapeutics with the aim of modifying disease.
In the first instance this places great importance on human-derived cellular model systems, for example using stem cell-derived tissue culture to replicate features of a disease process in the petri dish. In the clinic, such cell work will be supplemented by new technologies, based largely on genetic approaches, that will allow us to overcome the clinical barriers to observing, and influencing, brain biology in patients.
Where will you focus your time and efforts?
To start with I will thoroughly explore the breadth of neuroscience innovation that is underway in the University of Oxford. I hope to bring together otherwise disparate groups to generate projects that build on the strengths of diverse groups of people. I have always enjoyed engaging with professionals from a broad range of backgrounds, since my academic days as a Fellow of Trinity Hall in Cambridge through to AstraZeneca where collaboration occurs on a global scale. I hope that linking biological resources with unique technological approaches will provide a compelling business proposal.
What is your ultimate aim and ambition?
I want to build a company with transformative potential, then make it into a well-funded company that can generate value for investors and patients and join this company as we realise its potential.
What do you consider to be the most exciting scientific developments / trends within neuroscience?
I have spent many years working on the “protein only” concept of neurodegenerative diseases, a world view in which proteins underpin all pathology, from plaques to tangles through to inclusion bodies and amyloid deposits.
Unfortunately, we have witnessed a catalogue of failed therapies that target amyloid plaques, and more recently tau tangles, for Alzheimer’s disease, so it is essential that we reconsider our strategies. One alternative is to think more like oncologists and consider neurodegeneration as primarily a problem of DNA or RNA. This approach may be relevant for disorders including Huntington’s (DNA damage response), motor neurone disease (RNA aggregation) and Parkinson’s disease (DNA-mediated inflammation). In this version of the future, new treatments may stem from our knowledge of genetics, DNA repair responses and the opportunities for genomic engineering.
An important additional message from recent studies is that neurological diseases are promoted by maladaptive responses to chronic stressors such as DNA-damage, protein misfolding, reactive oxygen species and chronic inflammation. These responses, while being beneficial over minutes to hours, become a threat to the brain when activated over months and years. Modifying these misguided self-defence mechanisms may well allow us to curtail ongoing neuronal dysfunction and death.
What are you personally most excited for?
I am very excited to get to know the team at OSI, to learn more about their investment philosophy and approach to company creation. On top of this I can’t wait to meet Oxford’s academics and neuroscientists whose research will define the exciting biotechs of the future.