Interview with Dr Kirsty Hewitson

18 Feb 2011

Dr Kirsty Hewitson currently works for Union Life Sciences, a company that identifies, develops and commercialises projects originating from academia. Previously, Kirsty played a crucial role in the establishment of a successful Oxford University spin out, ReOx Ltd. Kirsty was responsible for managing and developing internal research programs and mediating the interactions between industrial and academic collaborators. Prior to this she held positions at Oxford University, where she developed a strong scientific background. Kirsty organised a conference on 'Opportunities for Commercialising Drug Discovery in the Academic Sector', which took place on 17 February 2011.

What key things did you learn when you participated in a successful university spin out?
That there's a significant difference between working within academia and industry! Results that may be considered of academic interest are only of true value within industry if they can be used to drive a relevant drug discovery programme. Until you work within an industry focused environment, it can be difficult to comprehend the resources required to identify small molecules drug candidates.

What role do you currently play, mediating between university-led research and the pharma industry?
I'm currently responsible both for identifying and developing projects that derive from academia across a number of therapeutic areas eg oncology and infectious disease. I'm the primary point of contact with the technology transfer offices and the associated academics. We essentially operate as a virtual biotech, so all of our practical work is outsourced to contract research organisations (CROs). I manage the scientific programmes placed within the CROs, including in silico analyses, screening efforts and synthetic/medicinal chemistry. I'm also responsible for all matters relating to intellectual property (IP); assessment, filing and maintenance.

What are the biggest challenges achieving technology transfer from academia to industry?
There's a recognised development gap between academia and the pharmaceutical industry. Academia is chiefly responsible for breakthroughs in the molecular understanding of disease and the identification of novel targets whereas industry are the experts in drug development. The two sides need to work more closely together in order to understand the benefits that each party can bring and also recognise the value of their respective talents. There is a high risk associated with such early stage projects from academia, but at the same time, pre-clinical pipelines are being depleted and require novel targets and approaches.

How do you identify an interesting licensing opportunity?
The first step is to meet with the technology transfer office and receive non-confidential information on any therapeutically driven projects that they may have. If the project is of interest, we'll then request further confidential information and meet with the associated academics. Projects will be assessed on a number of factors before licensing including, for example, available IP, novelty of target and tractability, industry interest, market size etc. We'll also consider the development plan with calculated timelines, costs and go/no go decision points.

What does your company offer a licensor?
Once a project is licensed, our aim is to develop small molecule candidates that demonstrate in vivo efficacy in a recognised model of disease. Following commercialisation to an industrial source, revenues are split between ourselves and the originating University at a pre-agreed percentage. During the course of the programme, we'll provide funds and manage all developmental and IP aspects of the project.

What would you recommend to scientists working on fundamental research who might be interested in finding ways to commercialise their discoveries?
If they believe they have a discovery of value, then they should contact their technology transfer office, who will be able to advise them as to the next steps and the various options. This should be done preferably before the associated work is published!

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