After an almost 20-year career in Big Pharma culminating in a role as president of AstraZeneca UK, Lisa Anson took the leap into the biotech world to lead what at the time was an ailing business, UK-based Redx Pharma. Having transformed Redx into the thriving biotech that it is today, Anson shared some of the most important lessons she learned about building a solid biotech company at the recent FT Global Pharma and Biotech Summit.
I have always taken risks in my career and I think that is where you really learn
Lisa Anson, Redx Pharma
When explaining her decision to leave AstraZeneca to become CEO of Redx Pharma, Anson said: “I have always taken risks in my career and I think that is where you really learn.” Joining Redx Pharma in 2018 was quite a risk. The company had just been through a debt crisis that caused it to urgently unload its BTK inhibitor program to Loxo Oncology for EUR 34 million, a program that was subsequently bought up by Lilly. Since then, under Anson’s leadership, Redx has come a long way, advancing five clinical stage molecules in four years and garnering major investments from blue-chip life science investors. What did she learn in the process?
Cash is King
With no launched molecules to prove their worth, attracting investors is always a concern for small discovery biotechs like Redx. “Cash is always our biggest challenge, making sure you have enough funding and are funding the right programs to a point where you can create value,” said Anson.
UK biotech companies have proved to be a good investment, attracting GBP 2.5 billion last year but according to Anson finding the right kind of investor is key. The company’s shares are listed on the AIM market operated by the London Stock Exchange yet Redx looks more to specialized healthcare investors who can see the potential in their programmes and know more about potential targets.
Redx raise GBP 35 million pounds in June, mostly from non-UK investors.
The US Connection
The funding environment in the UK is not conducive to building great companies and that is why there is the magnetic pull of the US
Many of these investors are US-based and for smaller biotech companies like Redx, in the UK and in the rest of Europe, a connection with the US is inevitable. “The funding environment in the UK is not conducive to building great companies and that is why there is the magnetic pull of the US for companies of our size,” said Anson.
She went on to say that appointing American CFO, Peter Collum, was a very pragmatic decision. “In today’s world if you are not represented in front of US investors and you are trying to build a company beyond early discovery phase [you will not advance].”
For Anson, it is important to build a presence on both sides of the Atlantic which can then lead to a NASDAQ listing and mentions that of the 25 biotech listings this year only one of them is based in the UK.
Challenges at Home
In the current post-Brexit atmosphere, Anson confirms that the entire pharma and biotech industry is experiencing challenges with the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), with timelines and staffing due to the degree of change the agency is going through. These challenges are linked to strategic decisions that are leading companies like Redx away from the UK. “If you are running a global study or putting a file in for approval you are going to go with market size and that is not going to be the UK,” she noted.
Anson also spoke about other frailties in the UK ecosystem such as a lack of the leadership skills required to build more substantial companies. “For me, it’s harder to see successful companies coming out of the UK because of the general management leadership skills of building larger companies.”
Strategic Balance between In-House Development & In-Licensing
One of my mantras is you have to have strategic optionality
For Anson the right strategic choices are vital. She explained the portfolio review at Redx that led to the decision to license two of its programmes while retaining two others for in-house development. One of these deals was for a pan-RAF inhibitor programme acquired by Jazz Pharmaceuticals while the other involved its porcupine inhibitor, RXC006, for which it signed an agreement with AstraZeneca.
These partnerships served to validate the science behind the company’s programmes and to bring in the cash necessary to develop others in-house. “One of my mantras is you have to have strategic optionality – always knowing what business development deals you could make versus what you are going to invest in in-house is a continual strategic choice, she said.
As opposed to large pharma companies, being a leader at a small biotech involves a more hands-on approach. “I went from a team of a thousand people to a team of 20 so there is a lot of rolling up your sleeves and I think that is refreshing. You are very much a part of the team and you take out the hierarchy and I think that liberates a lot of creativity,” Anson stated.
That said, when discussing the rapid growth of the Redx team, which quickly went from 20 to 90, Anson realized she needed to pay attention to capabilities, even if some of those capabilities needed to be outsourced with much of Redx’s chemistry now going to China
Moreover, according to Anson, creating a world-class environment is essential because not focusing on this as a company grows may force talent to go elsewhere.