Changing the way the pharma industry and academia work together

That's where the sparks really fly

Chas Bountra says that when he was a postgraduate at Oxford University in the late 1980s, ‘industry’ was looked down on by academics. “People [at universities] didn't really talk about entrepreneurship, innovation and commercialisation,” he says. When he left Oxford to go and work for a big pharmaceuticals company in 1988, many of his colleagues were shocked.

“I had been offered a very prestigious academic position, and I gave that up,” he says. This was unheard of at the time, but Bountra did so because he understood that medical research academia and the medicines industry could not continue to exist in separate silos. “I quickly learnt by working in industry that discovering a new medicine is incredibly difficult, risky and costly,” he says. It triggered a realisation that industry needed to work far more closely with academia, to access patient resources and clinicians, to help spark better and faster innovation in the sector.

Looking back now, at a time when there are burgeoning relationships between medical research institutions and big pharma throughout the world, he says it seems hard to believe that things were so different 25 years ago. Bountra, who worked for what is now GSK, between 1988 and 2008, becoming the group’s Vice President and Head of Biology, was one of the pioneers in bringing the two sides together in a mutually beneficial pooling of resources and interaction.

He quickly identified areas in which industry and academia could help each other.

“The pharmaceutical industry is very good at coming up with clinical molecules [drugs for clinical trials],” Bountra says. “They’re also very good at things like toxicology studies, talking to the regulators, doing very large clinical studies. 

“Academia can’t do many of those things, but in academia, there are people who have worked on a particular target or idea or model for many years, probably decades. They have deep expertise in that area. In industry it’s just not feasible to work on something for a very long time.” Commercial realities mean that the industry stops research on a particular line after about 12 months if its scientists are not making progress.

Meanwhile, big pharmaceutical companies operate separately from hospitals and clinicians, with their constant real-world experience. Academic researchers have constant access to physicians and real-time patient data. At a university, he says, “if we want to collaborate with someone, we just phone them up, knock on the door, and we start working together the following day”.

Bountra spent much of his time at GSK forging closer links with universities and academia. It was challenging to change mindsets at first, he says, but the rewards of access to better information and closer collaboration soon became clear in the acceleration of the innovation process for new medicines.

Bountra rejoined Oxford University in 2008 as Director of the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC), a public-private partnership aimed at promoting open innovation and development focused around the fields of structural biology and epigenetics – key to the development of treatments of genetically inherited diseases and conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease. By building the SGC into a world-leading group in chemical and structural biology, he brought in more than £70 million of industry, government and charity funding. He also continued on his mission to bring together academia and the public and private sectors in medical discovery and innovation; the SGC spawned five private spinouts during his tenure from 2008 to 2018.

In his latest roles, which centre on his position as Pro-Vice Chancellor for Innovation (a senior role within the university’s administration), Bountra says his plan is for Oxford to become “the innovation hub of Europe”. It involves building new partnerships with industry and aiming to attract large funds. A key part of this is to allow academics to more easily share in financial returns of private-sector spinouts, and to make the path from academia into industry and back an easy two-way street in Europe, as it is in the US. “At Oxford I have made equity share for founding academics more attractive, simpler and more transparent, and the process for them to create a new company faster,” he says.

He is also focusing on driving national and international research project collaborations across academia and industry. One of his current projects stems from research showing that, as communities in the developed world live longer, elderly citizens suffer from multiple diseases, for which they take multiple medications, which have multiple side effects. In a quest to develop a single medicine to treat numerous common diseases affecting the elderly, Bountra has put together a project linking several universities and research institutes in the UK, South America, Australasia and Israel, with links to pharmaceutical companies, and with fundraising and research ongoing.

He says the key quality required for anyone to succeed at this crossroads of big pharma and medical academia is “resilience”, along with an inherent positivity, as research into new medicines inevitably sees more failure than success. 

Bountra is a driving force with the tide of history on his side. Across Europe, academic and industry collaborations have accelerated rapidly in recent years, catalysed by structures in the US, where ties between the private sector and academia have always been much closer, particularly in biotech and medicine.

“We now have a Danish pharmaceutical company with 100 scientists occupying two floors of a university building here in Oxford,” he says, something that would have been inconceivable just 10 years ago.

Bountra believes that innovation happens when you get people from diverse backgrounds, with diverse expertise and diverse ideas, pushing and challenging each other. “That's where the sparks really fly,” he says. “In Boston, you’ve got biotech, you’ve got pharma, you’ve got large hospitals and you’ve got angel investors. That’s what makes it such a rich melting-pot – you walk down the street and you get offered jobs.”

He also believes that the US “moonshot culture”, where researchers are not afraid of trying for major goals like cures for cancer, despite the risk of failing in the process, helps innovation, just as it helps enterprise: the two are inextricably linked. He says Europe could also use more of another aspect of US contemporary culture. “When I speak to research students in the US, before they finish writing one business plan, before they get that funded, they’re already writing numbers two and three.” In Europe, entrepreneurs are deterred by the risk of failure, he says.

In terms of creating a dynamic and virtuous circle between academia and the pharmaceutical industry, things are only just getting started. “Movement between academia and industry is so important, because not only do you grow your network, but you understand each other’s perspectives and language, and challenges.”

Biography / key highlights

1988 Left the University of Oxford to be Vice President at pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline

2008 Returns to Oxford as Professor of Translational Medicine

2012 Voted one of the ‘top innovators in the industry’ by pharmaphorum.com

2014 Receives the Rita and John Cornforth Award from the Royal Society of Chemistry

2017 & 2018 Voted a ‘Master of the Bench’ on the Medicine Maker’s Power List

2018 Awarded an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List
2018 Appointed Pro-Vice Chancellor for Innovation, University of Oxford

2020 Helps launch Oxford’s Centre for Medicines Discovery as its Director

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