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A photograph of Professor Kim Midwood in her office at the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology

“I think every lab has something that can be commercialised. Often people don’t realise that they have something or don’t have the support to start a commercial journey”

Professor Kim Midwood describes her commercial ventures – from managing her own spinout companies through to working with large pharmaceutical partners to develop new treatment strategies. She talks about the commercial guidance available for scientists with big ideas but no infrastructure. Kim discusses the rewards of commercialising research even if, like many experiments, it only provides an opportunity for learning!


Q: Hello Kim! Can you tell me about how your work crosses over with industry?

A: Yes of course! I’ve had three main areas of industry collaboration. The first goes back to the early 2000s and the spin out of my postdoctoral work at Princeton University, the second in 2011 when we formed a company, Nascient Ltd, based on early research from my group at Imperial College London. The third is our current translational work that is sponsored by a number of companies including Continuum Life Sciences Ltd and Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS). I’ve worked with small spinouts and large pharma and it’s been a very interesting exercise to take my research into the commercial world!


Q: Let’s start with Nascient, how did that happen and what support was available?

A: I was involved with Nascient right at the start so I was thrown into the world of patenting, fundraising, and reaching out to venture capitalists and to large pharmaceutical companies. Based on our academic work we had a big idea, we had a drug target, we had proof-of-concept data, but we didn’t have access to the funds or technology that would allow us to make a therapeutic antibody. This was our big challenge.

The commercial support at Imperial was really accessible. At the earliest stages, I spoke to someone who worked in the innovations team who would hold a commercial clinic over coffee. You’d run a project past him and he’d identify things that could come from your research and he had really good commercial insight. He helped us file patents around our data and identify new intellectual property that we might not have exploited otherwise. We also secured seed funding from the University to get the project off the ground. This all helped with pitching our idea to large pharmaceutical companies for access to their technologies.


Q: How did you find the patenting and commercial side of things?

A: Really interesting! A patentable idea has to be novel and non-obvious, so by definition something that most people wouldn’t think to do. That is an interesting challenge to meet. There was good support from Imperial on the patent side of things and we have similar services in Oxford with dedicated people who can help get your idea off the ground.


Q: Do you think patentable ideas exist in labs but are never noticed?

A: Absolutely. I think every lab has something that can be commercialised. Often people don’t realise that they have something or don’t have the support to start a commercial journey. Speaking to someone with commercial awareness and discussing ideas, and doing this at an early stage, can be incredibly valuable.


Q: What if a commercial project doesn’t go anywhere or a company folds at the early stages?

A: Many commercial projects fail and small companies fold and that’s just the nature of things. 99.9% of good ideas never make it to the clinic. If, or when, this happens, it is anyway usually worth the journey – there will be many fantastic interactions that came from it. I think it’s helpful to approach it a bit like an experiment. If you do a PCR and it fails, you’ll learn something about what to do next time and will become more successful in future. It’s similar with a lot of things, including commercial projects.


Q: That’s such a useful perspective, thank you! Do you have advice for anyone in an academic lab and thinks they have something that could be commercialised?

A: Talk to as many people as you can. In the Kennedy, we have a vibrant translational academic environment and lots of people have experience with commercialisation. We also have Oxford Innovations and the Translational Research Office who can help people to formulate ideas and you can also tap into Fellow’s networks to start conversations going.


Q: Moving to the world of larger pharmaceutical companies, can you tell me about your work with BMS?

A:  We’re working with BMS to understand how the extracellular matrix contributes to fibrosis and to develop new therapeutic strategies to treat these conditions. I mentioned earlier that companies often start with a big idea but not a lot of infrastructure and partnerships like our BMS Fellowship are designed to solve this. We went to BMS at the discovery phase of drug development, we had an interesting target but needed a chemical inhibitor to enable our early studies, something that we couldn’t create ourselves. We spoke to BMS and they tasked their chemists with creating the inhibitor that we needed. They shipped it to us within two weeks! Once you have this kind of alliance, it can be so powerful. BMS have been fantastic. We’re now going into pre-clinical studies with this target and I think this partnership accelerated this work significantly compared with tackling this alone.


Q: Do you find that the academic and commercial worlds approach science differently?

A: Definitely, though BMS and many big pharma are increasingly adept at understanding the academic side of things and how to make the two sides of the research coin work synergistically. Learning how to aggressively target the killer experiment to move drug development forward, and balancing this with careful mechanistic mode of action studies, has been a great skill set to learn.