Eight years ago, OXGENE™ Chief Executive and recent PhD graduate Ryan Cawood was scrounging lab space, carting around a 1986 model, New Brunswick Orbital shaker incubator in the back of his dad’s Transit van, and drowning in student debt. Life as Chief Executive of the newly incorporated Oxford Genetics Ltd was far more graft than glamour. Fast forward eight years and add in 88 employees working at the cutting edge of CRISPR, gene therapy and antibody discovery. Stir in some state of the art laboratory facilities, six major licensing deals in the last year, and a spot on the shortlist for the prestigious Scrip Awards ‘Executive of the year’, and life looks very different now. But does it feel like “success”?
“I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved so far, but I certainly can’t take all the credit for the success. It’s been very much a team effort. But as CEO, I don’t think I’ll ever sit back and think ‘yes, that’s it. We’ve made it.’ I’m always focusing on what comes next; what we can improve, how we can innovate, what we can do better. I definitely don’t feel like the company’s reached its full potential yet,” says Ryan. “To an outside observer, and based on most metrics, we’re in good shape, but the business is full of ambitions people and we can all see huge opportunity.”
OXGENE™: from then to now
“I think resilience is probably the most important character attribute you need if you’re going to start a business, it brings new meaning to taking one step forward and two steps back”, Ryan continues. “But I was also very naïve at the start. I didn’t know anything about running a business, and I didn’t put a huge amount of thought into the decision to try it myself. I just wanted to have more control over my own destiny I suppose. I wanted to guide my own research, and to follow my interests in a direction that would make a difference.”
Pioneering science and constant innovation
Ryan’s sense of adventure and his passion for pioneering science untrammelled by convention and unlimited by the boundaries of established possibility, is a thread that runs through the company’s history. There wasn’t a carefully thought out masterplan or a road map for where the company was going. In fact, Ryan’s original vision was quite different. “Initially, I wanted Oxford Genetics to be a small web-based company, selling products online. I think I’m naturally quite an introvert, and I liked the idea of hiding behind the internet.”
So what changed? “As the company grew, I realised that if we kept growing and kept adapting, OXGENE™ had the potential to do some really exciting science that would change the way DNA and cells were designed and modified at scale. I think everyone now recognises that there are any number of ways that genetic engineering can make a difference to human health, and we’re in a position to help make that a reality. In fact, CRISPR edited cells are already entering the first clinical trials for certain cancers and blood disorders.
Our first investment round in 2013 was the big turning point. That was when our business model changed and we committed to achieving something more than I’d originally set out to do. Our vision now is much bigger.”
A vision of the future
“Technology never stops advancing, and so neither will we. We’ll continue to aggressively push our R&D capabilities to make sure that we stay right at the cutting edge. We’ll keep innovating and keep expanding. Right now, we’re looking to move into new markets in Asia and expand our presence in the USA. My vision since 2013 has been to build a profitable, technology-led company with state of the art facilities, where at least 20% of our revenue comes from licensing deals. We’re very close to achieving all of these goals.”
The company’s recent rebrand, and launch of the trading name OXGENE™, reflects that ambition. “Our old brand carried the legacy of our history as a product company. Since then we’ve moved on from selling products, through providing services, to now establishing ourselves as a technology platform provider. We’re problem solvers.
We work across three main scientific fields: CRISPR, gene therapy and antibody discovery. We recognise the current limitations of those fields, and we’re here to remove those boundaries. For gene therapy, that means reducing the eventual cost of therapies for patients. We are focussed on developing novel DNA and mammalian cell-based platforms that enable us to do that. When it comes to CRISPR, we’re automating a manual process. We are making hundreds of cell lines to meet market demand, and providing the capacity for the thousands more the industry needs. And in antibody discovery, we are developing a platform to discover antibodies against membrane proteins that other platforms fail to address, and so opening up new therapeutic areas for a range of diseases.
We’ve come such a long way from the initial idea of a catalogue business, and the OXGENE™ brand encompasses that transition. It represents our ambition, and the progress we’ll continue to make. OXGENE™ is now about as far from a one-man-band as it’s possible to be. Everything we do here now is a team effort, and I’m immensely proud of that team.”