Darrin Disley returns to lead Mogrify’s new cell revolution
Dr Darrin Disley, one of Cambridge’s most celebrated and inspirational biotech leaders, has re-entered the fray as CEO of Mogrify, a start-up with a mission to transform cell therapy, exactly a year after his surprise departure from Horizon Discovery.
Darrin has contributed to a “second close” of Mogrify’s seed round – which has now netted $3.7million – as an investor, and also takes charge of the sensational cell transdifferentiation technology at the core of its IP licensing business model.
Mogrify is aiming to transform the future development and manufacture of cell therapies by enabling the conversion of any source cell to any target cell of desired pharmaceutical properties without going through a stem cell or even progenitor cell state.
Speaking to the Cambridge Independent a year after leaving Horizon Discovery, which he grew from seed-funding to a record $113m life science IPO on AIM, Darrin spoke about what he has been doing since leaving Horizon.
“When I stepped down from Horizon Discovery I stepped down from pretty much all my business activities. It was and it wasn’t [a sudden decision],” he said. “I’d been involved with Horizon since start-up and we’d just completed a massive acquisition – the Dharmacon deal doubled the size of the company again – and Horizon wanted to adopt a revised growth strategy that seemed reasonable to me and needed someone committed to a new five-year business cycle. It just seemed to be the right time: the business was becoming more transactional, more Abcam-like, so needed different leadership.
“It had been over 10 years and I was starting to think about what came next, and my health was suffering – I’d put on a lot of weight and had a serious back injury.”
Darrin’s gap year involved “getting my back injury fixed, implementing a daily fitness regime and travelling to all seven continents, re-energising myself”. This meant gym, hiking and spinning at home, scuba diving in the Galapagos, climbing in the Andes, trekking the Amazon... his weight went from 225lbs to 168lbs, with a waistline that shrunk from 38 inches to 30.
“I got myself really fit and healthy, and I began to think about what I wanted to do next if I was to come back. I don’t have to work so it had to be something I really cared about, which means solving complex societal problems with big picture science that could change the world. I’m also not a conventional CEO in many ways so I need to able to remain authentic so it made sense to me to go back to the early-stage.”
In spring last year, Darrin was invited to become chairman of Mogrify but it was not the right time for him. Then, later in the year, Mogrify CSO and co-founder Professor Julian Gough said he was looking for a CEO and Darrin put himself forward. The opportunity to work with such a disruptive technology, multi-disciplinary founder group and with Ahren Innovation Capital, co-founded by some of the greats of Cambridge and UK science, proved irresistible.
“There’s been over a decade of work by Mogrify’s founders leading to this business opportunity,” he says. “The cell is the fundamental unit of life and the ability to create a consistent, pure source of cells with efficacy, safety and manufacturability is a missing link in the development of life-saving cell therapies against a multitude of diseases. There’s very few cell therapies on the market, and the ones that are cost $0.5m per dose, and those in earlier development built on stem cell approaches have been hindered by safety issues.
“Using Mogrify researchers can create target cells – such as lung, prostate, cartilage – with desired properties that may enhance efficacy, safety and manufacturability from more readily available cells such as skin, meaning the generation of almost any target cell is tractable.
“Prior to Mogrify the cell conversion method of choice was developed by Shinya Yamanaka, who won a Nobel Prize in 2012 for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent (self-replicating) before being driven into a new lineage such as cardiomyocytes or liver hepatocytes. This approach took a decade of trial and error and only yielded a dozen successful conversions.
“The Holy Grail in this is to take any adult cell at any source and convert it to any other cell without going through the stem cell state and the Mogrify approach has been used in a matter of months to replicate all historical conversions first time and generate IP on tens of new conversions.”
Mogrify was founded by bioinformatician Prof Julian Gough of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, cell reprogramming expert Professor Jose Polo of Monash University, Melbourne, and machine learning specialist Assistant Professor Owen Rackham of Duke-NUS in Singapore, and is chaired by Professor Steve Jackson, Ahren Innovation Capital co-founder and head of The Gurdon Institute's Cancer Research UK labs.
The science emerged out of the Fantom5 Consortium in 2008-2010, which had Prof Gough as a member.
“They sourced 300 representative cell types in the human body and generated a functional network model of the human cellome. Prof Gough, Asst Prof Rackham and Prof Pollo then created the systematic data science and molecular biology approach that would enable the prediction of the recipe of transcription factors – from trillions of possible combinations – that would turn cell A into cell B,” said Darrin.
The team has now identified more than 30 conversions which are covered along with the technology platform in the Mogrify patent estate. Darrin added: “Mogrify operates a hub and spoke IP centric business model – a similar model that enabled Arm to do so well in the world of high-tech devices.
“With the model we have chosen everyone is our customer. Customers right across the chain can use our IP to make the products, provide the services and create the processes that will power their businesses.
“We will consider we have been successful when customers consider Mogrify as the Arm of cell creation and second, we’d like to see ‘Mogrify’ being used as a verb in the context of cell conversions. If this could be achieved then a significant share of what is already a $30bn market opportunity and growing at 30 per cent annually could be in our reach.”
Mogrify has announced a second close on its seed funding, bringing the total to $3.7m, and the appointment of Darrin as CEO. The funding round was led by existing investor Ahren Innovation Capital, with 24Haymarket and Darrin also investing.
This week, Darrin has taken on perhaps his greatest challenge – and that’s something to be optimistic about.