David Chiswell on how he hopes to build Cambridge biotech firm Kymab into $40bn global success story
He built Cambridge Antibody Technology from scratch and sold it for $1.32bn: now David Chiswell is thinking bigger - much bigger.
There is nothing in David Chiswell’s outward appearance that suggests he is one of the top health care scientists in the world and that he has already improved the lives of millions.
Indeed, on first glance he comes across as a jolly grandfather with a devilish hint of mischief in his eyes.
But David Chiswell is no ordinary man.
Underneath the affable exterior is a genius who built-up his previous bio company, Cambridge Antibody Technology, from scratch before it was sold to Anglo-Swedish drug giant AstraZenica for $1.32bn (£732m) in 2006.
Factfile: David Chiswell
Dr David Chiswell has more than 30 years’ experience in the biotechnology industry having co-founded Cambridge Antibody Technology (CAT) in 1990. It was subsequently sold to AstraZenica, now based in Cambridge of course, where it forms an important part of its biopharmaceutical franchise. Since leaving CAT in 2002, he has focused on the development of early-stage biotechnology companies and is currently CEO of Kymab. In 2006 he was awarded the OBE for services to the biotechnology industry.
During his time at CAT, which he co-founded in 1990, David helped produce the drug ‘Humira’ for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. It is now the world’s best-selling medicine and has already changed the lives and fortunes of millions who suffer from it.
Not bad for a chap from Smethwick in the West Midlands (his accent is still quite noticeable by the way), who also flies his own light aircraft, supports the Baggies and likes to take wildlife photographs when the opportunity arises.
CAT built its foundations on the use of human antibodies in the development of new drugs, by looking at gene sequences.
Now, after selling that company for more than a billion dollars, he is looking to do it all over again after becoming chief executive officer of Kymab – a biotech company based at Babraham Research Campus that uses human antibodies in mice. The plan is to come up with medicines that will revolutionise treatments of cancer, HIV, and infectious diseases that attack the immune system while simultaneously make Kymab a sustainable biopharmaceutical company.
It is ludicrously ambitious and ludicrously expensive, but if you have the opportunity it is very difficult to say no.
But with enough money in the bank to retire after the sale of CAT, why did he feel the need to develop another biotech hopeful in Kymab?
David explains: “After CAT my wife said I could retire but what I do is addictive. The investors and I all have the same vision - we want to try and build a new biopharmaceutical company.
“It is ludicrously ambitious and ludicrously expensive, but if you have the opportunity it is very difficult to say no. In a way, Kymab is different to CAT. We built CAT from shoestring beginnings and we were successful as it was bought by AstraZenica.
“But I want to try and build further so that the company that is left is a real company and is independent. I cannot guarantee that. We may be bought in the interim but our aim is to be commercial ourselves.
“If you look at the US, there are 20 or so companies who didn’t get bought by the big guys but they grew to be bigger than them. It is a question of building the capabilities here and giving the company and investors the opportunity to take it to the next stage, which is commercialisation.
“But from where we are now it takes 10-15 years before we will get any of our drugs on sale. That is a long approval process with many clinical trials. It is a long and expensive process and there are not many companies who can do it.
“With CAT there wasn’t any competition with antibodies. Now everybody in the world is trying to do it. So we have to be smarter where we point our antibodies. It is a much more competitive world.
“We have good people working here and have no difficulty talking to all the top scientists.
“It is an exciting place to be. This time I want to build a $40 billion company.”
He is certainly on the way with Kymouse – a revolutionary new research that gives mice complete human antibodies. Once again David and his team are ahead of the game.
He adds: “Evolution has given us a system of how antibodies can be quickly constructed to protect us from the next big thing. What we’ve done is taken all the genes from humans and put them into a mouse.
“So when the mouse does its business, it thinks it’s a mouse, it behaves like a mouse but makes human antibodies. So is that revolutionary? Absolutely. Nobody has got anywhere near it. To be fair to others, people have been working on this from when we started CAT, so some 25 years ago now, but they made mice which didn’t have the variety of genes, which were not as stable and were not fertile - our mice are.
“Our trials next year will be the first to go into man so they are going into healthy volunteers. We will test to find out if it really works in man like we think it does. But 90 per cent of products that start clinical trials don’t make it. Somebody somewhere will have thought it was a good idea and worth investing millions in it but biology often says ‘sorry that won’t work’.
“There has been a real transformation in understanding how cancer hides itself from the immune system. It is evolution again, once you put a lot of pressure on a cell that wants to grow, it will hide itself from that pressure. So cancers do that a lot and the trick is to uncloak it.
“The first of that class of drug has now been approved. They increase the probability of survival from 25 per cent to 35 per cent. But there are a lot more steps to go.”
But all this research and trials takes money – lots of it. Two years ago Kymab secured $90m of funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Woodford Patient Capital and the Wellcome Trust. But that is relative peanuts.
David says: “Pride is there all the time in this job but ultimately you still have to make money and we only do that if we get things right. And if you succeed it means somebody gets better. You create something and in the end millions of people can get up and walk and that is fantastic. But getting a drug to market will probably cost in the region of £100m.
“Every successful drug costs the pharma companies billions of pounds because they have to write off all the failures. It is a stunning amount of money and that’s why it costs £100,000 to save a life from cancer. We are not looking to make something slightly better, we are looking to make a real difference.
“Investors have a vision but they are primarily investors so if there is a return they will take it. And if you are public like CAT was, you have no defence except to grow quicker and quicker and quicker. That is part of our plan and you hope your successes come quick enough and the trajectory is such that nobody can quite catch up with it.”
When he is not trying to engineer a new drug breakthrough, he likes nothing better than getting into his Piper aircraft and flying back home to the Channel Islands.
He only learned to fly after collecting enough Barclaycard Points to enrol for an initial introductory lesson.
He adds: “Many moons ago in the early 1990s, I had millions of them. What do you do with them? I already had a toaster. So I enrolled for a flying lesson. I had my initial lesson in 1992 thanks to Barclaycard and then got sucked in. I have been flying ever since.
“I am also chairman of Alderney flying club, because we have a house on the Channel Islands and we organised a ‘fly-in’ during the summer. We had 50 planes come over and we entertained the people for the weekend which usually involves food and drink. We had guys from Switzerland and hang gliders from Manchester.”
But he still has a real love for the Baggies after being born and brought-up in an era when Albion were relatively successful.
He adds: “Jeff Astle was my era. I was 15 when he scored the goal that beat Everton in the 1968 FA Cup final at Wembley. I was behind the goal and his shot would have hit me if it had not found the net first. The best player I have ever seen in an Albion shirt was a guy called Bobby Hope. He was a visionary player.”
But life could have been so different for the man trying to find a cure for some of the world’s most killer diseases.
“At school I always wanted to be a scientist,” he says.
“I was 14 when I had to choose my subjects for O-level. I came top in geography and my form tutor was also the geography teacher.
“The choice was between the two and he put me down for geography.
“So I had to argue for doing biology. If I hadn’t, I would probably be a geography teacher somewhere.”
Today, there are millions around the world who are more than thankful that he’s not.