Why a pharma investor quit his day job to follow a vision (Guest interview)
Imagine living with an eye disease so severe that it threatens to steal your sight. Your vision is failing, your social circle is shrinking, and your independence is fading as you no longer drive. The only treatment is an injection into the eye – a deeply unpleasant procedure for which access to a highly-skilled specialist is essential.
Now imagine you could treat yourself at home, using eye drops. There are no waiting lists for treatment, far fewer risks compared to eye injections, and the hope of improved vision.
It was the prospect of radically changing the lives of people with eye diseases that caught the imagination of Dr Riad Sherif. In fact, he was so inspired by the game-changing potential of new technology in eye care that he left his job to join Oculis, a company developing breakthrough treatments in ophthalmology.
A doctor by training, Dr Sherif was struck by how eye drops could improve the patient experience and dramatically expand access to treatment. ‘Take diabetic macular edema, for example: the burden of disease is high, but the burden of treatment is also significant,’ he says. ‘Currently, to treat the retina, the patient must endure an injection into the eye. For a working person with diabetes, this requires a least a day off work, on top of their routine appointments with endocrinologists, cardiologists, podiatrists and so on.’
Careful self-medication with a prescribed medication also promises an enormous access dividend. ‘Even in the EU and US, where treatment is reimbursed, fewer than 25% of patients with diabetic retinopathy are treated,’ Dr Sherif explains. ‘If you go to Russia, China, Brazil – or some European countries – there are far fewer specialist retinologists so treatment rates are even lower. If patients could treat themselves, not only would more people be treated, it would free up highly-specialised doctors to focus on the most complex cases.’
Look before you leap
Today, Dr Sherif is the CEO of Oculis which has a portfolio of ophthalmology medicines at various stages of development. Of course, before he made the leap into the hot seat at a pharma start-up, he thought hard about company’s chances of success. ‘I was working at Novartis Venture Funds when I came across a company with a potential topical treatment for retinal conditions with a unique technology,’ he recalls. ‘I liked it a lot; it was transformative – so I left my steady job and went for it.’
Dr Sherif’s decision was a big one but, as a seasoned industry expert, his calculation was not unlike the due diligence he routinely performed when assessing the value of young companies. Like any savvy investor, he wanted to know the technology inside-out, and to speak to doctors and pharmacists about the likely demand for the product. And he wanted to know that the company had full control of its intellectual property.
‘When investors look seriously at a company, they do a thorough IP review,’ he says. ‘Nobody will invest in innovation unless the company has technology that is patented. There is always risk with investment so there has to be a potential reward later on.’ Without investment, Oculis would not have been able to fund the clinical trials required to develop their products – and they would have no hope of reaching the market.
The suite of IP protections that support pharmaceutical innovation includes patents, supplementary protection certificates (SPCs), and additional incentives for medicines that address unmet needs in children and in people with rare diseases.
‘All of these are really important because in rare diseases, for example, extra incentives are required to reward investment, otherwise the business case just doesn’t make sense,’ Dr Sherif says. ‘Paediatric clinical trials, for example, are even more expensive, complex and lengthy than adult studies, so additional protections and incentives are appropriate.’
Oculis relies on IP protection for their innovative proprietary delivery platforms and has licensed further IP from a third party for their biologics. The company’s sound IP portfolio not only attracted the investment required to fund innovation, it inspired Dr Sherif to make the biggest investment of all: his time and commitment to a risky venture that could revolutionise eye care in the years ahead.