Spinout Stories with Ali Tavassoli – ‘From the lab to the clinic, and back again’
Enterprise Champion Professor Ali Tavassoli leads an interdisciplinary team of scientists developing novel chemical tools that will inspire new therapeutics, expanding on a research platform he co-developed in a five-year spell at Penn State University in the USA. This week, he shared his inspirational journey ‘From the lab to the clinic, and back again’.
Watch his full talk in the video panel above or read on for Natasha Nater’s blog from the event. This article’s quotes have been generated using the Synote University spinout transcription tool.
Professor Ali Tavassoli has first-hand experience of how research can be transformed into spinouts, as a project he contributed to at an early stage went on to be commercialised and sold for over $5bn. Now a Professor in Chemical Biology, he encourages others to explore engagement with industry at Southampton’s Department of Chemistry.
“Most of life is luck,” Ali advised as he began his talk. “Actually, you can plan things as much as you want and the way things turn out is often quite different, there are, however, key decision points where you find yourself at a fork in the road and your life takes a turn.”
Discussing the role of his mentors and collaborators, Ali said, “You have to collaborate because you’re not going to be an expert at everything. But I think the more of it that you can keep in-house, the more control you can have on it.” After his PhD, Ali decided to try and gain training in chemical biology. As part of his first postdoc, Ali moved into bioorganic chemistry and learned how to make a protein in E. coli. “I did a little bit of cloning, a bit of protein expression and so I was really starting to get a feel for it,” he said.
Ali was determined to work in America and experience USA science first-hand, and so moved to Penn State for his second postdoc. “The problems tackled are bigger, allowing for a completely different experience,” he explained.
“There’s more money over there and because of this, the funding schemes and outlooks are different. [As a result of this] the projects I tackled in America were a lot bolder. In Britain, we tend to be a lot more conservative and we don’t like things that are very high risk.”
Ali was working on developing novel antibiotics in the USA at a time when the potential for harm from bio-terrorism was at the forefront of the government’s mind. He explained, “The compounds I was working on were really significant because our compounds contained Boron and there are very few examples of drugs on the market that contain this.”
Ali further discussed the difference between the USA and UK research funding systems for startups. “In the USA you typically have five years of running time and ideally a startup would be given $20 million and not need to worry about money running out,” he said. “You can really push a project to where it needs to go commercially, so it makes a big difference to have that big upfront cash to let you run and really develop your ideas.”
A company called Anacor Pharmaceuticals was formed to further develop the novel antibiotics that Ali and others worked on. He explained, “You do your bit for a project, it goes off, other people take it forward, they work hard and then if it becomes something you all share in the profits.”
The American research experience did come with its own sacrifices and Ali passed several key dates without his family. “I remember going to work one year on Christmas Day because my family were in the UK. I decided to stay and push and push on the project. I remember walking through State College without a soul around, before walking into the lab and actually happily working because I cared about the work.”
After Anacor was spun out, Ali began working on a different project to develop a platform for rapidly generating and screening libraries of hundreds of millions of cyclic peptides. The work Ali undertook was on a protein called ATIC, which controls the biosynthesis of purine bases that DNA is made from. This took almost a year of solid work before the positive results came through. Describing how the key piece of data was gathered late one Friday night, he said, “I still remember the inhibition graph on the screen going up and working. I wanted to tell somebody but couldn’t find anyone so I had to wait until the following Monday to tell people that this thing had worked. It was just the most amazing thing!”
Following this success, Ali’s supervisor was happy for him to take the results from his site to Ali’s own lab. Other people’s kindness and generosity has been significant to Ali’s success and he mentioned his postdoctoral colleagues who invited him to work on their project as well as the support of his mentor Professor Benkovic. “You need people like this in your life to help you get somewhere, to look after and guide you,” he added. “It’s a sort of invisible support that happens behind the scenes that is never seen.”
Ali and his team have now been at Southampton for 11 years, where they have experienced a similar support system. He explained, “The Chemistry department have always been wonderful. When our project was at a point where we needed to culture human cells, they gave me space to do this, space that is valuable to them.”
Funding has been an important bedrock to Ali’s research. “I’ve had funding from MRC, BBSRC and various pharmaceutical companies, but the biggest funder from my career has been Cancer Research UK, because our biggest footprint has been in cancer research,” he said.
In terms of advice for those wanting to follow in his footsteps, Ali said, “There are always people who are smarter than you. There are always people who have more luck than you. So it’s always been my attitude to work harder.”
Ali’s latest venture is with porting his cyclic peptide library into droplets and as he explained, “The University were again, kind enough to help and support us. Our new system has the potential to be the leading method for generating and screening cyclic peptides against various targets.”
Ali’s international research journey is a shining example for ambitious researchers considering commercialising research to bring about transformative impact. Through his enterprise role in Chemistry, he is ready to help inspire more spinout stories of the future.
The Future Worlds Medicine talk series will continue this autumn. Keep checking the Engage section for new entries from this and other series that can help you and your business idea grow.