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The intersection between healthcare, technology, strategy and impact – Interview with Ochre Bio’s CEO and co-founder Jack O’Meara

Today, we had the pleasure to interview Jack O’Meara, CEO and co-founder of Ochre Bio, a pioneering biotechnology company based in Oxford. Since its foundation in 2019, they have been able to secure over €35 million to develop RNA therapies for chronic liver diseases using a combination of genomic deep phenotyping, precision RNA medicine, and testing.

With a strong background in Biomedical Engineering and passion for the intersection of healthcare, technology, strategy and impact, Ochre Bio uses technologies like AI and computational biology to develop RNA therapies for chronic liver diseases, increase the donor liver supply, and even reduce cirrhosis complications.

In this interview, Jack discussed the pivotal events that led him to embark on this journey and highlighted the pressing need for innovative treatments in the field. He also delves into the company’s product development, strategic partnerships, and the integration of cutting-edge technologies in their research. Furthermore, he shared his vision for the future of biotechnology, offered valuable lessons from his entrepreneurial experience, and provided advice for aspiring entrepreneurs in the healthcare industry.

As the CEO and co-founder of Ochre Bio, could you share the story of how you came up with the idea for the company and what inspired you to focus on developing RNA therapies for chronic liver diseases? did you work in something similar before?

I was first exposed to the world of medical research through my undergraduate degree in Biomedical Engineering and subsequently the practicalities of turning science into products via my master’s degree in Engineering, Science and Technology Entrepreneurship. However, it took two major events to lead me down the road to developing RNA therapies for chronic liver diseases. 

Firstly, during my time working with AveXis – where I worked on getting their gene therapy Zolgensma through FDA & EMA approval – I witnessed children who had once faced a dire spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) prognosis, cured by our medication. This was when I realised I wanted to dedicate my life to improving public health. Here too I was massively inspired by the team I worked alongside, each so motivated by the human impact of their work.

The second event was returning to Europe and meeting my co-founder Quin Wills in Oxford. Quin had specialised in liver disease research throughout his career, and after several in-depth discussions on the astounding mortality rates on account of liver disease (it’s the third leading cause of premature death in the UK) and the lack of treatment options available to patients (currently, the only treatment option is a liver transplant, but there is a severe shortage of transplant-quality livers), I realised this was a huge problem that I wanted to play a part in solving.

Together, we embarked on a journey of decoding the complexities of liver biology, in order to develop novel RNA medicines for chronic liver disease. Our company Ochre Bio leverages the power of “deep phenotyping” – this is studying how certain genes affect different physical aspects of the liver using advanced genomic technologies – in order to identify possible therapeutic targets. We then test RNA therapies on real human livers (we use livers that are rejected for organ transplant), both to reduce animal testing and concurrently enhance our understanding of human biology to improve the likelihood of clinical trial success. Our first product is aimed at rejuvenating poorer quality donor livers, to make them suitable for transplant.

Where does the company stand in terms of product development and clinical trials? and based on the current progress, when do you anticipate that Ochre Bio’s products will be ready for clinical use or commercialisation?

Developing therapies to prevent or treat the disease can be a long, costly, and high-risk process. Ochre Bio was founded with the goal to improve the way we discover and test new treatments, reducing this timeframe so novel therapies can reach patients faster. We use advanced techniques to study liver tissues and cells and help us understand how the disease manifests and progresses in patients. We then use this information to help us develop new medicines to treat chronic liver disease.

This year we plan to nominate our first therapy for a “proof of platform” trial in liver transplant and plan to submit our first clinical trial application at the end of 2024. If all goes well, we’re hoping to commence our first clinical trial – likely in alcoholic hepatitis or prevention of liver decompensation in patients with cirrhosis – in early to mid-2025.

Starting a biotechnology company requires a strong vision and entrepreneurial spirit. What motivated you to take the leap and become an entrepreneur in the healthcare industry?

I honestly think I have the best job in the world! Every day I get to get to work on a problem that has the potential to significantly impact the health of humanity around the world. I find this hugely inspiring and motivating – it doesn’t hurt that science and technology are incredibly intellectually stimulating as well! 

The idea of leaving the world a better place than where you found it has always been a key driver for me, coupled with a naturally entrepreneurial spirit. I suspect this combination is why I’m attracted to healthcare. Someone once told me to “in life, go for the big fish”, meaning why work on a small problem over a big one, when it’ll probably take a similar amount of energy and focus to solve – and liver disease is most certainly a “big fish”!

Strategic partnerships often play a crucial role in advancing research and development in the biotech industry. Can you talk about the strategic partnerships or collaborations that Ochre Bio has established, how you got them on board, and in which way they have contributed to the company’s success?

In the early years of Ochre Bio, we worked closely with several strategic partners to establish special hubs where we could test and validate our therapies. These hubs, called perfusion centres, enabled us to keep human donor livers alive for up to 5 days at a time, in order to carry out these tests. Partners included OrganOx, University of Oxford, University of Birmingham, McGill University, UCSF and Oklahoma OPO (LifeShare). 

These partnerships were critical to our development as a company: by allowing us to test in real lab space, when we were too early-stage to afford our own, we were able to evidence our approach, helping us raise our €30M Series A in October 2022. Today, we have our own perfusion lab in New York, where we continue this work.

The natural next strategic partner for us is a large pharma company, to further accelerate and expand our pipeline. We are currently in discussions with several large pharmaceutical companies for discovery research collaborations – hopefully, we’ll be able to announce something later this year!

Ochre Bio emphasizes the use of AI, computational biology, machine learning, and genomics in its research. Could you elaborate on how these technologies are integrated into your work and how they contribute to advancing liver disease therapies?

Our goal is to improve the lives of people with liver disease, from the early signs of trouble to more serious complications like cirrhosis. Technologies like AI and computational biology help us learn more about how genes and diseases are connected – ultimately giving us a better understanding of how the liver works, so we can develop better medicines to treat chronic liver disease.

One of the main techniques we use is deep phenotyping. This is studying how the perturbation of genes affects the physical characteristics of the liver. By delving deep into this data, we gain valuable insights into disease development and therapeutic response, helping us identify possible targets for novel medicines. To the best of our knowledge, Ochre Bio has generated more genomic and phenotypic data on the human liver than anyone else. 

Due to the sheer volume of biological data (including genomic, histologic and clinical data) we are analysing, it is challenging to pull out meaningful insights with basic statistics. AI algorithms allow us to analyse these datasets more efficiently and more creatively, given their aptitude for identifying non-obvious patterns, correlations, and predictions that might otherwise remain hidden – significantly reducing the time, manpower and cost associated with drug discovery.

Other computational techniques we use include machine learning, knowledge graphs and our recommendation systems (RecSys) software – this is akin to what Netflix uses to give you film recommendations! Combined, these techniques help us predict drug targets, disease progression and therapeutic response, so we can more efficiently develop targeted and effective therapies for people with chronic liver disease.

What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities in the field of biotechnology and liver disease research? How do you envision Ochre Bio’s role in addressing these challenges and contributing to the future of healthcare?

I think new biologies, advanced omics techniques and computation offer some of the biggest opportunities we’ve ever seen in healthcare – providing us with the power to research organs, including the liver, to a depth (and at a volume) that we just haven’t been able to before. 

On top of this, and I know I’m massively biased here, but I think we’re going to see a significant uptick in the use of real human models to test and validate therapies. It just makes sense! If you are developing a therapy to treat a human organ, then we should test that in a human organ as early as possible. Further, the better our sector gets at human-centric target validation the more we will be able to reduce animal testing, which would be a net positive for the world. 

What were some of the key hurdles you faced during the early stages of Ochre Bio, and how did you overcome them?

One of the biggest challenges we met, early on, was getting our transplant surgical partners to test our liver therapies on human livers. It turns out surgeons tend to have more urgent priorities than preclinical research! Who knew?!

While we successfully partnered with 10 different transplant centres to begin, engaging surgeons proved so difficult that we ended up shutting down all those academic partnerships and just building our own lab, and employing our own transplant surgeons to run the perfusion studies!

Can you talk about the process you followed to ensure that Ochre Bio’s team had the right mix of scientific, technical, and business acumen to drive the company’s vision forward? What were the key factors you considered when selecting individuals, and what qualities or expertise were you specifically looking for in potential team members?

At Ochre, we hire for both attitude and aptitude. As a company, our strategy is centred around our three laws – Clarke, Murphy, and Wheaton’s laws – which inform our approach to hiring employees and the culture we hope to cultivate.

  • Clarke’s Law emphasises ambition and the pursuit of advanced technology, guiding us to seek innovative and curious candidates. 
  • Murphy’s Law highlights the need for resilience, encouraging us to prioritise individuals who demonstrate adaptability and problem-solving skills. 
  • Wheaton’s Law underscores the importance of kindness and respect, shaping our focus on hiring candidates who possess strong interpersonal skills and contribute to a positive work environment. 

By considering these laws, we are building a team that is ambitious, resilient, and respectful, and fostering an innovative and supportive workplace.

Biotech involves the intersection of biology, technology, and engineering. How would you describe the impact of these interdisciplinary approaches on the development of novel therapies, diagnostics, and other biotech applications? 

At Ochre Bio, we see first-hand the effects of this interdisciplinary approach. Central to developing novel therapies is biological data, but to analyse this we need computational technologies to extract meaningful insights, chemists to design and synthesise the appropriate drug targets, engineers to build the machines required to test our medicines in livers maintained at a physiological state, and biologists to understand the insights yielded. It’s all connected! 

Sydney Brenner notes “Progress in science depends on new techniques, new discoveries and new ideas, probably in that order.” And our company ethos very much shares this thesis.

The ethical considerations surrounding biotechnology, such as gene editing and genetic engineering, are complex and important. How do you think the biotech industry can balance scientific progress with ethical concerns to ensure responsible and beneficial outcomes?

I think we can begin to navigate these complex ethical considerations by establishing robust ethical guidelines, engaging stakeholders, ensuring transparency in research and development, and implementing independent regulatory oversight. 

As an industry, the onus lies on us to conduct long-term safety monitoring, invest in public education and engagement, and foster collaboration, in order to strike a balance between scientific progress and ethical responsibility. 

This all centres around good communication and trust between key stakeholders in our industry.

Biotechnology is a rapidly evolving field with immense potential for scientific advancements. From your perspective how do you see the industry evolving in the next decade, and what areas do you believe will have the greatest impact on healthcare and human well-being?

I think a big shift we are going to see is a movement towards preventative treatments. We cannot afford to wait until people are ill to treat them. To ensure the sustainability of healthcare systems, especially as populations continue to live longer, we need to focus on treatments that get ahead of disease symptoms – including the development of therapeutic interventions for chronic age-related diseases, a major one of which is liver disease.

Looking back on your journey building Ochre Bio, what are some of the most significant lessons you have learned? What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs who are considering venturing into the biotechnology industry?

Entrepreneurship can be a very emotionally taxing journey, so returning to your mission statement when times are tough is a strong source of motivation to keep you going. Particularly for those of us in healthcare, we are working towards a higher purpose with the potential to transform the lives of so many, and their loved ones. Never forget that. 

Enjoy the journey too, and don’t attach your identity to your work. We are each multifaceted, three-dimensional personalities. Don’t lose that along the way! As my mother would say, look up and smell the roses from time to time. Have some fun.

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Antonio L. Escárzaga
Antonio L. Escárzaga
Antonio López Escárzaga is the Head of Content at EU-Startups, with a background in Digital Marketing, Antonio drives his passion for effective communication and entrepreneurship. He firmly believes in communication’s transformative power and strives to harness it to foster growth and innovation.

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