As we launch our new innovation engine – Cancer Research Horizons – Executive Director of Research and Innovation, Iain Foulkes, talks expanding impact, getting innovations to market and why all principal investigators should consider entrepreneurship…

Cancer Research UK has a proud record of impact on cancer – our funded research has led to genuine breakthroughs in our understanding of the disease.

It has also led directly to 11 cancer drugs on the market today – over 6 million doses of these medicines have been administered to cancer patients all around the world. These medicines are saving lives. And the proceeds we receive today from the sale of those drugs through our royalty streams are ploughed back into more research.

The discoveries our researchers make today continue to change the way we think about cancer; they are identifying new vulnerabilities and new ways of tackling the disease. At the recent AACR conference – 20,000 researchers from around the world gathered in person – CRUK funded research was centre stage. Plenary sessions by Rebecca Fitzgerald discussing her work on Barret’s Oesophagus and the early detection of cancer; Mike Stratton – a recipient of a CRUK CGC award – discussing paradigm shifting discoveries in cancer promotion and initiation; and Mariam Jamal Hanjani, a CRUK clinical fellow, talked about insights she had generated in the progression and evolution of lung cancer evolution. In addition, just last week Serena Nik Zainal – a CRUK fellow in Cambridge – revealed a map of the complete genetic make-up of more than 12,000 NHS cancer patients through the GEL programme. The science we fund is genuinely among the best in the world.

Innovation and impact

CRUK is perhaps less well known for our innovation activity and impact in the life science sector and economy. In many ways this is just as important as patient impact – because we believe it is the route to achieving patient impact.

“Most US PIs have founded a company, many have founded more than one – most will fail, but they will go again. That is not the case here in the UK and we want to change that.”

Early on its history the charity decided that if we wanted to have an impact on the world, if it wanted to see this bold science we fund translated in to patient benefit, it needed to do more than just fund great discovery research. Out of this idea was born Cancer Research Technology. To date it has been responsible for 60 spinouts which have raised over £2.3bn. Cancer Research Technology enabled CRUK to become the second largest out-licensor in oncology, second only to MD Anderson in Texas.

But even with this track record – which for a charity I think is unique – we look at our great science and we look at our innovation it is not where it could be. CRUK funds over £350m pounds worth of research every year, yet, comparing our innovation output to our comparator organisations and institutions in the US – be that invention disclosures, patents, spin outs per pound spent, scale of early investment, number of new medicines, or diagnostics on the market – we fall short of where I think we could be, and certainly where we should be. Most US PIs have founded a company, many have founded more than one – most will fail, but they will go again. That is not the case here in the UK and we want to change that.

New horizons

This is where Cancer Research Horizons comes in. Rather than just a rebranding exercise, this is about changing how we operate. It is about going faster in progressing our innovation to market, taking things further along the value chain as we de-risk the early science. It’s about working together with our partners in the life science sector to get world class innovations to market.

Cancer Research Horizons is going to transform how we approach innovation. We are aiming to substantially expand our innovation portfolio. This includes a seed fund and new ventures team – geared towards progressing and de-risking early science and increasing the number of spinouts we can generate. It will also fund a new entrepreneurship programme to support up and coming scientists with the funds, tools, capability and confidence to found a new company or progress their idea to market. It will fund a new cancer tools global collaborative, – an amazon-like platform for lab reagents, cell lines and antibodies etc – enabling researchers around the world to share the lab tools they have created. It will support an increasingly diverse range of assets coming through the CRUK pipeline including those relating to data science, digital products and diagnostics.

We are also creating Cancer Research Horizons Therapeutic Innovation – for the first time pulling together all of our drug discovery and development capabilities into one organisation, including a new fund for academics to partner with us – ensuring we retain that cutting edge early science within our drug discovery portfolio. And we will integrate our first-in-human capabilities ensuring that potential new medicines can get to trial faster.

But none of this is going to be possible without true collaboration and partnership with the biopharma community, the med-tech community, the investor community and entrepreneurs. Our job is to ensure that bold science, brilliant ideas get the funding and support they need to attract our partners to build investible propositions and genuine collaborations. We know we don’t have the capital, nor the expertise to go the whole way to market with these innovations – we need partner expertise, support and capital to get us there.

The government is to be commended for its focus on UK life science, it is a jewel in our crown. But I think we have a unique opportunity in cancer research; we can weave together one the world’s largest engines of cancer research – CRUK – and a proven commitment through Cancer Research Horizons to advance innovations to market and a life science ecosystem that is ripe for expansion.

British cancer research already leads on the global stage, and through Cancer Research Horizons we want our UK oncology industry to rival that of the very best in the world.

Iain Foulkes is Executive Director, Research & Innovation at Cancer Research UK and CEO of Cancer Research Horizons

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