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Interview

Richard Seabrook
Richard Seabrook

Senior Advisor and former Head of Business Development at the Wellcome Trust

Dr. Seabrook, PhD, MBA served as Head of Business Development at the Wellcome Trust, responsible for intellectual property management and its transfer, through licensing or new company formation. Seabrook also led the Technology Transfer Division, which aims to add value to basic scientific findings when they can be developed into products. This division reduces the risk, the proof of concept, and makes it attractive to follow-on investors (licensing perspective or financial community).

Richard Seabrook: “A charitable foundation like the Wellcome Trust provides expertise that a crowdfunding investor can’t"

27.03.2017

Wellcome Trust is the second largest charitable foundation in the world, behind the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Based in London, the Trust has a £20.9 billion investment portfolio (as of 30 September 2016) to assist in the translation of basic academic research to commercial products. 

Richard Seabrook, who participated in a panel discussion on alternative investment options at BIO-Europe Spring 2017 in Barcelona, explains to Biocat that anyone can apply for this funding, including non-UK based companies. The most important thing is for them to see tangible patient benefits emerging from Trust-funded research.

 

The Trust plays an incredibly important role in funding early-stage research and particularly in bridging the funding gap. How do you struggle with the gap in funding between basic research and clinical practice?

Traditionally this gap is called the valley of death and is quite a well-established funding gap in Europe. It also exists in the United States, but the US government has actually put a lot of funding into this space. In Europe, the gap is more pronounced and organizations like the Wellcome Trust have decided that if we want to achieve our mission, which is to improve human and animal health, we need to provide funding beyond basic research, into the product-development stage, to help ideas cross this valley of death and become attractive to other, more substantial funders.

The funding we provide is project-based. We don’t fund the indirect costs or the infrastructure because it has to be funded separately. We fund therapeutics, vaccines, diagnostics and medical technologies to a point which they can be attractive to other investors. So we take on the risk.

 

A large number of philanthropic organizations in the UK focus on specific diseases. The Trust, however, does not prioritize any particular therapeutic area. So, how do you select the projects?

That’s correct, we are non-disease focused. We are sensitive to where we think there is a market failure. There is a market failure in antibiotics and drugs for CNS diseases. The reason for the market failure is that it’s very risky but there is a lot of good research going on in both of those areas that could potentially lead to treatments. No one is prepared to fund it, so that’s why we have prioritized these areas.

 

New models for funding research have emerged in recent years, such as crowdfunding. In your point of view, what will be consolidated in Europe? And how will traditional investors interact with alternative investors?

There is a shortage of capital in Europe and crowdfunding is one source of new investment, and it is expected to grow. But it is early days for crowdfunding and I can’t really see what relationship there will be between the individual investors and the company that has been funded, other than providing funds.

Crowdfunding investors are not experts, in funding or in healthcare companies, so they can’t provide guidance to entrepreneurs. However, a charitable foundation like the Wellcome Trust has a closer relationship with entrepreneurs because we are able to provide expertise in clinical practice, drug discovery, engineering and chemistry. We can contribute technical expertise that crowdfunding investors can’t.

 

How can a start-up manage investment from different investors?

You have to satisfy the needs of the different investors. Our need is based on developing the project, while other investors are probably more focused on how long it takes to achieve an exit. We are prepared to be patient because we know it takes a long time to achieve an exit but new investors, like crowdfunding investors, may want their exit earlier.

 

What is your advice for those seeking funding for their projects in the BioRegion of Catalonia?

Basic science can no longer live off public grants alone (Government or EU). Venture capital, angel investors, crowdfunding, high-net-worth individuals and philanthropic organizations are their future. The majority of philanthropic organizations are disease focused, such as Alzheimer or cancer. So, they look for opportunities outside their own country and are a good opportunity as a funding alternative.