A Manchester-based law firm has been central to the development of breakthrough technology at life sciences company Blueberry Therapeutics
By Michael Cape
When AstraZeneca announced it was to close down its North West operation in Alderley Edge back in 2013, the shock and awe headlines which followed masked the fact the move offered some benefits to the burgeoning regional life science community which had grown up around it.
These came in the form of research scientists who opted to stay and go it alone rather than pack up and move to Cambridge or by the sudden influx of talent that became available to local fledgling operations finding their way in the commercial world.
One company to benefit was Blueberry Therapeutics which had been set up two years earlier by CEO John Ridden, himself a former AstraZeneca Director of Discovery Sciences, to find a more effective ways of delivering drugs in order to reduce or even eliminate harmful or potentially life threatening side effects.
The AstraZeneca closure saw husband and wife team scientists Dave and Julie Cook move over to strengthen the Blueberry team at Alderley BioHub. Here they joined the focus on a breakthrough technology to reformulate a market leading treatment for fungal infection of the skin and nails, which came with serious safety problems including liver and gastric damage which, in extreme cases, had proved fatal.
Originally prescribed as a 250mg tablet to be taken orally, Blueberry Therapeutics have since successfully developed an effective formulation in the form of a revolutionary non-harmful spray which they aim to prove is just as effective. The product now has the potential to target a global market estimated to be worth $3bn in the US alone and this figure is based on treating only 20% of those who suffer from the condition.
Yet John Ridden readily admits non-scientist, lawyer Simon Wallwork of Manchester based Slater Heelis has been a key member of the Blueberry Team from the start. Slater Heelis is certainly not one of the big players in the corporate league although it is a well established name in the North, with its roots going back almost two and a half centuries and first coming to prominence when the firm represented the Manchester police after the Peterloo massacre.
However, Simon Wallwork just happens to be one of the most experienced lawyers in the life sciences sector in the UK, having cut his corporate mergers and acquisitions teeth on the listing of the Oxford Molecular Group plc more than 20 years ago. This subsequently lead to him working on several successful spin-offs including Sense Proteonic which became Lexus Therapeutics and over four funding rounds raised £15m and was eventually sold to a Belgian pharma company for up to £50m.
Today, as the head of Life Sciences for Slater Heelis, Simon Wallwork has a portfolio of 35 client companies. His division specialises in nursing start-ups through the legal and commercial minefield which they face in the early days, when they have little or no money for the fees charged by heavyweight corporate lawyers.
Instead Slater Heelis work on a fixed fee basis based on the principle that building long term relationships brings its own rewards.
It was Simon Wallwork who helped successfully steer the company through two rounds of funding to date and is currently working on the third to take the product to clinical trial.
The first round involved raising £1m pounds which came from high net worth individuals based in Switzerland. Next came a further £3m which was raised from a combination of UK venture capital fund Catapult, US venture capitalist Inclin Investments and further high net worth individuals.
An indication of the level of global interest in Blueberry was the fact that Inclin is based on the US West Coast where the largest cluster of life science companies in the world can be found.
Simon was also involved with John in attracting Andrew Kay to the chairman’s role at Blueberry. Andrew had previously been on the pharmaceutical board of Novartis and over the past 14 years had many senior roles at Biotech most recently as CEO of one of Europe’s largest Biotechs, Algeta, which was sold to Bayer for US $2.9bn in 2014.
Now Blueberry have advanced to the stage where they have won regulatory approval to move to human clinical trials to prove efficacy of the product, the company are seeking an additional £30m funding to support their phase III clinical development program in the US. Andrew Kay is expected to play a key role in this as he led the commercial team that brought the oral version of the drug to Blockbuster status while working at Novartis, a global healthcare company.
Whereas Simon Wallwork has been actively involved in the commercial evolution of Blueberry, he points out there is a difference between the way his firm works in comparison to the household name corporate legal players.
“At Slater Heelis, we tend to focus on start-ups, nursing them through the critical early stages,” he says. “These are companies with good ideas but who need help. There are not many law firms doing this sort of work as there is not much around in the way of fees. We take a view of building up long-term relationships, so we are happy to do things on a shoestring, fixed-fee basis.”
So how does Slater Heelis pick winners like Blueberry from the losers in the burgeoning life science sector?
One way is to work closely with the leading universities in Manchester and Liverpool who often call on Slater Heelis to help spin-offs.
“We believe that if the university has decided there is merit in whatever the discovery is then who are we as lawyers to disagree?” he says.
It is this approach combined with Simon Wallwork’s in-depth experience of the market over two decades which has seen him successfully ride the roller coaster experienced by the sector over that prolonged period.
When he first got involved life sciences 20 years ago, it was riding high only to go into a dip a decade later when a number of interesting projects failed to materialise and funding effectively dried up.
Today it is on a high once again as successive governments – and investors – have begun to fully appreciate its potential. The upsurge experienced over the last 10 years means it is now seen as a key area of the economy.
“To give David Cameron his due, he was one of the most proactive PMs in terms of life sciences. He saw it as a way to ease burden on NHS, so he set up the Life Sciences Office” recalls Simon Wallwork.
Nor has the resurgence been confined to the traditional life science clusters found in Oxford and Cambridge but has also seen it become a force in the North. This is reflected in Simon Wallwork’s portfolio which was once predominantly made up of companies from the South – even though he has always been based in the North – but these have now been overtaken by firms closer to home.
The current excitement around life sciences in the UK in terms of investors is the realisation that if a company makes a breakthrough it will have a serious and often immediate impact on its bottom line. And then there is always the added frisson of the potential for further success for research-based companies.
Blueberry Therapeutics just happens to be one of these. For what it is about to achieve in terms of a treatment for skin infections is likely to be eventually eclipsed by its early stage work on blocking the resistance to antibiotics and creating new antibiotics, so solving a problem which is posing a threat to mankind as a whole.
This project will not only open up the use of old antibiotics but also facilitate the development of new ones – and early results give every indication that it works.
The company’s plan then is to use its success in the skin infection markets to help fund an answer to a problem so vast that it is impossible to even estimate what it might be worth in commercial terms.
“And Simon Wallwork of Slater Heelis will remain very much an integral part of the Blueberry team that achieves this,” says John Ridden.
For more information visit slaterheelis.co.uk