Quin Wills - Ochre Bio - Part 3

University of Oxford’s Single Cell Consortium | The Pitfalls of Californian Entrepreneurships | Dinner Table Origins of Ochre Bio | The Laws that Guide Ochre Bio

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Show Notes

Part 3 of 4. 

My guest for this week’s episode is Quin Wills, CSO and Co-Founder of Ochre Bio, a pioneering biotechnology company developing RNA therapies for chronic liver diseases. Using a combination of genomic deep phenotyping, precision RNA medicine, and testing in live human donor livers, Ochre is developing therapies for liver health challenges ranging from increasing donor liver supply to reducing cirrhosis complications.

In addition to his work at Ochre, Quin is also a highly accomplished academic with a medical degree from Witwatersrand University and doctoral degrees from Cambridge and Oxford in computational biology, mathematics, and statistical genomics. 

Along with his academic accomplishments, Quin also co-founded SimuGen and has worked at the University College London, the Mayo Clinic, and Novo Nordisk before he went on to co-found Ochre Bio. Quin's diverse experiences offer a wealth of insights that everyone can draw inspiration from.

Join us this week and hear about Quin’s:

  • Working at the Mayo Clinic’s Single Cell Consortium at The University of Oxford
  • The dynamics of collaboration between academia and industry, including lessons learned from his time at Novo Nordisk
  • The founding principles and evolution of Ochre Bio
  • Pivoting towards a bioinformatics approach

Please enjoy my conversation with Quin Wills.

As a podcast listener, you can redeem exclusive discounts with a growing list of biotech vendors and get $500 off your first equipment lease by using promo code “TBSP” on https://www.excedr.com/rewards.

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Episode Guest

Quin Wills
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Quin Wills

Quin Wills is the CSO and Co-Founder of Ochre Bio, a pioneering biotechnology company developing RNA therapies for chronic liver diseases. Using a combination of genomic deep phenotyping, precision RNA medicine, and testing in live human donor livers, Ochre is developing therapies for liver health challenges ranging from increasing donor liver supply to reducing cirrhosis complications.

In addition to his work at Ochre, Quin is also a highly accomplished academic with a medical degree from Witwatersrand University and doctoral degrees from Cambridge and Oxford in computational biology, mathematics, and statistical genomics. Along with his academic accomplishments, Quin also co-founded SimuGen and has worked at the University College London, the Mayo Clinic, and Novo Nordisk before he went on to co-found Ochre Bio. Quin's diverse experiences offer a wealth of insights that everyone can draw inspiration from.

Episode Transcript

A hand holding a question mark


Intro - 00:00:01: Welcome to the Biotech Startups Podcast by Excedr. Join us as we speak with first-time founders, serial entrepreneurs, and experienced investors about the challenges and triumphs of running a biotech startup from pre-seed to IPO with your host, Jon Chee. In our last episode, we spoke with Quin Wills about his time at Cambridge and Oxford Universities, his early exploration of single-cell genomics, RNA and gene regulation, and his experience founding Simugen during his graduate studies. If you missed it, be sure to go back and give part two a listen. In part three, we talk with Quin about his time at the Mayo Clinic, the dynamics of collaboration between academia and industry, including his experience at Nova Nordisk. We also discuss the founding principles and evolution of OCA Bio and the decision to pivot towards a more traditional bioinformatics approach. Quin shares insights on navigating the global financial crisis of 2008 and the realization that a shift in focus was necessary for the company's survival.


Jon - 00:01:18: That's a juicy one. So on the topic of permitting, the company evolved very quickly. So first lesson was we can't be a software service. We need to actually offer the whole product. People need to have a protocol, the cell types that we run, what to put on arrays. And then, of course, there's the software that comes with the bioinformatics behind it that will analyze it and give you like, boom, it does this. This is why. These are the pathways of activation. And so there was that. Then we also, unfortunately, had the global meltdown in 2009. And so we were one of those classic tough between a rock and a hard place because underfunded, it's a big problem. And so, you know, eventually there was this feeling that we should turn it more into a more traditional bioinformatics company, which was really, again, it's about knowing yourself and what works for you. There's nothing wrong with it. It's a perfectly sound idea. It's a good thing to go for. But I felt, I was like, Ochre at the time, I'm not the right person to lead that kind of initiative. I want to do something else. So moved on and decided to move to America.


Quin - 00:02:26: Yes, yes. So I know you're at the Mayo Clinic. How was that experience?


Jon - 00:02:30: Mayo is something else. As a clinician, I mean, you've not seen anything actually for the same time in the Mayo Clinic.


 Quin - 00:02:36: Yeah.


Jon - 00:02:36: That's outrageous. It's an outrage. So this was at the Rochester Clinic, the original Mayo Clinic.


Quin - 00:02:41: The OG, yeah.


Jon - 00:02:42: And it was wonderful. It was wonderful in the sense of got to do a lot of the science that I enjoy, very much more pharmacogenomics. Again, you can see the patterns in my life. I don't want to do genetics for genetics' sake. It has to be an angle here that it was very much around pharmacogenomics. Really great colleagues to work with. Really what happened was after a year, I got a call back at Oxford saying, hey, we think we're actually going to start a single cell consortium now. The world is doing this stuff. And so I was like, all right. Thank you, everybody. Thank you for the wonderful time. I think I'm going to go and torture myself once again in that little town. And so that was the first postdoc in Mayo and then sort of, Ochre I'm going to take a career development fellowship then and see where we can go with all this single-cell monarchy.


Quin - 00:03:28: Was that the same supervisor during your PhD?

Jon - 00:03:32: Yes.


Quin - 00:03:34: Who is your supervisor? We need to give him a shout out because like that is incredible. Go start a business. That's cool.


Jon - 00:03:42: It's actually true. Chris Holmes, the man is a saint. Good old Professor Chris Holmes. I mean, I ended up working under somebody else who was running the two profs who were overseeing the consortium, but he was the one who said, you know, you did this thing as a staff. I spoke to folks.


Quin - 00:03:57: Yeah. 


Jon - 00:03:57: So it's not just mentorship, but sponsorship and championship. All the wonderful things for people to help you out in life. So real big shout out to Chris for bearing with me. And yeah, I came back, helped set up the consortium and get it going. And again, like with a lot of these things, you learn about a wonderful time, very exciting time because this was the birth of a new field. Oh, the confidence is very incredible. The idea is very incredible. But I think for me, one of the big lessons again was learning when you make waves and when you ride the waves. For example, you know, again, industry, funding has different ways. So what's Vogue and what's not. And of course you can create your waves and go for it, but life doesn't have to be difficult either. And it's something that like growing up, you have to learn like, which waves do you want to ride? And I think I came into single cell genomics like I don't want to just do all this cataloging. You know, lots of people are going to do cataloging. I have very clear ideas about how I want to use single cell genomics to dissect causality. And I had all these great ideas. And again, people were not really responsive to it because at that stage, all people wanted to know was like, can you catalog by this tissue? And I want to see all the new cell types that we've not been studying. And it was fantastic. Don't get me wrong. I feel like I'm being dismissive on that. It was a very important first phase of single cell genomics. But I really had it in my mind that this, we're going to change this. I was like, no, this wave is going to be here for a few years while the field finds itself and everyone gets excited about the millions of new cells we're going to find. You're going to have to ride that one out. And I should have probably written that one out in the beta.


Quin - 00:05:33: I see that both on the science front and also on the business front too. Obviously there's like the AI wave like that everyone wants to be riding right now. And it's kind of like a being introspective about your personality type. Like the sheer will to like create your own wave. For me, that doesn't necessarily match my personality type. You see there's an equipment leasing business that has been a wave for centuries. Whereas the advent of like AI, there are these large institutions and small, you know, obviously OpenAI and so on and so forth who are kind of like willing this thing into existence. And at least for me, early days, I was like, maybe I can be that wave creator. But I had to be honest with myself. Like that's not my natural disposition. And so maybe I'm going to ride out this like existing wave. And once I kind of had that honest conversation with myself, it just gelled after that. And I didn't have to beat myself up over the fact that like, I'm not like creating this like thing that didn't exist. And now everyone get on board. And I guess what I'm trying to say is like, it's Ochre You can do it both ways.


Jon - 00:06:35: That's the thing. And you should learn to do both ways. It's the same in all these things. You know, another thing that I don't describe, there's a lot of, I think, quite frankly, very California-inspired ideas around entrepreneurship, which are just nonsense. 


Quin - 00:06:48: Yeah. Don't get me wrong. I think so.


Jon - 00:06:51: I'll probably get a lot of hate mail for that comment. But in one of them, it's like this radical revolution, breaking everything. I'm like, no, no, no. You've got to learn to play that game of evolution versus revolution and things you've got to be able to switch between the two if you want longevity to what you're doing.


Quin - 00:07:09: Absolutely. And also, I think it can be varied in scale. You can be innovative and creative on different scales. It doesn't have to be this completely, like, universe-changing thing. Even within your own field of study, you can still innovate in its own ways. So you don't have to, again, beat yourself up if you're not, like, everybody get on board or you're not with it. So now you're doing your single-cell genomics fellowship. And I know you then joined the Novo Nordisk Research Center. What was Oxford's collaboration with Novo Nordisk? And how did you get involved?


Jon - 00:07:42: It was a really great idea. It emulated, I think, a lot of similar ideas that other pharma companies have had. Say, I could even pharma two very big engines, three very slow engines. What if we set up these high innovation centers that behave more like biotechs? And Novo Nordisk is not the only company to say this and getting degrees of success. I'm choosing my words very carefully now before I get even more hate mail. I don't think it's controversial to say that. If you look at a lot of these high centers for innovation, very varying levels of success. But the Novo Nordisk one was based on the same idea, and it was get a few of us to start departments, like our own little mini biotechs in many ways, or a bit like biotech. And because we're going to be based in Oxford, we could run like a little mini company, but then also bring in postdoctoral talents from universities that it's a really fantastic idea around sort of building innovation in a space that sometimes pharma and academia can struggle with.


Quin - 00:08:40: Interesting. And you talk a little about that experience of like building a biotech within like an academic institution.


Jon - 00:08:46:  There were a lot of learnings in that one. How not to kill people. Because it was quite a thing. Those of us, the original sort of heads, founding heads, it was a virtual institute. The building hadn't even been built yet. So we were renting space, labs, at the back of one of the university institutes. And the first thing the university did was lock all the doors connecting us versus them, because we were going to steal everyone's IP. No, no, this actually happened. So there was a lot. I think the biggest lessons I learned, talk about personal weaknesses and self-reflections and what you're good at. I suck at politics. I'm a really bad politician. I find it very draining. And that was my first big lesson in mega politics. We had this big and even bigger now, Novo Nordisk, this incredible pharma company, with a very strong vision of where it wants to go. And you have Oxford with its own brand and very strong vision of what it wants from this. And I was like, oh man, you are just going to get yourself into a lot of trouble.


Quin - 00:09:48: Yeah. Sounds like you were getting caught in something like maybe potential crossfire. 


Jon - 00:09:54: Don't get me wrong. It was the early days. Things got sold. We moved on. When you play on the edge of things, things can get pretty sometimes. And a lot of us had to learn very quickly about stakeholder management and all the big grown up things that you need to learn at some stage.


Quin - 00:10:10: That's really interesting thinking about these two very strong cultures coming together to collaborate. In this kind, you see it in like M&A activity. There's just very strong cultures. And it's always a big question mark. Is there going to be organ rejection upon the joining of the two entities or the acquisition or whatever it may be? And I also don't do well with politics. I probably would just like melting, just like, no, why does it have to be this way? But you learn firsthand, you learn these lessons and you internalize it's like seared into you.


Jon - 00:10:41: No, you do. These are very powerful lessons. Because again, when you're younger, you can shout about it and all, or, you know, I'm going to make waves. And I'm like, ah, a lot of the world is about stakeholder management, learning which waves to ride, which battles to pick. You know, it's grown-up stuff.


Quin - 00:10:57: Yeah. And if you're looking back on that experience, what would you say were the like key lessons that you learned and you internalize and you take with you to this day?


Jon - 00:11:07: There are a lot of things I think I would have done better. I think I should have focused a lot more on the people element of what was going on, because I was very, very focused on, let's just get on with the science. These things will solve themselves. Let this happen. Let's just get on. Science will speak for itself. Of course, that never will happen. So it was really a big lesson there. But I think for me, a lot of what I took away was just the incredible scientists and no, we we Nordics attract some of the most incredible talent in the world. So we're really just talented, big thinking, forward thinking at all levels. Scientists, it was just a lot of inspiration to come out of those big machines. Wasn't my thing. It ended up being a big machine again. It's not my phenotype. And I had to be honest about that. But I learned a lot of wonderful things from a lot of wonderful people.


Quin - 00:11:56: That's awesome. And I remember Berkeley, when I was there, kind of had a similar Novartis kind of research collaboration. I wasn't in the fray. But I could definitely see because one of the labs that I was in participated in that kind of structure. So I know exactly that feeling of like, there's a bit of a push and pull when it comes to these big pharma collaborations. And so now you've been thrown into the fire. You had these hard learned lessons. And we're now getting closer to the present day. When did you know it was time to leave the research center and then start Ochre Bio?


Jon - 00:12:29: A lot of Ochre's origins are with no Novo Nordisk. I said it quietly just in case. And I can't even fully claim credit for this. There's a scientist in my team at Novo Nordisk, there's a scientist, another one who deserves a big shout out. There's another scientist in my team now at Ochre who was good friends with a transplant surgeon. And they had a dinner conversation where it's like, you know, we're keeping live as alive machines these days. Do you want to sequence a few and just see if at a genomic level, we could see what seems to be driving some of the physiology and the things that we see? And we're like, sure, we'll give that a go. And it was just fascinating. I couldn't believe it was one of those moments, one of those aha moments where it's like, oh, this is much better than I expected. And so there's a lot of these original ideas about the kind of data we want to generate, models that make sense, but it just, it wasn't an idea that was going to be championed anytime at Novo. And so time to go and do things on my own. Well, not on my own. So again, co-founded and sort of brought these ideas along and started Ochre.


Quin - 00:13:31: And were your co-founders from the same program?


Jon - 00:13:34: No. This time around, I really didn't want to have another scientific co-founder. I wanted somebody who came from industry, who understood a lot of the industry path and really would be more outward facing in terms of driving the investments so that I could focus on the science because there's a lot to do getting Ochre started. 


Quin - 00:13:55: Can you talk a little bit about that? About like, how did you get in touch with your co-founder who's on this kind of more like business facing side? How did that come to be? And how did you guys, jointly map out Ochre mission and focus?


Jon - 00:14:08: The scientific essence of Ochre was that, you know, and it was this notion that, and it sounds so simple to say, which is really difficult to do. We want to be a liver therapeutics company that does three things brilliantly. Better discovery, better validation. So this is where choosing human livers and whatnot is for internal conviction and better clinical trials. And that is clinical trial structure, better modalities like RNA. So the kernels of that idea, I think were already all there. And so I did, well, it was a sensible thing in my mind, but it's crazy. As I went and lived in Costa Rica for a while, I went and built a tree house, well, building a tree house. So I just hid away from the world while I was refining it. And decided to start building some solar powered Wi-Fi in the jungle or 3G to Wi-Fi so I could get better signal because it was really difficult to stay in contact with the outside world of that stage. And one of the first calls I got was from a gentleman, a a Londoner and gave me this big cell. And I was like, oh, this sounds like you're trying to sell me an incubator, one of these accelerator things. They're like, ah, hey, I think I'm a little bit too old for that now. It's actually not true. You're never too old for that kind of stuff. And he was like, no, no, no, no. This is different. This is more about finding the perfect complimentary co-founders. So it was one of those, I spoke to a lot of folks and I got introduced to a lot of folks and then Jack, my co-founder, it was just one of those moments where I first phoned him and he was in the airport in Tanzania and I'm building huts out there and we just realized very quickly there was just this very similar phenotypes or the right kind of mix of phenotypes I think for starting a company, he's been the best co-founder to start a company with for sure.


Quin - 00:15:52: That is a crazy co-founder meeting story to be honest. Both of you were like building huts and you're just like, oh, two peas in a pod.


Jon - 00:16:02: You're crazy. I'm crazy. Yeah, no, no. It just reflects about, I think a certain level of wanting to do stuff and energy and going out and that was it. And started as co-founders again, tried very hard. And again, I'm not going to pretend I suck at so much. I just live for a day when I don't suck so much at things. But before we got into the site this time round, focus on our values. I call them laws. I'm a bit more Gen X. I talk about laws, not values, but you know, the basic fundamental values of how we're going to operate as a company and do things and really got those tied down. And before we even went out to pitch first money and the science and how we're going to do stuff.


Quin - 00:16:38: I'd love to double click on that. Can you tell us what are the laws of Ochre Bio?


Jon - 00:16:43: They're actually deceptively simple. I think people misunderstand what they are. So let me tell you what they are, and then I'll tell you what the inspiration behind them is and explain. So Clarke's Third Law or Clarke's Third Law, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. It's Murphy's Law. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. And then there's Wheaton's Law. Don't even be a dick. And so people are like, where does this all come from? What is it? It comes from one thing. So people talk about, I suppose, business philosophies and what drives you. Again, I'm not going to pretend I don't suck at this, but I do think a lot about the essence of innovation and what works in certain cultures versus other cultures. And I really feel quite strongly that... Failure cultures are a good failure culture is at the essence of innovation it's something that europeans still struggle a lot with versus the us again i'm not going to pick on the europeans too much but it is a failure culture isn't always as healthy as it could be i feel and there are really three failure modes and that's where the laws come from and the first is you're not ambitious enough you don't create that magical technology because you're scared of failure failure is part of that you know nine out of ten are going to fail and that's the way this works that's venture capital right that's that's the game you've got to get over to your shareholders to be ambitious it's not about being crazy but you have to be ambitious you have to start ambitious companies not incremental so that's where the first law comes from the second law is about understanding that failure is going to happen all the time all the time most of my experiments fail it's just the way it is but it should never be an excuse nobody's allowed to come with that as an excuse you learn quickly and you move on from that so that's about planning having planned these quick iteration and quick cycles all the things that people love to talk about and we all still generally are bad at in biology but that's where that one comes from and then the third one is and this has been a big failure mode i've noticed running transdisciplinary teams is tribalism don't be a dick factor is about being supportive to each other other teams will fail you and inevitably you will not understand why yeah oh there's the analysts the computationists again they took too long to get the data back to us and they didn't do the right analysis and the chemists are annoyed with the biologists because the cells weren't ready in time to screen the latest lead and it very quickly becomes this descent right into triumvirate so quickly all the time because it's such a human thing to do the other the other and so that's where it's not about being nice it's not about because i'm not a nice guy do not make that the headline of this he's not a nice guy but it's not it's not about being nice and it's not about baking cakes and you know these things are all lovely and we do it you know the team have a wonderful culture that they've built but it is about understanding that failure is going to permeate everything you do and others so be supportive with each other.


Outro - 00:19:44: That's all for this episode of the Biotech Startups Podcast. We hope you enjoyed our conversation with Quin Wills. Tune in for part three of our conversation to learn more about his journey. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, leave us a review and share it with your friends. Thanks for listening. And we look forward to having you join us again on the Biotech Startups Podcast, part four of Quin's story. The Biotech Startups Podcast is produced by Excedr. Don't want to miss an episode? Search for The Biotech Startups Podcast wherever you get your podcasts and click subscribe. Excedr provides research labs with equipment leases on founder-friendly terms to support paths to exceptional outcomes. To learn more, visit our website, www.excedr.com. On behalf of the team here at Excedr, thanks for listening. The Biotech Startups Podcast provides general insights into the life science sector through the experiences of its guests. The use of information on this podcast or materials linked from the podcast is at the user's own risk. The views expressed by the participants are their own and are not the views of Excedr or sponsors. No reference to any product, service or company in the podcast is an endorsement by Excedr or its guests.