Quin Wills - Ochre Bio - Part 4

Quin’s Journey Through Y Combinator | The Role of Empathy in Team Dynamics | Adapting in a Shifting Biotech Industry | Ochre Bio’s Fundraising Journey & Future Plans

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Show Notes

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Part 4 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:

  • Unique journey through Y Combinator and its impact
  • Thoughts about empathy’s role in organizational and team dynamics
  • Strategies for adapting as an entrepreneur in a shifting biotech landscape
  • Experience expanding Ochre Bio globally and the challenges of scaling
  • Fundraising journey and his unconventional tips for aspiring entrepreneurs

Please enjoy my conversation with Quin Wills.

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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

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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 the Mayo Clinic, his collaboration with Novo Nordisk, the founding and evolution of Ochre Bio, and their decision to pivot towards a more traditional bioinformatics approach. Quin also shared insights on navigating a global financial crisis and shifting company focus in order to survive. If you missed it, be sure to go back and give Part 3 a listen. In Part 4, we talk with Quin about the role of empathy in organization and team dynamics, emphasizing the need for respecting diverse perspectives to boost collaboration and innovation. We also explore Ochre Bio's unique journey through Y Combinator, their innovative strategies, and the critical importance of adaptability in the shifting biotech entrepreneurship landscape.

  

Jon - 00:01:17: JP Morgan.

  

Quin - 00:01:18: We're going to make this a JP Morgan story. So we went out to JP Morgan. At the same time, Jack was like, we're out there. We should put in an application for this white combinator thing. I was like, I don't know. But we did. And we were at JP Morgan and then we went and they said, come and give us a chat. And we went there and it was very busy. There were a lot of people there. And we learned that the day we went for our interview was the first day of that intake, that cohort at Y Combinator. And they chatted to us for about 10 minutes and they're like, don't pack your bags, cancel your plane tickets. You're going to stay here for a while and you're going to do Y Combinator. And credit to Jack for really pushing that one because it was a good decision to make for us. It was lovely to be just in that kind of space, high innovation, people who are very networked, who can really connect and get great mentors, great sponsors. And it should just really help you accelerate your ideas and get on with stuff.

  

Jon - 00:02:19: That's amazing. That's a healthy co-founder relationship where it's like, you can push each other. My co-founder does it to me too. So it resonates.

 

 Quin - 00:02:26: Yeah, it was a really great idea and credit to him for making that one work for us.

 

Jon - 00:02:30: That's awesome. So you go through the Y Combinator program, and obviously via that program, for those who are not aware, Y Combinator is kind of like steel sharpens steel. It's like you really get things dialed in. As you were founding Ochre , what was the status quo of the market? Why was it that way? And how did you seek to disrupt that status quo?

 Quin - 00:02:51: So for us, like any company, we didn't go in and we were like, we're going to do all three. We're going to be a full stack company, full stack solution, I think.

  

Jon - 00:02:59: Yeah, out the gate. 

 

 Quin - 00:03:02: So seed funding was the discovery story and building an enormous initial data set and other data sets after that, but the critical mass data set. The Series A story was about validation platform stuff. And now going forward in things we have to announce in the not too distant future, that'll be about more translational platforms we go with stuff. And so then it was just about how can we generate a very meaningful discovery data set that's like nothing else that can then give us the critical mass to take things to the next stage and the next stage. And Y Combinator really pushed us to get that data, that at least proof of concept data and get the initial funding and expand on that.

 

Jon - 00:03:45: That's very cool. And it reminds me of like when we touched on earlier in our conversation about scientists oftentimes won't have the perfect solution out the gate, the full stack out the gate. But it sounds like this was much more of like blocking and tackling. It's like, get the data, like get the data first. 

 

 Quin - 00:04:00: Know the journey. Again, I'm going to be very careful of giving that too much advice because that's always dangerous. But really, like it is, if anything, knowing the journey is far more important than getting the idea perfect. 

 

Jon - 00:04:14: Absolutely. And look, I always think about like, there's a million ways to make a million bucks. And no, sometimes there are those people that just like hit a grand slam, like on the first pitch. And that's one way to do it. But there's always other ways to do it as well, where you kind of like stack and build on the foundational layers. So with the seed funding, you're getting your data. I know you have locations all over the world. And so where did Ochre first start? And how did this expansion of the team and locations come about?

  

 Quin - 00:04:41: In many ways, very well, actually, Californian company, yay, because of course the Y Combinator experience. But the important sort of footnote to all of that is we were the Y Combinator cohort that were cut short because of COVID. I was there watching San Francisco turn into a ghost town and the panic shopping. It was unbelievable. And so then the decision was right. We did our final presentations virtually, basically jumped on a plane back to the UK. It was the Oxford side of things that was set up first. A lot of that was done virtually. I would not recommend it to anyone. Never start a fusion company during a major pandemic when there's nothing available to do. I mean, there were members of the team that we hired that I was working with for a long time before I met them in person because we would just get so careful with COVID and what was going on.

  

Jon - 00:05:30: Wow. Okay. And so you're back in the UK and that was kind of the home base and you're in the thick of it. It is pandemic. Like, you know, no one knows what's going on. And when did you decide it was time to expand? I know you're in Taiwan. You have a location in New York. When was that the kind of like, it is time? 

 

 Quin - 00:05:48: It's a needs must thing, really. Rather than like, yeah, yeah, we we Asia. I mean, we do celebrate this and having sort of all, a lot of ethnicities represented in our data is something that I'm very proud of. The truth is of why we did it the way we did it is that when you're doing primary human tissue research, certain places are better to do certain types of research at. So in the US, because of the way organ procurement works, and the structures out there versus the UK, it is much easier, by an order of magnitude, much easier to do that kind of research out in the US. Taiwan, in fact, was one of my Northern colleagues. It moved back to Taiwan and she reached out to me and said, should we explore some opportunities out there? And we realized very quickly just how, because the Taiwanese healthcare system, in some ways, I recognize it very soon, it's a lot of how the NHS works. It was incredibly, I shouldn't say incredibly easy, this takes away the lot of hard work that she put into it, but to set up these incredible clinical networks out there where we can then get fatty, healthy, serotic, cancerous biopsies of livers, bring them to the lab very quickly, turn each biopsy to 50 slices, master how to keep these slices going for five days, which these are all world firsts in terms of disease, tissue culture, and then turn that into a platform that we could work with. And so Taiwan is just incredible, fantastic. It's incredible innovation. And it's not just that, that they do, they've taken over a lot of the single cell genomics that we do because they're just so good at working in tissue work, doing tissue work, a really smart team with the kind of data that comes out of that. And so that just has been a beautiful nidus of experience that's developed there. New York remains our sort of our final gate where we check things out to perfuse livers. And I don't see US moving away from the US anytime soon for that because that is just such a great space. Yeah, it's expensive. The US is not, not cheap to do science in my brain.

 

Jon - 00:07:44: Yeah, yeah, no, especially New York.

  

 Quin - 00:07:46: Well, you know what? It's not actually, it's in many ways cheaper than Boston. Unbelievable as it might sound, you know, Boston is a tough place to set up a lab these days. It's a very saturated market, right? And so New York in many ways is not that much more expensive. It's cheaper in many ways and has the right talent, has great hospitals there, very credible sort of transplant hospitals in Manhattan. And so it just was a great ecosystem in which to do things.

  

Jon - 00:08:12: That's awesome. It kind of like seems like there's like this serendipity to these like evolutions of Ochre. And I know you have many different types of labs. You're leading a bunch of different teams. Can you just like give us like a day at Ochre? What is that for you?

 

 Quin - 00:08:27: Well, you know, because of course, 90% of it is people stuff rather than science, to be honest. But I think maybe just to give you a sense for how things are structured scientifically. And again, I'm not going to shut. We think this is a good idea. Let's see what happens when we get to the clinic, right? And then when we get good candidates coming to the clinic, we'll be a bit more sharty about the Ochre way of doing things. But invest heavily in great discovery. So that's largely the computational team, the big data sets, the kind of stuff we set up. So invest heavily in great validation. And so it's the three biology platforms, very complex primary cell culture methods here in Oxford. So traditional target validation, but further distributed from biology. And then, of course, Taiwan for tissue biology, and then New York for organ biology. You have to invest in a chemistry platform. We're a therapeutics company, so we have like a GMP level of huge machines. I mean, it's just unbelievable. Chemists take up a lot of space. But they tell me they need it. So there you go. So invest heavily in that. And then something that I think that we're quite proud of, that's quite uniquely our course, we have a separate function called XLAB.

  

Jon - 00:09:37: Yeah. Very California.

  

 Quin - 00:09:39: Yeah, yeah. The whole idea of this is we don't want to completely separate the company into production and innovation. And that's going down very matrix style format and blah, blah, blah. But we do recognize that there are critical stuff that needs to happen. And then every time there's a new idea, that's very high risk. So there's a new technology out there that somebody's got that we want to try out, we want to bring in. And that is the XLAB function. The XLAB function really focuses on new modalities, new indications, achieving better scale with whatever we're doing. And so the whole idea is to prove a concept something and basically set up a little team around that idea. If a concept didn't work really well, you roll it out. And it's really the XLAB idea that gave us big hits in cancer because it wasn't a theme we were really thinking about as a company. And it gave us one or two really interesting projects that we may be making an art since later this year.

  

Jon - 00:10:34: Wow. That's super cool. Because it's like a... Sandbox. Almost feels like a sandbox.

 

 Quin - 00:10:40: A skunk works in many ways. It's like a little mini skunk works. I'm very careful to say it's not like the XLAB kids are special kids because it's actually a virtual function, right? We can pull in people into XLAB. XLAB still helps other teams and stuff. It's labeling, tagging certain projects. Those are XLAB projects. And that means a certain amount of low bureaucracy around it. Just get on with it. Solve the problem. If you haven't solved it after three months or whatever the case may be, kill it. Move on. There are lots of other potentially new technologies you want to bring in. And for us, it seems to work well as a model.

 

Jon - 00:11:12: I can see how it is beneficial because I think without this room, where it's just like everyone comes in and knows kind of what their normal sets of responsibilities are. But when you're working on an R&D project, and again, you can correct me if I'm wrong. It seems that just like the normal rules don't apply here. You can feel free to just like get creative. And that's where the kind of the most innovative stuff can blossom and doesn't get stifled or the air sucked out.

 

 Quin - 00:11:36: Exactly. No, you can. But important to note, it's not this complete blue sky. It's still got to be value-driven innovation. And maybe just the easiest way to explain that is, there's got to be metrics of success. How do we know this is good? That it can't be just like tinkering forever and ever and ever. And who knows? This is cool. Let's just play with this. There has to be like, this is going to allow us to target these cells or this is going to allow us to do X, Y, Z.

 

Jon - 00:11:58: Very cool. Very cool. And looking back on the past few years, and you talked about these various phases and eras for Ochre, where you have your seed stage, your series A stage. Can you talk a little bit about your fundraising journey, your philosophy behind it, and your experience? I know the past two years have been super difficult for the life sciences. How do you navigate something like that? Are there any unconventional tips that you have for anyone who's embarking on that? Just love to hear your thoughts.

  

 Quin - 00:12:26: Yeah, yeah, don't.

 

Jon - 00:12:29: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. 

 Quin - 00:12:31: Don't don't go don't get into biotech don't do biotech during a pandemic number one don't do biotech when there's a global economic meltdown number two both of which we've done so and here we still are i think and again credits to jack as a co-founder in all of this is that for us there's always been this path we had this idea of where we want to go and you know when things start getting very frazzled around the edges the path keeps you going right yeah let's see you're still a young company who knows what the future holds it could all go down not going to but it's having that clear sense for where this needs to go and maybe this is a topic of focus because you know this is something that investors are playing about what's how you need to focus you need to focus you guys are trying too many things focus and i think there's often of confusion feel free to disagree with me but i feel like there's a lot of confusion sometimes about what do you mean by focus because doing a lot of things is not a loss of focus okay there's a lot of things i think for me focus loss of focus is two things is not knowing the journey this needs to go on, because if you don't know where it needs to go, you can't be focused. It will stop. And I think a lot of writers struggle with that. And not knowing how to kill things quickly. You mentioned this. And again, there's no right or wrong answer to this. It just comes with a personal experience, I think. And even then, there were times that I've really not done well at that in Ochre. But learning how to cut things very quickly. If you get a lot of things, ideas, and play with a lot of things, you've got to learn to kill quickly. And knowing how to kill quickly and know that journey, I think, is so, so important.

  

Jon - 00:14:09: That totally resonates. And I actually don't disagree. And I speak to my close friends with Jake Glanville, who's the first episode of the podcast, but he calls it the respiratory model, where you kind of inhale. You do a bunch of things, but eventually you need to exhale and prune things back. And it's focus time. But it's kind of like giving yourself the ability to cover breadth and explore generalist concepts, see how things are interrelated. But there eventually comes a time when you need to lock in, and dial in. So totally resonates. Another thing that really stood out to me, too, is the path, the journey. If you have your eyes on the prize, it makes getting out of bed and running through walls, these proverbial walls, that much easier, knowing that this is what we're all shooting for here and it's worth our time. And there are certainly times that exceed or two where there's like, oh, man, this is a hard one. 

 

 Quin - 00:15:00: Yeah, we've all been there.

  

Jon - 00:15:01: Yeah, and you're just like, if it weren't for our ultimate mission to support scientists do their best work, I can definitely remember times I would have just thrown the towel in and it would have been really hard. Thankfully, I've not thrown the towel in. But I think that's critically important. It sounds very fluffy, but I think it's really important for anyone who's embarking on that journey is to find your why. Like, why are you doing this? And everyone has a different why. And I'm not going to tell anyone, like, this is why you should do it. It's like, no, that's for you to decide. But everything you're saying really resonates with me. And you mention that you have some really cool things on the horizon. Obviously, you don't have to say anything that's confidential or anything like that. But as you're looking one year, two years out for Ochre and yourself, what's on the horizon? What are the goals for you and your team?

  

 Quin - 00:15:49: I think people are going to see an important evolution in Ochre this year. Up until this point, we've been doing a lot of building the jumbo while it's taking off to get to leads that we want to take forward, to get to shaping ideas around which models are really delivering, which aren't, that kind of thing. And I think we are in a position now where we have a far clearer idea of what the market wants. So there are pieces going. In a very quickly evolving space now that is liver therapies, where we could fill gaps with what we do. Our chairman talks about your big brave. What's your big brave is coming? What our big brave is going to be for the next three years? Watch the space. We'll be making announcements in the not too distant future.

  

Jon - 00:16:33: That's awesome. I'm really excited. I will, of course, be staying tuned in and can't wait to hear you. And Quin, you've been super generous with your time. Honestly, this has been a blast and just so much fun being able to chat with you. And for the podcast, we have two traditional closing questions. The first being, would you like to give any shout outs to anyone that supported you along the way? 

 

 Quin - 00:16:53: To everyone who's been patient with me, not least of which is my partner, my life partner. We are in very different parts of life in the sense of he is a creative, I'm a scientist, and it is not easy being in a relationship with somebody who isn't a startup. It is frustrating as heck, particularly if you don't understand the industry. So big shout out for just having the patience of a site.

  

Jon - 00:17:19: I talk about it with friends and also just at the company, but likewise, my wife has been on the Excedr journey since the beginning, so like since 2011. And I was talking about the prospect of throwing in the towel. A lot of the time, my wife was actually the ones like, no, keep going, keep going. And I think there's something about that is incredibly important. One, having someone that's supportive of you and also who can kind of pull you back from the edge when you're there is so important and I think just not talked about. So that completely resonates with me. And then the last closing question, if you can give any advice to your 21-year-old self, what would it be?

  

Quin - 00:17:58: It's quite customary in podcasts for people to ask for parking advice. And I'm going to give the same bit of advice I give every single time, even to my 20-year-old self, and that is be careful of the advice you take. And I know that sounds like an unusual one to do, but, and I'm speaking to myself too, right? Chatting with you and sort of giving snippets and insights is that you need to be very careful of believing your own nonsense. You know, it's so easy to be an expert these days, you can just switch on any social media platform and everyone's an expert on everything, which is possibly why we're having such a disarray in the world at the moment. And Vinod Khosla is behind our original funding. I'm going to misquote him now because I can never get it quite right, but he basically says one of the toughest things in life is to learn who to listen to and at what point. It's not about being arrogant. It's not about being stubborn. It is about recognizing that, again, like you say, things are so multidimensional. And, and, it's not about life just being, for some people having bad advice, it can be really well-intentioned and good advice, but it's not the right advice for you in that particular moment. And knowing how to make that call, I think is something I would talk to 21 year-old self, to work a lot harder at early on in life. Because if I learned how to do that early on in life, there'd be far fewer people out there that had to be patient with me.

  

Jon - 00:19:17: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. No, totally. And I think that's great. It's the advice, but anti-advice kind of paradox.

 

 Quin - 00:19:24: Advice not to take my advice. Yeah.

  

Jon - 00:19:26: Yeah, yeah. But I think it's incredibly important too. Well, Quin thank you so much for your time. And thanks for coming on the podcast.

 

 Quin - 00:19:32: Absolute pleasure. Thank you.

 

Outro - 00:19:36: That's all for this episode of the Biotech Startups Podcast. We hope you enjoyed our four-part series with Quin Wills. Be sure to tune into our next series, where we chat with Mark Kotter, neurosurgeon, stem cell biologist, and CEO and founder of bit.bio. Spun out from the University of Cambridge, bit.bio is an award-winning human synthet biology company, providing human cells for research, drug discovery, and cell therapy. bit.bio applies a patented, harbour-safe gene-targeting approach to inducibly express transcription factor combinations that reprogram human-induced puripotent stem cells into highly defined and mature human cell types. To date, they have raised approximately $200 million from investors, including Arch Ventures, Foresight Capital, Milky Way, Charles River Laboratories, National Resilience, Tencent, and Pure Capital, among others. In addition to founding bit.bio, Mark is also the co-founder of Meetable, scientific founder and chairman of rejuvenation startup clock.bio, and co-founder and trustee of Myelopathy.org, the first charity dedicated to a common yet overseen condition causing a slow-motion spinal cord injury. Outside of his vast experience in industry, Mark has also been a professor and researcher at Cambridge for more than 15 years. His diverse experience as an academic and serial entrepreneur, offers a wealth of insights aspiring scientist founders can draw from. 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.