A healthy dose of British ingenuity, money, patents and patience

Richard Farleigh
RICHARD Marsden describes his meeting with University of Southampton scientists in 2003 as one of the most memorable moments of his life. That very meeting, about a potential new medicine, could prove pivotal to the health of millions of people. If Richard hadn’t been there, the idea may never have been developed.

The discussion was all about lungs. The scientists had discovered that a vital defence mechanism didn’t always work. When the lungs are under attack, they normally produce interferon beta, a protein that helps fight off nasty viruses. This reaction can be key to stopping an ordinary head cold travelling south to the lungs where it could do real damage. People such as asthmatics and smokers don’t always produce enough of the protein, and can suffer badly, even fatally, when they have a cold.

Having discovered a possible cause, the obvious idea was to create an inhaled drug containing the protein to top-up the levels in the lungs of those at risk. And so the journey began. But it almost ended right there – in the academic world, it can be publish or perish, and the scientists were keen to publish their results, without patents, saying simply: “We don’t know how to patent”. Most people new to business are in a rush to patent, while I am usually more of a believer in first mover advantage and business expertise. Patents are tricky to get and expensive to defend. In the pharmaceutical world though, they are a necessity. It’s not about greed, it’s about cost. The average cost to market of a pharmaceutical drug is over $1bn (£615m). A drug company needs to get a good price to recoup these costs. Without patent protection, another company without those costs can copy the drug’s ingredients and sell it at a fraction of the price. Sometimes, only a monopoly position makes sense.

Thankfully, Richard organised the patents, and the new company, Synairgen, partly owned by the university and the scientists, looked for investors. I joined in, with a cheque for nearly £500,000, and Synairgen was listed on the stock market. Richard and I chat regularly ever since about strategy and results.

Now, business isn’t usually as easy or quick as the examples of Facebook or Skype might have you believe. It’s taken eight years, and Synairgen has been looking at the drug as an asthma treatment: testing for safety, dosages, patient choice and effectiveness.

This month it announced that a trial of 147 patients demonstrated significant benefits to vulnerable asthma sufferers. Still more trials are needed, which could involve partnering with a big pharmaceutical company, but they’ve made huge steps towards a possible treatment against a broad range of viruses for a vulnerable population. The company has also become more confident that a similar treatment could be effective for things like bronchitis and emphysema (smokers’ curses), and it could even be stockpiled by governments as a defence against unknown strains such as bird flu. Eight years on, and I am as optimistic as ever.

Since the mid-1990s Richard Farleigh has operated as a business angel, backing more early-stage companies than anyone else in the United Kingdom.