Ajan Reginald: The entrepreneur who is treating heart disease with stem cells

  • ajan reginald

Heart disease, even while being curable comes as one of the biggest threats to one’s health in today’s world. Being amongst the biggest reasons for death around the world, it kills one in six men and one in six women, and largely impacts the health of around 2.3 million people in the UK only. Generally, when a person experiences a heart -failure, the organ often comes up with scars which further make the situation even more complicated with every day passing. Until now, the damage was considered as irreparable, but we must thank to all the undying efforts in the field of regenerative medicine, which has made the healing of the heart tissue, a serious possibility.

Just a few months back, a study published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Translational Research concluded that injecting the stem cells into the area adjoining the scars can minimize the scarring by up to 40% whilst improving the heart’s functionality by 30%. All the 11 participants who were the part of the study did come with a mortality rate of 70%, but stayed alive even after three years. This came as a major breakthrough in the field and for Celixir, a pharmaceutical company which is indulged in the production of stem cells.

The company is founded by Sir Martin Evans, a Nobel laureate for his stem cell research back in 2007, along with Ajan Reginald, an MBA graduate from Kellogg school and former chief of emerging technologies for the pharma giant Roche. ‘I always had this interest in innovation and how you invent stuff. And I think the pharmaceutical industry is probably the best example of how you monetize an invention.’ Reginald quoted in one of his interviews to a renowned online weekly.

They both met whilst being speakers in a conference panel back in 2007 and after two years of collective efforts and innovative approach, launched the business with the name, Cell Therapy Ltd. Reginald defines the company’s regenerative medicine techniques as a ‘technology platform,’ which can be compared to the so-called ‘Internet of Things,’ for instance. ‘That’s a platform technology that allows lots of devices to communicate with each other across multiple platforms. Our core technology is the ability to identify medicine that can regenerate parts of the body that until very recently have been irreparable…[it] allows us to look at the cellular damage that is in a scar, to identity what has gone wrong and design a medicine that may fix it.’

The company still has more than 20 specific medicines in the channel but it’s putting the onus towards the abovementioned heart treatment process, which is there in the market for the last two years. Well, this is how the pharma industry works, where each of the product goes through a series of research and clinical trials before getting “ready to use” in public. The process is the same for decades, but still comes as a big challenge for all the startups that have to secure enough investments before getting into the same business.

‘The UK is not a brilliant place to find that sort of risk capital, Europe is worse. The US was better but the market conditions aren’t great at the moment,’ says Reginald, though his company Celixir has managed to secure money from all of those regions, along with Asia, where it bagged a contract worth £12.5m from Daiichi Sankyo, which secured the rights of distributing the heart medicine made by company in Japan. If you’re thinking of putting your money through on a long-term pharmaceutical venture then one with a Nobel Prize winner sitting at the top is certainly the best bet.

The Firm also raised £691,000 via an equity crowd funding website Crowdcube: ‘Nearly all of us know somebody who’s affected by one of these chronic diseases and we think of regenerative medicine as being for everybody so we thought crowd funding was a way to allow anyone to participate in [this] innovation.’

If we look into the current situation, the pharma industry is dominated by some of the big names like Novartis, Roche, Pfizer and the UK’s very own GSK, where each of them employs around tens of thousands of people, as compared to Celixir’s strength of 46. Reginald says that even when the big names have an edge in terms of better marketing established technologies, small firms have an upper hand at the innovation part.

As per Ajan, ‘the kind of stuff we’re good at – new thinking, new ideas, that needs a different approach where you need small, innovative teams.’ The field of regenerative medicine is ‘all quite new and therefore if you want to have a significant breakthrough with a new technology that probably happens in small companies like ours. It’s about focus – we’re highly focused in a field of technology and we don’t do anything else.’

Ajan feels proud of the fact that Celixir is achieving all this in the UK. ‘We’ve developed it in Britain, we’ve funded it in Britain, we’re hopefully going to bring it to market in Britain and we’ve got lots of foreign direct investment into our company”.

‘There’s something unique about that innovation culture in the UK. We quietly get on with world- class science; we quietly get on with earth-shattering medical innovation. In the US they have great innovations but everybody has to jump up and down and tell you all about it. That’s probably for me the most important thing about us – we have a culture of combining that excellence in science and that belief that we can do things that nobody else can do, but we do it with a certain degree of humility.’

But will he be selling this to a foreign buyer if there’s a right price on board? ‘There’s no need for us to do it, we’re not looking for that. But if a big company did come along that was really good for my shareholders…and we could treat ten times as many patients, of course, we’d consider it’

A usual day in Ajan’s life

I clear my inbox before going to sleep but as we work with our clients in US and Japan, I still get about 30 or 40 emails by 6 in the morning. I try to finish them all by 6:30am.I play hockey for the England Masters team (for those aged 35 to 50) so needs to go through a fitness regime which involves hardcore training in the gym until 7am. This gets followed by some quality time with my son until he goes to nursery. That provides a chance to everyone to catch up with their emails – generally, the emails which I get generates a lot of work for me and my team. I reach my office by about 8:30am and try to finish up with all the work by 6:30 so as to reach home and make my son sleep by that time.

My usual working day is split into three parts. One -third of that goes in checking the progress of specific projects. Another third is reserved for meeting with all my colleagues and subordinates. I conduct the one to ones with everybody that reports to me on a weekly basis. Even though it’s quite hard, it’s really important as the business we are into is quite complicated and cutting edge so we have to talk about it.

The third part I always keep free because there’s always something important coming my way and I must pay attention to it with immediate effect. It may be reviewing the FDA filing, having a look at analysts’ reports or something else, a bit like how Mark Zuckerberg still gives a part of his day to programming. Well, that’s quite important as it keeps your feet on the ground. I also travel quite often – includes my visit to Europe possibly once a week, Japan probably once a month and the US every two months.

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