Martin Vander Weyer

How entrepreneurs have turned to face this crisis

How entrepreneurs have turned to face this crisis
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The Spectator’s Economic Innovator of the Year Awards 2020, sponsored by Julius Baer, closes for entries on Wednesday 1 July. Don’t miss the deadline: we’re eager to hear from entrepreneur-led businesses in every sector and region of the UK whose products are changing their markets, have potential for global success — and have made positive social impacts during the coronavirus crisis.

We’re also fascinated to know how entrepreneurs have adapted their business models to help fight Covid-19. Here’s one inspirational story — of Touchlight, the pioneering bioscience venture that was the overall runner-up in our 2018 Awards.

‘We had a fundamental choice,’ says Touchlight founder Jonny Ohlson. ‘Move away from the crisis or move towards it. Close the laboratory and furlough the team — or apply our DNA technology to Covid-related science and prioritise everything we can do in that area. That’s what we decided to do.’

Based at Hampton in Surrey, Touchlight is at the forefront of advances in the manufacture of DNA for medical research. Ohlson — who began his career in advertising and moved on to help develop Soho House, the international members’ club — was inspired to found the company in 2008 by his fascination with the work of the Human Genome Project. The core of its technology is an ‘enzymatic’ DNA manufacturing process which radically reduces the cost, time and lab capacity required by longer-established methods.

Two divisions of the company were formed, one to supply DNA to third-party labs and pharma companies, the other to develop vaccines and non-viral gene therapies for cancers and other disorders. ‘I do strategy and commercial development,’ Ohlson told The Spectator last year, ‘and we recruit incredibly clever scientists. It’s been a mountainous challenge: if I’d known it would take more than ten years I don’t know whether I’d have embarked on it. But we’ve built a company that’s unique, happy, private and British, and I’m very proud of that.’

By early 2020, Touchlight had assembled a team of 65 scientists and an exciting portfolio of collaboration agreements and joint ventures. Then came Covid-19, lockdown — and the choice Ohlson describes. Touchlight is particularly well-placed to work with companies developing Messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccine technologies to combat the virus, such as Moderna, BioNech and CureVac. Their platforms have the potential to change the paradigm of vaccine development in terms of speed of passage from lab to clinical test to large-scale manufacture. But to do so they need high-quality genetic raw material supplied at scale — and that’s what Touchlight offers with its trademarked dbDNA product, made by relatively simple benchtop processes.

So Ohlson’s scientists carried on working, at safe distances and in reduced numbers in the lab, while Ohlson himself largely worked from home — and like so many locked-down entrepreneurs, spent many hours on video conferences. But even in these restricted circumstances, he and his team have been moving forward. Touchlight Genetics, the company’s therapeutics arm, is working on DNA-based vaccine solutions, in partnership with a major US scientific institution and big data experts. ‘We’re looking ahead to the next wave of this virus,’ says Ohlson. ‘We’re working on seven Covid-related projects, we’re committed to a major laboratory expansion by Christmas — and when others are furloughing, we’re recruiting!’ Touchlight’s response, he says, is just one example of ‘amazing collaboration and investment’ throughout the bioscience world in response to the unprecedented coronavirus threat.

The entry form and terms and conditions for the 2020 Economic Innovator of the Year Awards are at www.spectator.co.uk/innovator. The closing date for entries is 1 July 2020.