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What it takes to be a Technopreneur & Sir Tom Blundell
Professor Sir Tom Blundell is the Director of Research and Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge. He is also the co-founder of Astex, an oncology company valued at US$886 million. Since the early years of his research career, Sir Tom has identified the structures of proteins which are no stranger to many bioscience students. He is also the former adviser on science policy to UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and his industrial experiences include the establishment of two biotech companies.

With special thanks to A*STAR’s commercialisation arm, ETPL for organizing the event ‘8th Distinguished Technopreneur Speaker Forum’ on 10th September 2015, we are featuring Blundell, who is a firm believer in translational medicine and multi-disciplinary work, and an amazing speaker who has played a key role in national science policy for the United Kingdom.

In 1969 under the supervision of Prof. Dorothy Hodgkin, Blundell completed his doctorate thesis. He then discovered pepsin to be a relative of renin. Through the discovery and the understanding of protein structures, Blundell found clues in the ‘tiny pockets’ of protein structures for structure-guided drug discovery. His discovery of pepsin’s structure opened up many doors in the pharmaceutical industries; 30 companies including Pfizer expressed a purchase-demand of his protein model.

Blundell has an exceptional visual creativity in the assembly of proteins, and his capabilities to translate facets of the proteins using a lock-and-key interaction and to the development of drug discovery, have been shown in many of his work. His passion for music embeds in research products, including Composer (1987); a comparative modelling software for genetic sequences.

Lin: Would you consider your early exposure to arts and music as part of the contributing factors to your success in scientific research?'

Blundell: Well…. I'm not sure.'

'Of course, there isn't a co-twin to justify…'

'But I do have a brother, and he is well-known for his work in Economics and Mathematics. He has recently received an award for his work in Mathematics,' said Blundell. He then further described painting and music do boost creativity in many ways, and the recognition of repeated patterns is one of the important attributes to becoming a musician and a geneticist.

For Blundell, being an expert in research is more than having a focus mind. During his presentation at the Forum, Blundell neatly pointed out communication is becoming one of the desirable skills in Science, particularly to progress from research findings to establishing an enterprise. Blundell described his first biotech company, Biofabrika (1989 to 1991) was almost a blind-folded journey in an unfamiliar terrain. 'Starting a biotech company was not common, and it wasn’t an easy process, and I didn't have the experience to run a company.'

Together with his experience at Biofabrika, Dr. Harren Jhoti a doctorate graduate and Prof. Chris Abell from the University of Cambridge founded Astex with £500,000 investment from four drug discovery companies. 'Jhoti was working for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), and he gathered a team to start Astex. I was then invited to join the enterprise and we co-founded Astex in December 1999.'

'Cambridge is one of the ideal locations in England for biotech and pharmaceutical companies as skilled university graduates are readily available to be hired and employed for the industries,' said Blundell. There is little doubt Astex takes advantage of the location for drug discovery and development. The most recent drug developed by Astex, Guadecitabine may be the next generation hypomethylation agent. In 2014, Astex is acquired by Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd, and Blundell is currently a consultant on the advisory board.

Lin: What are the fundamental key questions awaiting to be addressed in the field of biology or cancer research?'

Blundell: ‘There are many DNA sequences of bacterial strains for a disease. Tuberculosis (TB), for example, is an infectious disease that can be caused by different strains of Mycobacteria. It will be essential to test for different strains and in a cost-effective approach. Because personalized drugs require more time to develop, and most often more spending for an effective treatment. Since we are able to diagnose TB from sputum and to map the phylogenetic tree of an organism, we are able to relate quite a lot of information from the mitochondria. What has to be done is to test for different mycobacteria strains efficiently, and practitioners are then able to provide effective treatment with less time used for diagnosis.’

The mitochondrial contains the maternal information of an individual. He continued, ‘Tumors are more difficult. Because they are more likely to have more than one sequence.’

When Blundell was asked on what are the improvements to be made in Life Science, 'Venture capitalists have come to realize drug discovery takes an approximate 15-years, and it is unlikely they will gain profit any sooner than that. Funding to establishing new research initiatives, companies or spin-offs is very important.’

‘There should always be a place where researchers meet to exchange ideas and knowledge, and new collaborative work among scientists from different disciplines take place. ’

About ETPL's DTS Series

ETPL’s DTS Series aims to seed innovation and entrepreneurship in Singapore by inviting luminaries who have excelled in innovative value creation to engage researchers, entrepreneurs, industry professionals, scholars and students, and inspire them to explore the vast potential of technological innovation. The 8th DTS Forum saw 220 participants from the I&E community.

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Disruptive Urban Farming — Microbes, Plasmids, and Recycling
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Precision Medicine for Brain Tumours
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