Podcast: Encounters with success – Jennifer Rohn
Podcast: Encounters with success – Jennifer Rohn
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Richard: Today we're talking to a leading cell biologist whose work spans both the fields of academic science and business. She runs a lab and teaches at University College London and she's also involved in the growing med tech business AtoCap where she's the Chief Scientific Officer. AtoCap develops clinical techniques such as nano-capsules which deliver treatment straight to the source of a patient's infection. The current focus is the development of targeted treatments for urinary tract infections. Our guest is Dr Jennifer Rohn. Jenny, thanks for talking to us and welcome to the show.
Jennifer: Hi, you're very welcome.
Richard: You're a mother, you're leading a research team at a London Hospital, you've got university teacher responsibilities, you're also an author with three novels under your belt and you're developing a cutting edge med tech business which could transform lives. How on earth do you make all that fit together, Jenny?
Jennifer: It's really not easy and since the birth of my son almost seven years ago, I'm not doing as many things as I used to do but I think the key to having a portfolio and having lots of different strings in your bow is really focusing on what matters and not doing a lot of stuff that doesn't advance any of your, sort of, core passions. So I don't watch a lot of television and in recent years I haven't read as much as I used to read because I'm focusing more on things I really want to do now and I think it's important to, kind of, keep in mind that nothing is permanent so at the moment I'm not doing any novel writing.
I'm busy raising my son but I know that I'll get back to it one day and at the moment I'm spending a lot of time in my garden because it gives me great pleasure, especially during lockdown and I really like twenty hours a week sometimes and I know that can't last either so I sort of do what I need to do in a way that helps me and I know that, not to feel guilty about the things that I just can't manage.
Richard: Do you think of yourself as a scientist first Jenny?
Jennifer: Yes, I do. I mean, I have been a scientist longer than I've been any other thing that you mentioned. I've only been a mother for seven years. I've only been a novelist for ten years. Yes, science was my original passion, even when I was a little girl, chasing butterflies and putting beetles in bottles and things like that. Science has always been with me as long as I can remember and I do identify, I think, most strongly as a scientist but, you know, it's not an exclusive thing.
You can be a scientist and a human being which I think a lot of people don't consider when they picture the average scientist. They don't really think about the humanity behind that person. Your average scientist is also a citizen, a consumer, they're using the products that they're making. It's a very inclusive thing. Being a scientist is not meaning you can't be anything else and I think it's important to remember that.
Richard: So let's talk about the seismic event of 2020 which was COVID-19 and that's seen scientists and science right up the news agenda. Is that helpful?
Jennifer: It's an interesting question and I think it's been both harmful and helpful for the reputation of scientists. So on the good side, science is now being sort of positioned as the hero of the story. Scientists are scrabbling all over the world to come up with new vaccines, to come up with new drugs, to have all these clinical trials. I've never in my whole life witnessed such a massive mobilization of scientific talent, not just mobilization but sort of the international collaboration and also the collaboration between academia and industry.
To get this vaccine out there, usually, it takes ten years or twenty years to make a vaccine. Now we're seeing these time scales compressed into weeks and months. It's absolutely jaw-dropping. So in that respect, science has sort of looking like the hero of the story but you've seen also I think the darker side which is that scientists are starting to be scapegoated a little bit and blamed so they're being smeared by the press, they're being blamed by governments and I think this is not surprising.
It is very common for blame to be shifted when things aren't going well and science is the logical, in a way, a logical target because, you know, you should have sorted this out, shouldn't you have but people forget that it's not science that's responsible for making these crucial decisions that government has to make. It's governments, governments need to take scientific advice and governments needs to understand that scientific advice is not black and white, you know. We're not purveyors of the crystal ball. It's almost like the weather forecast in a way. You know, we can predict that the pandemic is coming and we can make suggestions for what to do but none of us knows how it's going to play out.
We can only give our best estimates, our educated and scientific guesses if you all and I think people don't understand that science is not black and white and, sure, if things don't go to plan, maybe you're thinking that scientists should have warned us and maybe we should have done something different so, yes, science as a hero, science as a villain.
Richard: You've spent a lot of time and energy promoting science and promoting the investment in science so to some extent COVID-19 must be at a welcome crisis in the sense that business is suddenly connecting with science in a way that perhaps that it hasn't in recent past. The question I guess I'd ask are scientists good at life outside the lab? Are they good at engaging with politicians on this daily basis and with business people?
Jennifer: Well, you're very right that science is very critical now. I do sometimes worry that we're going to pour all our money into COVID-19 and then the next pandemic is going to come along or all the other diseases that are so important will be neglected but that aside, I mean your question about whether we as scientists are good at engaging, you can't really say that a scientist is one kind of person and I've seen scientists who are absolutely amazing communicators and I've seen scientists who really ought to just stay their lab and not say anything because they're terrible.
It's just like any other human being. We have a spectrum of talents and I think, science has been very good at getting the people who can speak about science out there in front of the cameras. I've seen some amazing people being interviewed on the news, really just giving their best assessments of this pandemic and I think there are people that are good at that.
I think we need to foster those kinds of people and then promote them and help them and give training to younger scientists to be better at speaking at the media but absolutely, not every scientist should be speaking to the media. It's not their strength. They should be in the lab coming up with the breakthroughs and the people who are good at speaking should be out there speaking.
Richard: But in relation to getting a business off the ground, a part of Jenny's role is to approach potential investors seeking funding.
Jennifer: You do need a particular skillset when you're talking to investors and it's a bit of a steep learning curve for me.
Richard: How she explains the science behind the business proposition, mainly to an audience of non-scientists is what she'll be talking about in part two of the show. Jenny, I guess that takes us quite seamlessly onto the next element of what I wanted to ask you about which is your experience with AtoCap. There you were as a scientist in the world of business. What's it been like talking to investors regarding AtoCap?
Jennifer: Well in some ways, being a scientist, you're quite well trained at communicating your stuff. We spend most of our professional life trying to persuade other scientists that our theory is current or that our most recent data our very exciting and worthy of funding and in that respect, I'm in a good position as a scientist to talk to people. You do need a particular skill set when you're talking to investors and there's a bit of a steep learning curve for me.
I'd be standing up there, faced with people who really knew absolutely nothing about medicine and normally if you're talking to scientists at least they have some idea what you're talking about, even if they're not a specialist in your particular field so this is really, not just talking to people who don't understand science because we do that all the time with scientists as well. We talk to school children and we do public engagement.
This is a completely different kettle of fish. You're trying to persuade somebody to give you money and this is not something that you're trained to do in science school if you will. This is not something we're used to doing.
We're used to asking for money from, sort of, scholarly funding bodies. These people know the drill, they know all about science, they know their stuff but investors don't and I find that really challenging and I have practiced a lot trying to get my pitch so it's razor-sharp and dumbed down enough that people will understand and still take away that important message so it's taken a few iterations to get that pitch right and I think it's not something that comes naturally to me or to any scientist.
Richard: For the benefit of those listeners who've never one this, do you mind sketching out in detail what that meeting might be like when you first present it to your investors who's in the room? What's the tone of the meeting?
Jennifer: Well, I've been to quite a number of investor events now and I find that the people are very positive and very forgiving and I've had a lot of feedback from people I've talked to and sometimes they say, you know, your naivety and your lack of experience is actually refreshing and you stood out from the crowd because your pitch wasn't as polished as others.
I don't know if they were just trying to be nice when they said that but I did receive feedback like that like wow, you're up there, you're a scientist, you're obviously not a business person. I can tell you're not a business person but actually, I like that so that was my first experience when I realized that I did need to up my game but people were really forgiving and very friendly about it.
Richard: Something that you've spoken about in the past but I guess is relevant to many is the private equity world where the world of these investors and backers is notoriously male and you're a woman and with AtoCap you're talking now about a treatment for UTI which is of particular benefit to women. How's that been?
Jennifer: Well, it's been very very conspicuous I would say. It's not just me. So I'm a female. One of the founders, Eleanor, she's a female and our CEO is female so sometimes it's a double or triple act of woman up there on the podium and you look out and it's a sea of Hugo Boss suits. It is disconcerting because sometimes there are no women in the room or there's maybe one or two dotted about and I find this, first of all, that's disconcerting, but then as you say, the subject matter seems a little bit feminine but the way that I capture their attention is by making it personal.
So, even though these men, or the vast majority of them, will never experience a UTI, they probably have a girlfriend or a partner. They almost certainly have a parent or a grandparent who's suffering from recurrent UTI. It's very common in the elderly and when I'm telling my story sometimes I look at the sea of faces and I see somebody say, 'Ah.' You can see in their face, sort of, dawning realization, 'Oh, hang on, I know somebody with this. Yes, my mum's been in and out of hospital with this,' or, 'My partner's had this.'
When you can connect on that personal level and you can remind people that this is a problem that affects lots of people, not just lots of people but somebody you might know, that's where you can get them and real them in.
If that doesn't work another thing that is really important about UTI is it is the most common reason that someone will get an antibiotic prescription, and because of that it's been absolutely instrumental in worsening this thing we call the antimicrobial resistance crisis. It's this global crisis where the drugs don't work anymore because the bugs no longer respond to them and if we don't do something about antimicrobial resistance in ten or twenty years, we're looking at massive economic damage and massive loss of life.
So, if you can't get them with a personal story about the man with UTI, you can certainly get them with this antimicrobial global catastrophic crisis that's looming.
Richard: Just spell out if you can the tech behind AtoCap. You've made clear there it's potential in terms of UTI treatment. How much wider could its applications be?
Jennifer: Well, our technology is great because it's a delivery system that can deliver almost anything so at the most, we're focusing on antibiotics but you could take any drug, a known drug, a generic drug, a totally new drug and you can repurpose it with our technology and what that repurposing does is it makes it highly tissue penetrative so our technology allows very deep delivery into the target tissue, the disease for example. It's either an infection or it could be anything. It could be cancer.
It could be any disease where you require the drug to go deep into the tissues and the problem with many drugs, they can be perfectly decent drugs and really good at doing their thing but they cannot access where they need to go to be highly effective so our technology can breathe life into old drugs, generic drugs and give more potential to new drugs. So the future of AtoCap is beyond Urinary Tract Infection. It's to any disease that would benefit from more efficient penetration and actually, that's many diseases.
Richard: It's a tonne of energy and determination to build a business, let alone play a part in the pioneering science and lies behind it as well. So what fuels that drive?
Jennifer: If you want to be rich, you don't become a scientist. The reason I'm doing this is because I'm really really passionate about the patients that we're trying to help.
Richard: In the next part of the discussion, we get a bit closer to Dr Jennifer Rohn the person, including the period when she was on the dole and started writing novels. What motivates you Jenny?
Jennifer: Well, I think there's a lot of reasons why people go into science and a lot of reasons why people go into biotech and I guess some people are chasing money but that's not what I'm doing at all. If you want to be rich, you don't become a scientist. We do decades of training and compared to other professions with the same amount of training, the amount that we're paid is pitiful and I'm not motivated by money at all.
It's nice to be comfortable but the reason I'm doing this is because I'm really really passionate about the patients that we're trying to help so urinary traction infection is typically a disease of women. Like most diseases of women, it's been historically neglected. Women with symptoms are often told by their doctors that it's all in their head. They're often sent home without antibiotics. I've heard so many patient stories. People have been suffering for years and years from urinary tract infections and being dismissed by the health care system as being hysterical or psychosomatic or all sorts of labels.
It's really shocking and I think because women are frequently dismissed and also because this disease affects, you know, women down there. It's sort of embarrassing. You don't want to talk about urinary tract infection. You don't want to think about where it's happening. It's almost taboo. So it's sort of a perfect storm of neglect where UTI research has been just dismally underfunded. There are hardly any people in the world working on it and it's only now with antimicrobial resistance crisis where people are realizing, hey, this is important. We ought to do something about it.
Only now are people starting to notice UTI and they haven't noticed because it's a disease of women so this really makes me angry actually but I like to channel my anger into positivity. Whenever I get angry at something, I think what can I do about it. How can I change this?
I've been just working so hard to try and get this product over the finish line and I think what motivates me is imagining all of those patients somehow benefitting from what I'm doing and that is what wakes me up in the morning and send me off to the lab all excited to do another hard day of work.
Richard: You set out the case for UTI treatment really powerfully there but in the end, AtoCap is a business and you're to it in investors and shareholders so, you know, commercial success is important. Where does that fit in in your spectrum of priorities? The commercial success of a venture like AtoCap?
Jennifer: What is my measure of success? Commercialization is incredibly important. There are a lot of academics who don't think about that. They only think about the abstract scientific problem. It's like a puzzle to solve. I mean, obviously, in the back of their mind, they're thinking, 'Yes, we want to help patients,' but really what they want to do is get papers and publish and find out how things work. You know, it's a big detective story but for me it makes no sense to work in a biomedical research field and not think about commercialization because no matter how many papers you public about an abstract topic it's not going to help anyone until someone translates that into something that's helpful.
So for me, it's silly to do scientific research and not think of that finish line which is the marketed product helping people. So, yes, I'm not at all shy to say that I think that commercialization is very important and I think that more of my colleagues in science ought to be thinking along those lines.
Richard: Let's move the story in another direction. You mentioned there a detective story as a theme. So, thinking about your work away from the science lab and in particular with LabLit where you set up to promote literature that draws on the science of some of its themes, how do you feel about these big initiatives that you've launched that then you have to step back from? How good are you as somebody who passes on the reigns?
Jennifer: That's a tough question. I think it's really hard to let go so there's some things I'm still involved in so I'm still the editor of lablit.com which is my, you know, labour of love to try to draw attention to sciences as human beings and scientists as characters in novels and I can't imagine ever letting that go.
However, there's other things that I've done that I have let go. For example, I organized science is vital which was a grass-roots campaign back in 2010 to raise awareness for the need for science funding and I was the founder and the chair for many years but I eventually did let it go because what I realized was that it couldn't go any further under me.
First of all, I was too oversubscribed, I had too many other things to do, I couldn't do it justice. And second of all, I think that, especially with protest and campaigning, you kind of need to be a bit younger and I don't say this in an ageist kind of way. I just think the older you get the more sort of jaded and frustrated you get with how things are and sometimes it takes a young person who hasn't gone through that to take the reins and breathe new life or fire up a campaign that's starting to stagnant so I think that certain things do benefit from fresh blood and even science is like this, you know.
Scientific teams are very itinerant, you know, lots of turnover. You have people in your lab for four or five years and then they move onto do something else and you get fresh blood into the lab and it really helps you look at things from new angles so, yes, I'm not the best at letting go of things but I have done it and I do it because I know it's for the best.
Richard: Jenny, if you were talking to a young adult now at the start of their career, what one thing would you pick out from your own experience as being of most help to them?
Jennifer: Well I would say to that person, and I would say it to my younger self if I could, you don't have to worry about making a wrong career decision. I think that anything that you choose is the right answer and there is no you out there who took the other root that you can then compare yourself too. Every choice you make is valid I think and my career has been very meandering.
I started out as a typical scientist doing the typical things and I got derailed. I ended up following a person to another country for love and going into biotech and leaving academia. I eventually got on the dole. Lost my job there because biotech was very unstable at the time.
I went into publishing for a few years because I couldn't find a job in science and I eventually found my way back to academic science and now I'm working more with industry and I think really those twists and turns were very traumatic at the time. When I was on the dole, that was when I started writing novels.
So, the funny thing is even when things go wrong, you can sometimes carve out something unique from that so I became a novelist and a writer because I was unemployed because I'd followed this person to another country for love. It's not the kind of thing that I would've planned and it's not the kind of thing that, at the time, felt very comfortable but in retrospect, I can look back at all my crazy decisions and all my ins and outs and backs and forths and things.
You know what? I learned a lot from that experience. It was hard but it made me a stronger person and I learned lots of new skills and I think I watch my younger colleagues agonizing about, 'Oh, god, what should I do next? Should I get a PHD? Should I become a doctor? Should I just leave science and do something else?'
I tell them, every single one of them, I say, 'Listen, there is no wrong decision and nothing is irrevocable.' You can always go back so I left academia but I came back so there's no decision that's permanent and there's no choice that's really wrong.
Richard: Jenny, that's inspirational advice. Thanks very much indeed for talking to us.
Jennifer: Thanks very much.
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