As CEO of Oxford Nanopore, Gordon Sanghera’s mission recalls the Martini Declaration of the 1970s: to enable analysis of “anything, by anyone, anywhere.”
One of those rare beasts is the genome sequencing company, which he co-founded and runs from the University of Oxford, and is an independent UK biotech company listed on the London Stock Exchange.
Sangira, which toured Oxford Nanopore last fall, is determined to stay that way, rather than fall into the hands of a foreign buyer. So much so that he has “anti-catch arrows” so he can ward off unwanted predators.
Warning: Gordon Sangira says buyouts by British firms have given US an advantage in genetic sequencing
His commitment to supporting UK biotech stands in stark contrast to some of the other chief executives who were more than happy to sell it to the highest bidder.
The weakness of the British pound has made innovative British companies attractive targets, especially for American buyers. “They are not for sale,” say Sanghera (61) and his fellow filmmakers.
Major shareholders include IP Group, a UK-listed company that invests in innovation, China’s Tencent and Abu Dhabi’s G42.
One of the company’s first backers was Neil Woodford, the disgraced fund manager, and American investor Acacia, which bought some of his holdings, still has a stake.
“Based on my communications with investors, I think most of them understand that there is value within the company that will not materialize in a sale in the near term,” Sanghera says.
Oxford Nanopore entered the stock market last year alongside a handful of other startups, including takeaway platform Deliveroo.
Lord Hill published a review in spring 2021 aimed at making the city more attractive to drive. But the Ukraine war and rising interest rates have had a chilling effect so far this year, and Oxford Nanopore shares have fallen sharply.
“When we launched the market, the market was in a very different place than it is today,” says Sanghera.
“Consider the peer group [US tech market] Nasdaq, some of them dropped significantly.
The decision to float the company in London ran counter to the prevailing trend for British technology and biotech companies to list on the Nasdaq.
Semiconductor giant Arm is currently looking to float in the US while Cambridge biotech company Abcam is abandoning its UK listing on AIM and moving to the US.
The stereotypical belief among tech founders is that London is a second-rate place, with grumbling investors who have struggled to make sense of the latest science and technology.
Sanghera had nothing to do and said: ‘I want to show that it can be done here. People say that in the UK we don’t have the capital, we don’t have the ambition, we don’t have the experience or the right people. I just don’t think that’s true.
“Someone has to take a stand.”
“Too many life sciences and technology companies are being sold in the UK,” he adds. He cites the example of Solexa, a biotech company founded by former Cambridge scientists, which was bought in 2007 by the American company Illumina for £600 million.
It was a high price, but the deal enabled the American company to become the world’s dominant DNA sequencing company. Illumina is now worth $35bn (£29bn), even after the recent share price rally. If so, in hindsight it appears that Solexa was a good buy. It shows how the UK missed the opportunity to develop a multibillion pound British champion, allowing the US to reap the benefits.
Sanghera obtained his first degree in chemistry at Cardiff University, followed by a PhD in bioelectronic technology, partly to escape an arranged marriage.
He went to work at Medisense, a glucose monitoring company. Its sale for $876 million to the American company Abbott Laboratories in the mid-1990s had a formative influence on his views.
“One good reason not to acquire is that you can lose the drive to innovate,” he says. This happened to Medisense. It can kill the goose that laid the golden egg.
His 1.3 percent stake in Oxford Nanopore has made him a millionaire, but he comes from a humble background. The son of Indian immigrants, he grew up in Swindon with his father, grandparents, four aunts and three brothers in a four-bedroom house. His mother died when he was 11 years old.
He said starting his own company at the age of 43 was due to an early midlife crisis.
It has been a long and difficult journey at times, with problems including patent disputes and the demise of Woodford, who was a major supporter.
The company is still making losses and focuses, he says, more on growth than profit – the plan is to break even by 2026.
In terms of the technology, the big selling point is that Oxford Nanopore can cut the cost and time involved in gene analysis.
It relies on passing DNA fragments through tiny holes – nanopores – and measuring how electrical currents are disrupted, which can then be decoded to determine the DNA sequence. The main advantage is that much longer DNA strands can be sequenced and analyzed in real time.
The devices developed by the company include the MinION, which is being used at Oslo University Hospital to show that brain tumors can be classified by methylation – a biochemical process in the body – in less than 91 minutes. This is enough time to return the results to the operating table during surgery.
The company helped identify and track the spread of Covid in 85 countries and determined 18 percent of all coronavirus genomes.
She has a partnership with Genomics England using nanopore sequencing in cancer research, as well as being involved in a study on drug-resistant tuberculosis, along with pilot projects to protect endangered animal species and research into virus-resistant crops. It recently signed an agreement with G42, the Abu Dhabi group and one of its largest shareholders, to work on a large-scale population genomics program.
Skeptics question whether Oxford Nanopore can compete with major rivals in the United States and whether the company’s relationships with Woodford and IP Group are too close for comfort.
Biotech is certainly not a sector for the genteel investor, especially those unfamiliar with science, who will have a hard time distinguishing between a true genetic genius and a charlatan.
The company is strengthening its board with a new chairman, former Ocado CFO Duncan Tatton Brown.
“The biggest challenge for us is the growing pains. “We’re in the mountains and we’re growing fast,” says Sanghera.
He believes moves to give pension funds and other large investors more room to invest in start-ups and innovative unlisted companies could give the UK “some room for fund growth – there is a real opportunity”.
“In biotech, if you look at academic output in the UK, we’re overweight in terms of inventions,” he says, but argues that while we have a lot of start-ups, we’re missing the next stage, scale.
“It’s a desert there. Sometimes you feel alone – the loneliness of a long-distance runner. You have to show that you can cross the desert and they will follow you.
Our ambition is to be a global player in biotechnology. There’s no reason we can’t live up to it from here in the UK.
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