Having had an appetite to set up his own company for many years, Darren Cunningham (MAcc 94) co-founded Inflection Biosciences in 2012. Since then, the biotech has started creating a pipeline of innovative cancer drugs – including one that may have great potential in the treatment of lung cancer – through partnerships with leading research organisations. Last year, the company was named the best start-up at Ireland’s Pharma Industry Awards.
About Darren Cunningham
Tell us a bit about your education and early career
I come from a family business background so I was always likely to do business or end up in business. Even as a kid in school I always envisaged doing my own thing in business (if not playing for Manchester United of course). I grew up right next door to UCG, as it was called then, so the BComm there was an obvious choice. I also figured that getting an accountancy qualification would be a good route to management so completed my master of accounting in the Smurfit Business School in 1994 before completing my articles in PricewaterhouseCoopers to become a qualified chartered accountant. After qualifying I took what seemed like an obligatory year off backpacking in Australia.
In 1998, I secured my first job in industry as group finance executive with the global manufacturing company Glen Dimplex – a great Irish company success story, which allowed me gain my initial experience in the area of mergers and acquisitions.
While I was getting good experience at Dimplex, I felt the industry wasn’t for me. I moved on to a strategic planning role at Elan Corporation plc, an Irish biotechnology company developing cutting-edge treatments for central nervous system disorders. I’ll always remember my first day on the job in Elan – I was handed an annual report of a biotech company that was involved in developing drugs for brain diseases. On reading the introductory note in the report on how the brain works I was hooked there and then and had a desire to learn more about the various disease states and how the industry works to develop drugs and treatments for diseases. That was 15 years ago and I’m still reading, still learning and still involved.
In 2002, I went to UK-based Amarin Corporation plc, where my role involved strategic planning, business development, intellectual property management and a level of operations management, and working directly with the CEO. I was lucky to be given considerable autonomy early on, which was a huge motivator for me. I got a tremendous understanding of how to raise money for biotech, how to acquire products and companies and how to protect inventions with patents, as well as starting to establish my own international network of contacts. I realised that these were some of the key pieces of the puzzle for setting up a biotech company.
While I was getting great experience at Amarin and was working with excellent people, I always felt I wanted to do my own thing. That never left me throughout college and throughout work. I definitely had an appetite to take a risk.
I finished up with Amarin in 2010 in conjunction with a company reorganisation. I started looking for my next career step. One thing that stood out for me was that I had very few contacts in Ireland, very little in the way of a network, given that I spent all my time travelling and pretty much all of it in the US, where I had a large number of contacts in terms of VCs, investment banks, pharma companies and biotechs. So, while I was starting to understand the landscape for biotech in Ireland I set up Life Science Ventures in response to requests from a number of owners of indigenous life science companies to assist them in executing deals; the same stuff I was doing at Amarin but this time providing that service under my own name.
That required a step up in my selling skills to secure projects. Executing these projects under my own name also brought a much bigger sense of achievement.
How did that lead to you setting up Inflection Biosciences?
By late 2011 I did get a couple of job offers and had to make a big decision. The security that a job would offer was of course attractive, but the greater challenge in my mind was to establish a biotech. The LSV experience gave me the confidence to back myself. In many ways setting up a biotech company was the next logical step.
I had long since realised that in this industry you didn’t need to invent new technologies or treatments to start up in biotech, rather you need to be able to identify excellent discoveries made elsewhere and then negotiate a licence to commercialise those discoveries, and from there to raise the money to make it happen.
In teaming up with Dr Michael O’Neill, a former big pharma drug development executive, to co-found Inflection Biosciences along with John Scanlan in early 2012 we believed we had a highly complementary skills set to succeed.
We started out with a combined mission to set up a biotech but had no firm grasp of what kind of biotech that would be. We ultimately chose to focus on cancer for a number of reasons. First, is the unmet need – one in three people get cancer and despite the great progress over the last 30 years there is a huge range of cancers where there is little prospect. Secondly, there’s more venture capital money going into cancer than any other sector. And thirdly, there are more business deals between small biotech and big pharma companies in cancer than any other space. There were very strong commercial reasons for us to choose cancer as the focus for our new biotech.
We spent over a year reviewing discoveries in cancer treatment – we contacted around 200 universities and institutes around the globe and looked at around 150 of these. We made our first breakthrough in 2013 when we landed a pipeline of potential breakthrough treatments from the prestigious Spanish National Cancer Research Institute (CNIO) in Madrid. That allowed us to secure funding so we were on our way from that point.
As of early 2015 we have raised over €1.2m, have some of the most prestigious cancer research institutes around the world studying our molecules, our potential drugs, and have identified what we believe is our most promising potential drug. We see it as having considerable promise in lung cancer, where treatment options are extremely limited. A drug like this could generate over US$1bn per annum once it’s approved by the regulatory authorities. We have also succeeded in securing funding from the biggest private funder in the world of multiple myeloma research.
There has always been a global aspect to Inflection Biosciences: our screening activity (to secure our pipeline programmes) was global, our collaborations are global and our service providers are global. But where there’s an opportunity to work in Ireland, we certainly do that and we have excellent collaborations with Trinity College Dublin and NUIG. We were pleased for the stakeholders in Inflection to be recognised at the Pharma Industry Awards last year when we won Start-up Company of the Year. We were also shortlisted in the Best Emerging UK Biotech Company category at the OBN Annual Awards this year.
What are your plans for the company in the immediate future?
Going forward, the plan is to progress the best of our pipeline drugs into the clinic over the next few years. That will require investment of over €10m. Should we get positive data from the initial (Phase I) clinical trials that should give us a platform of options, whether we raise more money or secure partnership with a big pharma. But that’s the big milestone we’re working towards at the moment. All the focus is on getting the drug candidates into cancer patients.
Can you tell us a bit about your leadership style?
At Inflection, given the virtual nature of the business, there’s not a large team to lead or manage at the moment. Instead, we manage dozens of service providers from around the world feeding into us. I would say that I am very focused and hardworking and I do set high standards and I’d like to think that influences how we go about our business at Inflection.
What is your philosophy in business and in life?
In life, health and family are paramount and it’s extremely important to keep your perspective no matter what’s going on. On the business side of things, I find that time seems to go quicker as we get older. So I’m a big believer in taking a chance, a calculated risk and then working hard at it. There should be no regrets.
Who or what are your key influences?
I’ve definitely been influenced by my father, who set up his own business. Retired from business now, he was courageous and ambitious and very much self-styled as a businessman and did things in his own way and remained true to himself. He took risks that didn’t always work out but it certainly made for a full, interesting career and he managed to do that while all the time keeping family at the centre. That approach certainly has inspired how I go about my business and my dealings with people.
In terms of other general influences, any time I go to the States I’m hugely impressed by the ambition there and the capacity to take a risk. The superb can-do spirit always fills me with great hope for the future. I’d highly recommend getting out to the US for anybody involved in business, because it’s a great way of renewing your enthusiasm, vision and the ambition you might have for your company.
What are your tips and advice for success?
There’s still a bit to go before I could ascribe success to Inflection. But you have to back and believe in yourself and take the calculated risks and beware of procrastination. And it’s important to try to build a network of people you can trust who may be able to help you along the way. As an entrepreneur, you’re in a position where you can make a positive impact on society. That’s worth working at and fighting for.
Do you have plans for the future outside Inflection?
I regularly see opportunities and have thoughts about different projects but the reality is there is still a huge amount to do at Inflection. What I look forward to at Inflection in the coming years is when we start to treat cancer patients with our new treatments for the first time. How those patients respond to our treatments could be a hugely pivotal moment on a number of levels.
What are your main interests outside of work?
Family – my wife and I have four young children so I like to spend as much time as possible with them. It’s a good balance to have. Exercise is also an interest – I do a bit of running and the highlight of my running calendar is the 8k Streets of Galway, which is a nice opportunity to get back home. I also play golf – less so these days, but I do enjoy getting out.