Jonathan Milner is an Angel investor across the life sciences, supporting early-stage companies throughout their journey with funding and guidance. Since his time as founder and CEO of Abcam he has provided considerable support to over 60 companies, and has assisted three technology companies to IPO on the AIM market of the London Stock exchange.
Since 2012, Jonathan has furthered his investments across the life science industry through Meltwind Advisory LLP, where he holds the position of Executive Director and CEO. Jonathan is also currently Chairman of Axol Bioscience Ltd and Camallergy Ltd, and non-executive director at PhoreMost Ltd, Syndicate Room Ltd, Start Codon Ltd and Healx Ltd.
This month, the BioIndustry Association (BIA) awarded Jonathan its highest accolade, the Lifetime Achievement Award, in recognition of his long-standing and remarkable contribution to the UK life sciences sector through his roles as both entrepreneur and investor, and his commitment to supporting and scaling innovative early-stage life science and high-tech companies.
In a year where scientific innovation in bioscience has proven more important than ever, attracting global attention and seeing enormous progress across the field, it seems even more significant to receive this award.
We spoke with Jonathan to reflect on his career, and his appreciation to the BIA.
What does this award mean to you?
This award means everything. It’s an amazing feat that I’ve been able to receive it and, in such a year full of unprecedented scientific progress, I’m hugely grateful to BIA for honouring me. It truly means an incredible amount.
Of all your accomplishments, which are you most proud?
The achievement that immediately comes to mind, and where it all began, is founding Abcam. Seeing this company grow to become the world’s leading supplier of research tools in the proteomics space has been enormously gratifying.
Since then, I am proud to have worked closely with young entrepreneurs, CEOs, and start-up companies across a diverse range of life science sectors—including Darrin M. Disley on Mogrify, Mark Kotter on bit.bio, Daniel Ives on Shift Bioscience, and Alex Blyth on LIfT BioSciences—to guide their innovative technologies to fruition.
In particular, I remember speaking with Chris Torrance at The Eagle in Cambridge, back in 2007, to discuss his idea for Horizon Discovery—now a global company with over 400 employees and unmatched in its gene editing portfolio. Come 2014, Chris and I were back in discussion for his new idea for PhoreMost, harnessing a novel phenotypic screening platform to discover and design therapeutics toward targets traditionally deemed ‘undruggable’..
It was also in 2014 that I sat down with Professor David Brown (named co-inventor on the patent for Viagra) and Tim Guilliams at the Cambridge Judge Business School and spoke about their plan for Healx, an AI-based platform that accelerates drug discovery for treatment of rare diseases.
I have been incredibly fortunate to connect with a vast network of forward-thinking entrepreneurs over the years.
Looking back, what advice would you give yourself at the start of your career, or to entrepreneurs now starting out?
Looking back at the pain I endured to transition from academic to entrepreneur, my advice would be to enjoy the journey—much earlier than I did. There will always be challenges, from financial to digital to product-related, it wasn’t until I started to enjoy my work despite these barriers that I began to improve. To enjoy what you do is the key to progress.
It’s also important that, no matter the problem faced, you never give up! Experience is invaluable, and the more you gain, the better prepared you will be.
And then looking ahead, what are your goals and aspirations for the coming years?
I am pleased to say, ‘more of the same’! Despite much interest, I have resisted the urge to create a venture capital fund, and my focus for the future will be to continue to invest in innovative early-stage life science and high-tech companies, working on syndicate rounds with Mike Murphy and Oliver Sims at Meltwind Advisory. This year alone, I have invested approximately £20M and I hope to increase this moving forward.
One of the most exciting fields, for me at this moment, is the cell therapy space. I think that companies working within this space will have a real impact on areas with high unmet clinical need, including Mogrify—which is using its cellular reprogramming platforms (MOGRIFY® and epiMOGRIFY) to pioneer a new class of in vivo reprogramming therapies and transform ex vivo therapy development; and bit.bio— which is using its opti-ox technology to enable highly efficient and consistent reprogramming of human cells for use in research, drug discovery, and cell therapy.
Outside of cell therapy, there are a number of companies I am supporting that are making great strides with impressive technologies, such as PhoreMost, Healx and LIfT BioSciences—to name a few.
What changes have you seen over your lifetime in the biological sector?
The changes that have occurred in the biological sector since studying my A-levels are astounding. Biology has completely transformed and, from my perspective, there are several key revolutions that have taken place, in cell therapy, immunotherapy, artificial intelligence (AI), drug discovery, the human genome, and healthspan.
The cell programming discoveries of Professor Sir John Gurdon and Professor Shinya Yamanaka have revolutionised cell therapy, with companies like Mogrify and bit.bio at the forefront of development. This in turn has driven great changes in the immunotherapy field—for example, LIfT BioSciences is now developing an ‘off-the-shelf’ cell therapy to target solid tumours, irrespective of strain or mutation, with an initial focus on pancreatic cancer.
New platform technologies are transforming the AI and drug discovery space. Healx is using its AI-based platform to improve drug discovery for rare diseases and deliver effective treatments to patients with high unmet need, and PhoreMost is using its next-generation phenotypic screening platform, SITESEEKER®, to develop first-in-class drug discovery programmes for previously ‘undruggable’ targets.
Companies such as Shift Bioscience are driving the healthspan, or ‘ageing’, revolution, using machine learning technology to identify drugs that safely reset cells and tissues to a youthful state, and I expect this area of research to be the ‘next big thing’.
You often refer to this time as the “golden age of biotechnology.” What do you see as the major challenges currently facing the sector, and what could be done to address these?
The premise of how I invest is to address unmet needs and challenges in the therapeutics sector and, currently, a major issue is that it’s too expensive and takes too long to bring drugs to market, and there is a high failure rate.
How can we get drugs to market quicker, cheaper, and more effectively? The majority of my portfolio companies are working to address this question through the development of new technologies that rise to meet it.
Novel platform technologies are improving drug discovery and development, and underpin many of the key life science revolutions I mentioned previously—in my opinion, it is the companies working in this space that will continue to drive scientific success.