And then Kellner called
Nine years ago, immunologist Radek Špíšek was on course for a stellar career in medicine. That was until he took up an offer from Petr Kellner, Czech Republic’s richest man, to develop pharmaceutical firm SOTIO: “an ambitious goal for the Czech Republic.”
HN: You co-founded SOTIO nine years ago and became CEO last year. Why did it take so long to take up the CEO role?
I managed to delay becoming CEO for quite a while, and for perfectly good reasons. However, last year I was told by our owner PPF, that I could not dodge my responsibilities forever.
HN: What were your reasons?
The main reason was that I was responsible for the medical and research side of the firm, which is a big job in itself. Apart from that, the problem with many people from a medical or natural sciences background, in my experience, is that we are too nice. At least, I am. Too much empathy, and a tendency not to push people and not to ruffle feathers. So I was afraid I would have to do exactly that if I became director.
HN: And did it happen?
Yes, it does take up the greater part of my work but I must admit I am very proud of myself, because I have learned to do this in spite of my handicap. The firm is running well, and it is running just the way I would like it to. It is developing as a pharmaceutical firm and it is bringing its own medicines to the market.
HN: Who’s idea was it to found SOTIO? The scientists and doctors from Motol Hospital, or PPF?
It was PPF that approached us, more specifically Mr Kellner approached us.
HN: How was the approach made?
Mr Kellner simply called Professor Jiřina Bartůňková, the Head of the Institute of Immunology at Motol, and said he wanted to talk to her.
HN: Mr Kellner himself, in person?
We were surprised too. It took a while for us to believe that it was really him.
HN: And not just someone from the orthopaedic unit playing a trick?
Something like that. The important thing however is that we started talking to PPF about founding SOTIO. I had just returned from a secondment to Rockefeller University in New York. The experience taught me that good research and top-flight medicine is only made possible when an institution has developed links to investors that are willing to put up the funds after an interesting discovery is made. Research is hugely expensive and cannot be funded from the public purse alone. Academics also lack the necessary clinical development know-how.
HN: Have you told Petr Kellner this?
Yes. I have also said that it would be fantastic if some of the wealthier people in the Czech Republic who are considering a move into philanthropy could provide support and links with the academic world. I would never have dreamed that these sorts of meetings would ever result in a company being set up, but it happened, about a year after [the initial approach call took place].
HN: When it materialised, did you immediately know it was something you wanted to do?
Not at all, I am rather indecisive and that was the case then.
HN: Even though you were being offered money for research by the richest man in the Czech Republic?
Initially I had two concerns. Firstly, that I would be spending enormous amounts of the PPF owner’s money without being able to guarantee a profit in the end. And secondly, that the Czech Republic was not a country where research like this could have been done. The clinical development of medicines is a tough discipline that requires experts who know what they are doing. In Europe, the majority of experts can be found in Switzerland, where most of the pharmaceutical firms are based, followed by the US. In the Czech Republic, we don’t have this kind of know-how and so my concern was whether we would be able to create an organisation that would be able to gain this expertise to go on and do what the industry requires.
HN: But you overcame these concerns?
Not entirely. I live with them all the time.
HN: So why did you finally accept PPF’s offer?
Because I saw they were serious about developing a fully-fledged biotechnology firm that would do things properly. And that seriousness is still there. I feel the pressure to make rational use of our resources but I am not afraid of recriminations where a substance fails to fulfil our original expectations. I have the reassurance of knowing that the agreement we made at the start still holds, even if everything turns out to be costlier, longer and riskier than we thought.
HN: I read somewhere that if you have a billion dollars to invest, you would be better off going to a casino than investing in the development of new medicines.
That’s probably right. The odds of winning on a single number in roulette are more than twice as good. Even if you discover a substance that has excellent prospects of becoming a medicine, it still doesn’t mean anything. Only one in eighty reaches the market even then.
HN: Sotio has no revenues? Is it just spending?
The wonderful thing about our business is that the better we do the more we spend. It is not the experiments on cells or mice that cost a lot but it is when these experiments succeed that they lead to large trials on people, which initially involve tens and later hundreds or even thousands of people. And that can add up to millions of dollars for one trial.
HN: How much has PPF invested in this so far?
I could find out but I don’t know. Actually I don’t want to know. I have been tormented from the start by the fact that I am spending someone else’s money and that none of it may produce a return even if I follow all the correct procedures and do nothing wrong. To overstate the case for the purposes of exaggeration, we might invest hundreds of millions of crowns into a research programme, only to see it scrapped if three monkeys develop a fever in a laboratory somewhere in France that is testing a substance for us.
HN: How are you progressing with the two programmes you have in clinical trials?
In relation to the main programme, the one on which we built Sotio, clinical trials based on our research into dendritic cells are under way for three different diseases; lung cancer, ovarian cancer and prostate cancer. The results of the final trial on prostate cancer will probably be known next year.
HN: I have heard that the results look very promising so far?
The results to date are looking very good in some of the programmes. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we have a treatment. I can’t help but smile when a research team or start-up somewhere announces a successful experiment on mice and the media publish an article under the banner of “Czech scientists find new treatment for cancer”, because this is complete nonsense. It is the clinical trials on people that count. The process takes at least five years and usually ten. The only real chance for a new cure comes after success in the final stage. But even after success in the second stage, 70 percent of medicines don’t make it to market.
HN: Are there any signs of how the trials might turn out?
No. And nor can there be. There are incredibly strict rules around this. Not even the doctors are allowed to know whether they are giving patients the substance being trialled or a placebo. We don’t know, and the patients don’t know so we can only wait to see how it turns out.
HN: It was reported all over the world this year that you have had some very good results with a potential cure for ovarian cancer. Do you think the chances look better even there?
It looks very promising. The women in the trail who were given our product are surviving on average two times longer than those who were not given it. In the field of oncology that’s a huge difference. It is an excellent result and it has been presented in a number of large oncological conferences. The same applies to our potential treatment for prostate cancer. We have just one more step to take. The latest results will help PPF decide whether to invest in further testing which will be the final clinical trial – Phase three.
HN: You spoke of two programmes in which clinical trials are under way. What about the other one, did you purchase it?
Yes, we purchased it at a very early stage of the research. It came from a laboratory in France, where I worked in the past. We purchased a protein that stimulates the immune response to tumours. We guided that molecule through ‘the valley of death’, by which I mean the experiments on tissue cultures and mice, and we succeeded in producing it at the sort of quality levels and volumes that meant we could start clinical trials. We have just secured approval for the first trial on this new substance. I view it as my biggest success in nine years at Sotio. It is very significant.
HN: Your firm has over 300 employees, about 50 of whom are in China. Why do you have a laboratory there?
Our ambition is to be global and so we need to test our substances in Europe, America and China. China is a particular special case if you are working with blood. Our substance is produced on an individual basis from the patient’s blood and current laws make it extremely difficult to import blood from Chinese patients into Europe and almost impossible to export the product back to China. Therefore, we decided to build a laboratory there, and one of our colleagues have done a brilliant job within one year.
HN: How often do you go there?
I go about once every three months. The collaboration works very well. We have been conducting pilot research projects over the last three or four years in collaboration with a number of teaching hospitals and we are now planning to apply for a large clinical trial on a substance for treating ovarian cancer.
HN: China is frequently condemned, both on political and economic grounds. What do you think of the country?
I struggle with this of course. I know it is an authoritarian regime, but, on the other hand, every time I go there I am simply amazed – as many other people are. China is a country that tries to act wisely, with long-term plans and high standards. It is growing at a rapid pace. For someone visiting from the Czech Republic, where it takes years to build just a few kilometres of motorway, it is hard to comprehend how they can build a new metro line and a suburb the size of Prague’s district Jižní Město in just three months.
HN: Do the high standards also apply in your field?
Unquestionably. When I visit hospital departments working in fields I am familiar with I can see that everything is top flight, in terms of both the equipment and the expertise. There are doctors there who have worked in the US and then returned home because the government offers them incentives. We – and the Americans in particular – sometimes feel that we are going to China to teach the people over there something. But when you arrive, you sit down with the head of an immunology or oncology department and find out that he speaks perfect English and can discuss the results of studies published just a week before at a conference in Chicago. Either because he was at the conference himself or someone from his team was, and they have already analysed and discussed it. It’s hard to talk about this in the Czech Republic at the moment, but the developments there are fascinating.
HN: What is your greatest luxury, in the ordinary sense of the word?
Perhaps having a few days free of stress. I have a lot of tension over the money we spend and how risky our position is. Every day I receive information from various trials that might put a stop to programmes in which we have invested millions of euros. I find it very hard to get used to that, as I am a sensitive person and I take it quite personally.
HN: How do you combat stress?
In winter I pick up my skis, head for a forest and indulge in five hours of cross country skiing. And during those five hours I get twenty minutes when my mind clears and I feel contented. Then I check my mobile phone and the worries start again.
HN: Wouldn’t you benefit from having longer periods without stress?
Now is not the right time. If SOTIO pulls off a major achievement securing a medicinal product of its own, for example, I would certainly find the time to discuss this with Mr Kellner.
HN: What are your ambitions? What drives you on through that “valley of stress”?
I have discovered something about myself which I never would have expected as a young man. I want to do many things at the same time, and I want to do them well. I want to be an excellent scientist and an excellent doctor, which was the case in the past but is no longer to such an extent, I want to be an excellent father, which is something I hopefully manage to achieve, and I would like to complete the Jizerska 50 cross country ski route in under three hours. But I’ve recently found that my greatest ambition is to make something out of Sotio. To develop it into a major biotechnology firm with research programmes attracting attention worldwide and envied by other firms. The dream is for at least one substance to become a medicine and for us to bring it to market. And then for a green field pharmaceutical company to emerge in the Czech Republic attracting the best know-how and the best people, thus giving another reason for young talent from the Czech Republic to return from abroad.
RADEK ŠPÍŠEK (1975) In his scientific work he focuses on tumour immunology and tumour immunotherapy. He is a Professor at Charles University’s 2nd Faculty of Medicine. He has received postgraduate clinical certification in paediatrics and in allergology and clinical immunology. He graduated from the 1st Faculty of Medicine at Charles University in Prague, and then studied for and received his PhD in immunology. Between 2000 and 2002, he worked at Institut de Biologie of Université de Nantes in France. He spent three years (2005-2007) in the team led by Professor Ralph Steinman, a Nobel laureate in medicine and physiology, at the Laboratory of Cellular Physiology and Immunology / Center for Immunology and Immune Diseases, Rockefeller University, New York. In 2010, he responded to an offer from PPF to build a biotechnology firm and was there at the foundation of Sotio. At first, he worked as a member of the holding company management with responsibility for research and production. “When I wake up in the middle of the night and all of this hits home, sheer terror prevents me from getting back to sleep. It is an incredibly ambitious target for the Czech Republic,” Špíšek says. In March 2018, he was named as the firm’s CEO and he continues to work in research at the same time. Asked how he manages to combine this with managerial work, he answered: “One of the conditions when we established Sotio was that I would be able to carry on doing science and leading students and scientific teams. I have kept this up and I devote about 15 per cent of my time to it every week. People management takes up another forty percent. I am learning on the job and it isn’t as bad as I feared. And the rest is what I enjoy the most. On the one hand I strategically define the programmes we are operating in Sotio and think about how to move them on. And we also seek out further opportunities worldwide. We evaluate new results, meet with small biotech firms and try to identify programmes that might be of interest to us. Here I combine my academic experience with whatever business insights I now have. We are of course competing against other players in this.”
Author: Miloš Čermák