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Product | People | Potential – our chat with Re-Vana Therapeutics

We caught up with Michael O’Rourke, Chief Executive Officer at Re-Vana Therapeutics, which is developing sustained release biologics and small molecule drugs for the eye.

Jazz @ADLIB: Can you please introduce yourself, what Re-Vana does, what stage you are at currently and what makes your business and offering unique?

Michael O’Rourke: My name is Michael O’Rourke, I am the CEO of Re-Vana Therapeutics, I’m based in Tampa, Florida but originally from Glasgow. I have been in the Life Science industry for over 30 years but I have been in the ophthalmic business since 1995.

Re-Vana, which is a spin-out from Queens University in Belfast* started in 2016, I then joined in 2017 as CEO. We are developing sustained release intraocular drug delivery platforms to deliver proteins and small molecules to treat serious eye diseases. Current standard treatment for serious eye diseases, such as macular degeneration or diabetic eye disease, is to receive frequent injections into the eye, usually every month or every 2 months. Although these drugs work pretty well it is a significant burden on these patients, particularly as a lot of them are dependent on friends and family to accompany them to the clinic, as they are unable to drive after the injection. Frequent injections in the eye may also be uncomfortable.

We are incorporating an anti-VEGF drug into one of our sustained release technologies to allow sustained delivery of the drug to the eye for prolonged periods of time, 6 months or more. It is all about prolonging the effect of the drug within the eye and therefore reducing the frequency of injections required. Nobody has yet been able to deliver a sustained release large molecule, a protein or antibody-type drug, to the eye, so that is the primary focus of Re-Vana. Commonly when delivered to the eye a protein gets denatured, or the delivery vehicle may cause inflammation within the eye, but Re-Vana has overcome these challenges by developing a way for the proteins to remain bioactive in the eye. The drug is photocrosslinked, using UV light, into a very small implant, where the drug is protected by a matrix which prolongs the bioactivity of the protein and enables sustained release drug delivery to the eye.

We have a two-fold strategy, firstly, to incorporate a known drug, generics or biosimilars, into our delivery platform and take that to market. And secondly, we are working with partners in collaboration to utilise our platform with their own proprietary therapeutics to successfully achieve sustained delivery.

Once I joined Re-Vana we raised a Seed round of funding within 6 months, from mainly UK investors, we also had fantastic support from Queens University. In addition, we secured an Innovate UK grant. We raised another round of Capital last May, bringing in three leading American Ophthalmic VC groups, as well as our existing investors in the UK.

*Queens for two years in a row is now the number one university in Britain to take spin-outs towards commercialisation and IPO stage.
Ref. *Research to Riches, Entrepreneurial Impact Ranking 2019”. Measuring the success of UK universities in converting research into successful companies (Octopus Ventures Nov 2019).

Jazz @ADLIB: Can you share the story behind the origin of Re-Vana and your Product?

Michael O’Rourke: Our two founders are both employees at Queens University, Dr Raj Thakur and Professor David Jones, they put together the origins of the company and I came in to run it. We have built a team based mainly in Belfast with several full-time employees, some post-doc’s and some PhD students.

Today there is between $7-8 billion worth of drugs injected into eyes every year, this represents a major opportunity as these are all injected at one or two month intervals, we can reduce the frequency of this.

Jazz @ADLIB: Speaking of People, can you share some challenges you have faced, are facing or are anticipating around scaling and growing your team, particularly as an international company?

Michael O’Rourke: Re-Vana started with the team at Queens in Belfast, all working part time as academics or as students, I was the first full-time team member. With the research based in Belfast, myself in Florida and a Vice President of R&D based in London the travel restriction due to COVID has been a challenge. The travel restrictions have allowed us to perfect our model to become a virtual company. The team in Belfast have, thankfully, had access to the lab throughout COVID so we have been able to continue progress despite travel limitations.

Another challenge has been finding people with the relevant experience, as we are quite a niche company, but the ability to work virtually has given us more freedom to utilise people and skills from all over the world.

Jazz @ADLIB: Moving to Product, what has been your approach to understanding and implementing product market fit or sales cycles?

Michael O’Rourke: The primary goal is to create a sustained release implant to reduce the number of injections that patients require, specifically a large-molecule protein product, because it hasn’t been done previously. There is potentially only one other company looking to do this but we think that the competitive advantages that Re-Vana can offer means that we can overcome any challenges.

We actually have two delivery technologies, the implant (previously mentioned) which is photocrosslinked before it goes into the eye, and an in-situ gel product which we inject into the eye. Once in an aqueous solution like the vitreous, the injected gel forms an implant which delivers drugs to the back of the eye. These two can both be used for the sustained release of drugs and present a nice balance of technologies for us to take forward.

Jazz @ADLIB: And then Potential, can you share some challenges or barriers you had to overcome to create a Product with potential?

Michael O’Rourke: The obvious challenge has been COVID, losing the face-to-face team contact, also losing the ability to attend meetings and being able to present in-person to investors and larger industry groups. The ophthalmic industry has great opportunities to present to investors at innovation forums, these occurred online during the pandemic, they worked quite well but they still don’t compare to the personal interactions. Trying to raise capital when you can’t meet with people is a challenge, however we managed to bring in three new leading U.S. ophthalmic venture capital companies, which was the first time all three had invested in the same company.

We are also taking on the challenge of creating something completely new, there is no recipe to follow, so in many ways we are creating science as we go along, discovering new techniques and discovering new ideas of delivering ocular biologics.

But in general, all young companies are going to face challenges, and these highlight the importance of having a Plan B and a Plan C in order to be flexible and adaptable to the changing market. The other general challenge is the financial challenge – every single Dollar counts.

Jazz @ADLIB: Investment can often be a challenge for start-ups & scale-ups. Do you have any piece of wisdom you could share around best approach?

Michael O’Rourke: As mentioned we raised a Seed round in 2017 and a pre series A round last year (2020), we were also awarded an Innovate UK grant, but we are planning the next capital round this year. As a start-up you have to look at many different potential sources of Capital and have to know what the product is going to be – the idea has to better and different to anything else. IP needs to be considered as well, if there is no potential to get a Patent it is not worth the hard work.

Ultimately for investment and starting a company you have to consider the selling point of the idea, who is the competition (now and in the future), the potential for a patent and get all the basics aligned. The quality of the team is also very important, and I’m lucky we have a great team at Re-Vana along with our many world class consultants and advisors.