P | P | P – our chat with Oxford Cannabinoid Technologies

We caught up with Clarissa Sowemimo-Coker, General Counsel at Oxford Cannabinoid Technologies, and Valentino Parravicini, the Chief Scientific Officer. Oxford Cannabinoid Technologies is a biopharmaceutical company established to combine cannabinoid medicine with world class scientific research.

The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with great potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real-talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.

Zoe @ADLIB: Hi Clarissa and Valentino, great to meet you! Please, can you kick us off with an introduction to yourselves and Oxford Cannabinoid Technologies?

Clarissa: My name is Clarissa Sowemimo-Coker, I’m the General Counsel and Company Secretary at Oxford Cannabinoid Technologies (‘OCT’). I joined OCT shortly after it was created and am responsible for all legal aspects of the business, including transactions, compliance and regulation associated with OCT’s research of controlled substances.

Valentino: And my name is Dr Valentino Parravicini. I recently joined OCT as the Chief Scientific Officer. I am a scientist by background, specialising in the fields of oncology, inflammation, and immunology. I have previously led innovative work in pharma and biotech focussed on small molecule and cell therapy approaches to autoimmunity and haematological malignancies. I am responsible for overseeing all of OCT’s ongoing drug discovery and development studies.

OCT is a start-up biotechnology company researching the prospective medical benefits of cannabinoids – the naturally occurring compounds found in the cannabis plant. Most historic research completed on cannabis has only been carried out on the known major cannabinoids (namely, THC and CBD). But there are hundreds of other minor cannabinoids that have barely been explored, and that is what we are doing. Our goal is to become the global leader in developing prescription medicines that target the endocannabinoid system and address significant unmet medical needs.

OCT is currently funding research programmes in four therapeutic areas: oncology, pain, neurology, and immunology. Our lead compound is OCT461201, believed to be a potentially effective treatment for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (“IBS”) and other diseases. We are currently in pre-clinical development studies on the OCT461201 compound, including on drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics (DMPK), safety pharmacology and toxicology.

Zoe @ADLIB: Can you share the story behind the origin of Oxford Cannabinoid Technologies?

Clarissa and Valentino: OCT is the brainchild of our Chairman, Neil Mahapatra. Neil read biology at the University of Oxford before pursuing a career in finance, culminating in him setting up Kingsley Capital Partners, a private equity and venture capital firm headquartered in London.

Shortly after setting up Kingsley, Neil’s mother was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer and, as a result, he began to read into novel pieces of research and treatments that could potentially help, which led him to cannabis.

Over the last ten years, a growing body of anecdotal evidence has been established suggesting that cannabinoids could provide effective treatment for a range of acute and chronic conditions, including cancer. But more rigorous research is needed to understand fully the role they could play in medicine.

Neil was intrigued, and so went to speak with his old Biology professor at the University of Oxford and, together, they started to formulate the beginnings of a research programme. That meeting was the genesis of OCT.

Neil created the company and, through Kingsley, provided seed funding to get it under way. Since then, OCT has gone from strength to strength – it has successfully undertaken several fundraising rounds, winning backing from large institutional investors, and is now privileged to support a wide range of research projects at a number of leading academic institutions in the UK.

Zoe @ADLIB: Can you share some challenges you have faced when looking for people to join?

Clarissa and Valentino: We are firm believers in putting people at the heart of company culture. You need to hire good people and then get out of their way (whilst giving them the support they need to thrive!). We’re very proud of the culture we have created here.

A core focus for us has always been about maintaining quality and not pursuing growth at any and all cost. The cannabis world comes with a certain reputation, and for the market to be legitimised, the actors in it must be utterly professional, and that means no cutting corners!

Working with an institution such as Oxford University adds weight and legitimacy to what we are doing. But we also place a great deal of emphasis on having highly experienced and professional personnel in-house. Our Chief Commercial Officer, Dr John Lucas, for example is a qualified patent attorney with a PhD in Molecular Genetics and over 15 years executive experience in biotechnology operations and IP.

I think the best advice we could give to other start-ups is to focus on the quality of your hires and to take your time to get your culture right, but don’t be afraid to evolve it as you grow. One mistake that companies can often make when scaling is to try to just preserve that initial start-up culture, rather than iterating and evolving into something new as you add more people to the team.

Zoe @ADLIB: What challenges have you had to overcome to create OCT?

Clarissa and Valentino: An immediate barrier to cannabinoid research is the regulatory hurdles involved. In the UK, cannabis is still a controlled substance so, to progress our projects, we were required to get a licence from the Home Office.

There is also a certain stigma attached to cannabis because of its association with recreational use. We see our role as very much helping to break down that stigma. It is important to use a systematic approach to drug discovery and development, addressing the shortfalls of historical anecdotal or un-structured research, which can lead to incomplete or even conflicting findings. By deepening understanding of the molecular actions of cannabinoids, we are helping to create an evidence base that will enable medical professionals, policymakers, and the media to feel confident about the prescription and use of cannabinoid-based medications.

Zoe @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?

Clarissa and Valentino: Generating long-term value means building long-term relationships with your investors, which is the bedrock for any successful and sustainable partnership between a business and its investors. We maintain a continuous and open dialogue with our investment partners and keep them regularly updated about the progress we are making.

We also take a very inclusive and internationalist approach to investment, meaning that, just because we are headquartered in London it doesn’t mean only investors in the UK will be interested in what we are doing. We would encourage other start-ups to explore different markets. It’s not just about finding pools of capital, but interesting and novel ways of approaching issues you think you already know how to manage. There are always new things to learn, and we’re always very open to new ways of looking at issues.

We believe this kind of approach has served us well, and think it could be of benefit to lots of start-ups and scale-ups across a wide range of sectors.

Thank you so much for your time.

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Zoe Davies