Dr Ivan Coulter: ‘Raising funds is like hunting a moving target’

1 May 2019

Dr Ivan Coulter. Image: Nick Bradshaw

ATXA Therapeutics’ Dr Ivan Coulter on keeping up with the competition in the pharma space.

Dr Ivan Coulter is the CEO of ATXA Therapeutics, a University College Dublin (UCD) life sciences spin-out company located at the UCD Conway Institute.

ATXA is developing novel therapeutic drugs to treat pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) and other conditions in which the target thromboxane receptor pathway is implicated.

Coulter is the founder and former CEO of Sigmoid Pharma, which is now called Sublimity Therapeutics.

He has a BSc and PhD in pharmacology from UCD, as well as an MBA from Cornell University and a diploma from the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants.

‘I prioritise from the outside in, I organise from the inside out’

Describe your role and what you do.

As CEO of an early-stage pharmaceutical development company, a key focus of my role is to ensure that the company’s strategy and funding needs are aligned through key milestones. Raising the funds required to achieve the key milestones is a priority role. Maintaining objectivity to ensure that the company’s resources are aligned with current and future activities is key to having the right balance of in-house and outsourced resources required to achieve the milestones.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

Raising funds is like hunting a moving target. As such, one needs to be nimble in how one’s working life is organised to prioritise, optimise and maximise fundraising activities. In any field of innovation, a company is only as good as it is better than its current or future competitors. I make it a priority to understand the competitive landscape and to position ATXA’s assets not against what is available for PAH patients today, but better than what is expected to be available 10 years from now.

With the continuously updated awareness of the market, I take the time necessary to target and engage with prospective investors – institutional and private – as well as potential development partners and other stakeholders. Having a strong team is a vital component of any innovation-focused company. Being part of the fantastic ATXA team, I am kept up to date on priority activities as they are planned and occur. I prioritise from the outside in, I organise from the inside out.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

Data overload is a challenge and an opportunity. As ATXA is a team, we work to focus on the data we believe to be relevant, while taking cognisance of peripheral data that may prove to be important at different stages of the product innovation cycle. A major challenge for the sector will be pricing.

In PAH, where a patient may not survive beyond three years without treatment and only five years with currently available treatments, the big challenge is to develop therapies that address all drivers of what is a complex disease. Informed data analysis is critical to breaking the complex disease variables into more simple addressable targets.

We believe that ATXA’s lead product, NTP42, will tackle all PAH disease drivers and … it will prove to be efficient in terms of improved patient outcomes, and cost-effective in terms of payers’ needs.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

In the 20 years since the first product was launched for PAH patients, 13 products have been approved. Average survival has improved from three to five years. In the past five to 10 years, our understanding of PAH has improved dramatically.

It is clear that the approved products address effectively on one of about five key disease targets. Other products in development focus mainly on about two other key targets. No product that is approved or is in development addresses all key disease targets. We believe that ATXA’s NTP42 does and that is the opportunity that we are focusing our resources on.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

Personally, I have had a passion for patient health and understanding diseases since my teens. In each disease there are many roads that innovation can follow, in seeking alternative therapies there are many journeys on each road, and for each disease there can be many destinations where a road may lead to.

The current road that I am on was paved by the pioneering work of Prof Therese Kinsella, UCD School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science, and her founding of ATXA. I am delighted to now be on the road which is the ATXA journey.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

In any field of innovation, to stand still or move slowly risks falling behind. To achieve success in innovation is not possible without the vision to see far into the future. To deliver success requires that the mission is carefully planned with rigid flexibility built into it to keep focused on the big goal, but retaining the nimbleness to change course, if or as required.

The biggest learnings have been to ensure that the resources are in place to run certain programmes in parallel. It is not always possible to predict which course will be most successful. As such, if possible, progressing more than one course in parallel takes away some of the guesswork and enhances the probability that the most successful course will not be missed. In summary, raise more than enough funds to achieve the goal and then some.

How do you get the best out of your team?

It starts with recruiting the right team with the right balance of personalities, expertise and experience. Regardless of the role, an essential ingredient is passion. If the people are right for the team and the team’s activities, then giving them the respect and scope to do what is needed is important. Creating a positive environment with a spirit of challenging one another, encouraging all to step up and recognising the contributions, big or small, is, I believe, vital to get the best out of any team.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to be more inclusive?

Innovation doesn’t happen in the stem, but connecting the roots and the leaves is important. Diversity of thinking is critical to successful innovation. As innovation and the data driving innovation become increasingly complex, the need for the best minds to decipher data as well as convert data into successful development programmes will continue to be increasingly important.

‘It is an ecosystem, not an “egosystem”, that is needed’

There is and will continue to be a competition to attract and retain the best minds. Ensuring that the innovation ecosystem is as attractive as possible to encourage interest from an early age, and then creating pathways to careers that will provide opportunities to grow and adapt, will help attract and create opportunities regardless of the person. It is an ecosystem, not an ‘egosystem’, that is needed.

Who is your role model and why?

It is not a person, but a people. All the known and unknown pioneers who have made observations and understood the need to ask why not do better and then, alone or in teams, do better.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I don’t get much time to read, but when I do I like to read biographies and related publications, which provide insights into lives lived and dreams realised, which can inspire us all to believe that we too can be extraordinary.

I also find that The New Yorker magazine cartoons are insightful and provide humorous distractions which trigger the imagination.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

The people around me. Increasingly there are more tools but less resources at our disposal. Giving and getting the best from those that we surround ourselves with is essential to making the most from what we have at our disposal and, where necessary, making what is not yet at our disposal.

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