‘Precision testing for patients is undergoing a revolution’

2 Aug 2017

Peter Keeling, CEO, Diaceutics. Image: Kevin Boyes/Press Eye

This week on Leaders’ Insights, Diaceutics CEO Peter Keeling tells us how he built a successful company on the premise that better testing leads to better treatment for patients.

Peter Keeling founded Diaceutics in 2006. With previous experience at GSK and Diagnology, he has led the company through various shifts in the pharmaceutical industry, maintaining a focus on precision medicine.

Last April, Diaceutics announced 30 new jobs and signed a five-year, multimillion-euro deal with US-based BioReference Laboratories to gain access to real-time data to help improve patient testing.

Keeling recently spoke to Siliconrepublic.com about the role of data and AI in testing the right patients for the right drug.

‘To date, we estimate that we have helped over half a million cancer patients get better by enabling faster access to the right drugs in multiple markets’

Describe your role and what you do.

I am founder and CEO of Diaceutics. Since founding the company in 2006, my role has changed at least three times. Initially, I was focused on breathing life into the business, hiring a few core team members and developing the business strategy. From about 2009 to 2015, my focus shifted to hiring and developing the management team, who would oversee a 50pc year-on-year growth of the business.

Finally, over the past two years, I have been able to rely on the management team to grow the business while I returned to the original vision of expanding our leadership in precision medicine with clients and investors via exciting new products and partnerships.

One of the hardest things to do, I think, in growing a business, is to pivot frequently as a leader and I anticipate there will be a few more pivots as we grow the company.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

Personally, I plan three months ahead and keep a route map constantly updated and sitting on my desk in front of me. I revisit this every week and adjust weekly priorities, balancing the three-month route map with ongoing business priorities.

Also, as precision medicine is growing and changing rapidly, at Diaceutics we have found a monthly management meeting essential, so a lot of my focus goes on prepping for, and following up on, that meeting to support the management team.

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

There are two major challenges in precision medicine right now.

The first is the sheer complexity of integrating better testing into the patient pathway in a way that enables more patients to get access to the right therapy at the right time. We address this one by investing in bigger and smarter testing data, which allows us to understand and analyse the barriers for patients while helping our pharma clients right-size their investments in diagnostics.

The second challenge is providing a quality ‘change management’ service – not just in the US, but in the top 10 global markets, including Europe, China and Japan. To address this challenge, we have invested heavily in building a globally based team and laboratory network with a focus on implementing quality patient testing in key laboratories.

To date, we estimate that we have helped over half a million cancer patients get better by enabling faster access to the right drugs in multiple markets. This is something that we are immensely proud of in the company.

‘Despite the uncertain trajectory of precision medicine at the time, we instead focused ever more on building our capability to change testing for patients seeking treatment’

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

Precision testing for patients is undergoing a revolution right now. New genetic discoveries about our diagnostic health, combined with new types of tests, are radically changing patient treatment choices for the better. The number of therapies on the market that are dependent on better testing is set to double every year for at least the next five years. We anticipated this convergence of testing and treatment in forming Diaceutics and have remained way out in front of our competition by focusing solely on this space.

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

I guess it was being in the right place at the right time with the right data. Diaceutics started from a simple question: ‘Is it possible to prove to the pharmaceutical industry that better testing leads to better treatment and that pharma companies should focus more time on integrating testing into their treatment-centric business model?’

We presented some initial research on this at a pharmaceutical strategy meeting in Miami way back in 2006. Two senior pharmaceutical executives in the audience from GSK and AstraZeneca reached out and said they were exploring this same question internally and asked if we could help them. These companies continue to be clients today and over the subsequent years, we have added some 30 leading pharma clients to the list of those who are actively integrating testing into their business model. As 70pc of our business is repeat business, it shows the efficacy of the service we offer.

Today, we don’t only prove how testing improves treatment decisions; we have evolved our business to actively implement the changes at the laboratory level required to make this happen.

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

Prior to starting Diaceutics, I founded and ran a single technology diagnostics company. Despite huge success in developing tests and getting them FDA approved, I completely underestimated what was required to change healthcare practice. So, whilst the technology was excellent, high levels of education and investment were required to drive adoption by physicians and laboratories.

Today, whilst we are not developing our own tests at Diaceutics (our pharma clients will often have developed tests already with diagnostic partners), we have completely shifted our focus instead to the barriers to test adoption, regardless of the test technology. In this way, we help our pharma clients impact real changes to patients’ lives more quickly.

‘In growing a high-functioning company, you have to articulate the vision clearly and then become an expert listener’

How do you get the best out of your team?

To address the complexity of the precision medicine challenge, we have had to build a multidisciplinary skilled team in Diaceutics. Our culture today seeks to integrate diagnostics and clinical laboratory experts alongside big data scientists and executives familiar with pharmaceutical commercialisation and business management.

We have had the opportunity to carefully and collectively craft the culture of the company to focus on innovation and patient impact. I think of the company culture as belonging to all of us, not just me, and all of us have an obligation to nurture and grow it.

Ultimately, however, in growing a high-functioning company, you have to articulate the vision clearly and then become an expert listener, since, by listening to your team, you will discover the barriers in the way of that vision.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to effect change?

Diaceutics is a global group of experts, so, from a geographical and cultural point of view, we’re quite a diverse organisation. There is a value and richness in having a variety of perspectives in an organisation and we are certainly benefiting from that. I think that change is coming and hopefully organisations like Diaceutics can help to set an example and show how diversity can make a positive difference.

Who is your role model and why?

I’m going to pick a company rather than an individual here. My role model company is Pixar, particularly in the pre-Disney era under the leadership of John Lasseter and Steve Jobs. Pixar was a tiny bootstrapped company that changed a whole industry by reinventing animation in movies. This period of Pixar was fraught with lots of ups and downs (like many young companies creating disruptive change), but they focused on doing one thing better than anyone else and I admire Pixar for that. The rest is history.

One of the big choices we had to make at Diaceutics at the beginning was whether or not we should diversify into other types of healthcare change management in order to expand revenues. Despite the uncertain trajectory of precision medicine at the time, we instead focused ever more on building our capability to change testing for patients seeking treatment. Pixar inspired that choice and it is paying off for us as precision medicine has taken off, as animation did for them.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

My favourite is an old (by today’s standard) text by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman called In Search of Excellence. First published in 1982, it describes time and again how the little things in business matter when building and delivering a product. It helped me understand that regardless of the product or service, going that extra mile for your customers will eventually reward you tenfold. I have specifically adopted this philosophy in Diaceutics and we strive to delight our pharma clients on every project, going that extra mile to illustrate that we appreciate their business and are as focused on helping patients get better testing as they are.

Interestingly, I read this book again recently and it taught me a separate lesson, namely that successful companies (big and small) go out of business when they forget their customers.

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

All of us in business face good days and bad days, but I think of myself as being extremely fortunate. I love what I do and have had the privilege of selecting people around me I want to work with. Talking to them and listening to their enthusiasm for what we do at Diaceutics and where we can take the business is simply addictive.

That and endless supplies of good coffee!

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