The life scientist – an interview with Peter Milner

10 Jan 2013

Industrial scientist, venture capitalist and entrepreneur Peter Milner

Roscrea, Co Tipperary, native Peter Milner is a world-renowned industrial scientist, venture capitalist and entrepreneur whose first company was bought for US$1.5bn and whose latest ventures are spearheading breakthroughs in treating cancer and heart disease. He tells John Kennedy about his plans to breathe life into Ireland’s fledgling biotech industries.

A finalist in the 2012 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards Peter Milner has achieved more in one life time than most would be capable of cramming into several.

He travels approximately 150,000 miles per year to juggle commitments with a handful of life sciences companies and a venture capital firm that he views as an accelerator for US research and Irish industry. He even finds time to run a farm in Ireland, where he manages to spend three to four months of every year.

Milner, who will be at this year’s ITLG event in Cork on 22 January where he will lead a panel to discuss investment in Ireland’s life sciences industries, spoke to me via Skype from his home in Hawaii, and professed his sincere belief that Ireland’s best days lie ahead.

Milner, a physician and cardiologist by training, went to medical school in Liverpool and studied genetics at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland where despite very early success as a scientist felt the pull of being an entrepreneur.

“I knew all along that I would be an entrepreneur because my dad was a scientist who was also a very successful businessman so I knew what industrial science was all about.”

Despite the lure of industrial science and entrepreneurship Milner has maintained his links with academia throughout his career and serves as Adjunct Clinical Faculty in Cardiology at Stanford University School of Medicine. He’s also a board member of the California Healthcare Institute.

Milner co-founded CV Therapeutics (CVT) in 1990 where he invented a number of successful drugs. Gilead acquired CVT for US$1.5bn in cash in 2009.

He co-founded ARYx Therapeutics in 1997, which listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange and he restructured his family pharmaceutical company ML Laboratories to form Vectura, which is one of the leading makers of inhaled pharmaceutical products in the world.

Milner is also CEO of Heart Metabolics, a company whose drugs for treating heart disease recently received orphan designation from the US Federal Drugs Administration (FDA) and in the past week raised US$4m in Series A funding. If a major trial of the drug is successful, Heart Metabolics could be well on its way to being the next US$3bn pharmaceuticals business.

In addition Milner heads up California-based Optivia Biotechnology, which works with pharmaceutical companies to identify situations where drugs interacting with other drugs during treatment can be harmful and thus improve drug safety.

The conflicts facing a purist

Milner describes himself as something of a purist when it comes to life sciences and turning research into potentially life-saving solutions.

“What I always wanted to be was a cutting edge industrial scientist. I was always a little different from the other medical students because I always believed in finding out what caused the diseases rather than just administering the treatments. I was always more interested in ‘why does this disease occur’ and understanding it at a molecular basis, so I always knew I would go into industry.

“It’s both a blessing and a curse. If you’re a purist physician or scientist a lot of what goes on in the pharmaceuticals industry at large can strike you as a waste of time – things like consumer advertising – but as an operations person it means you are motivated to bring the science along. If you figure out the cause of something the other pieces will follow.”

I put it to him that in an age where science and technology discovery is big business there is always going to be tension between the creative side of the business and the profit-making side of things.

“I’m all about the big picture,” he explains. “While we have made major progress in cancer research, all the focus appears to be on very expensive drugs which is great for the industry, but one-third of improvement in cancer is prevention, and one-third is early diagnosis.

“We lose sight of things like prevention. We know that smoking cessation is important as is avoiding sun exposure which reduces melanoma and early diagnosis will save lives.

“But there are still a large number of tumours that we have no cures for, treatment of lung cancer has improved and so has colon cancer treatment, but still probably half of cancers still have no treatments and I think we’ve lost sight of what needs to be done.

“We understand the genetics a bit better but we need to understand more,” Milner said pointing to work at Washington University that has shown potential ways of mitigating the risks of breast cancer in women that have a lot to do with menstrual cycles, weight and childbirth.

“The key is to understand molecular biology, ensure that the causes of cancer or other diseases are logically understood before coming up with a treatment or cure. Many of the drugs that work in the world today do so because we understand the biology and it makes sense.

“The key is to see the whole picture. But at an academic or industrial level the problem is often bogged down in problems like budget allocation and we can often lose sight of the science. It takes a very strong person to be in charge of a research organisation and that is a challenge for most of these people because at heart they are creative people.”

Life as a venture capitalist has allowed Milner and colleagues at venture capital firm VenBio, like Corey Goodman, who previously administered a massive US$8bn R&D programme at Pfizer, to tap back into that creative energy that comes through understanding the science and embarking on a quest for a solution.

Managing innovation

Milner takes a strategic approach to managing companies and investing in innovation. He abides by a maxim of only becoming a board member of companies he has invested money into and currently sits on the boards of five companies.

He particularly focuses on companies where he can see a defined return on his investment in time and resources.

For example, he has figured out how long it will take for Heart Metabolics to achieve its goal of being a US$3bn business and has concentrated on removing the obstacles the company has faced and will face as its key drug is tested and approved.

Biotech investment, he points out is much different to the swift outcomes experienced in industries like ICT.

“Venture investors in life sciences used to want to invest in products much earlier in their cycle, but now they want to wait until it is proven. But if everybody does that then there are no products.”

He cites Heart Metabolics, which so far has taken almost 20 years to get to its current advantageous position. “The drug has been around for years and thousands of patients have received it. But it would be much more challenging if we had to go out today with a brand new drug starting afresh because of all the hurdles from patents to regulation and testing that would have to be done.”

Making Ireland an entrepreneurial epicentre for biotech

Ireland is one of the major hubs in the world in areas like life sciences, medical devices and pharmatech and this week IDA Ireland said that said pharmaceuticals remains one of the key sectors that contain significant opportunities in 2013.

The pharmaceutical sector– challenged by the fallout of patent expiries – is finding Ireland is helping it transform and during 2012 a massive US$1.1bn worth of fresh investment was announced.

Milner, through his partners at VenBio, is investing in Ireland as part of a strategy to help US researchers accelerate product development and at the same time foster the emergence of new biotech companies from Ireland.

In a sense, Milner is daring to harness the power of research at universities like Stanford, Berkeley and Harvard and give it an outlet for commercialisation through seasoned management teams in Ireland.

“One of the first companies we’re working with is investing US$25m in Ireland and we’ll hire the management team and the drug developers in Ireland. The technologies come from the University of California San Diego and while some of the money will go into the lab there, the commercial development will take place in Ireland.

“Ireland has a well-trained workforce that is hard working and very easy to manage. It has a certain amount of technology in its universities that may be worth backing but the main thing worth focusing on is bringing technology to Ireland because of the labour force, the fact that it’s a small co-operative country and the level of support from the local Government.

“We believe Ireland has a huge future in R&D and drug development. But not necessarily solely with Irish technology but also through technology brought into the country.

“What we’re doing is bringing money and technology to Ireland. We will invest in Irish companies that are based around Irish inventions but we will also foster the growth of new biotech companies in Ireland that have emerged through technologies we’ve also brought into the country from major US universities.

“When we come to sell or licence these technologies they will have been well developed by an educated, sophisticated management team.

“We could be doing this in Singapore but we think it’s much easier to be doing it from Ireland,” Milner said.

Peter Milner will be leading an investment panel at the forthcoming ITLG ‘gathering’ in Cork on 22 January is hosting Med Tech Focus, an initiative which over coming months will cover news, reports, interviews and videos, documenting Ireland’sleading role in one of the hottest sectors in technology.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years