What is your role?
I am Chief Executive Officer of Rinri Therapeutics, otherwise described as a professional plate spinner! In a small company like Rinri, this is not as glamorous a position as you may think; you do whatever needs to be done, from what you would expect of a CEO to mundane administrative tasks.
My role is to lead Rinri, build the company and establish the right team to develop and execute our plan to develop Rinri’s therapies for clinical trials and patients. That involves everything from company administration to team management, fundraising, finances, project management, and HR. But ultimately, I suppose the most crucial role I have as a CEO is fundraising to bring in investment to keep the operation running and progressing. The company can’t move forward if we have the right people and infrastructure to execute technical activities but no money.
Can you tell us about the team now, and how it was when it started?
We’re a small but efficient team. We operate a semi-virtual organisational structure with only seven people in the management team, where we outsource most activities to third parties. When we started Rinri in 2018, it was just me and Marcelo (Rivolta), but we have grown continually from that point.
Back at the start, Marcelo and I were doing everything ourselves. As we gained understanding and experience, we pulled people in where it made sense to have dedicated resources. We focused on hiring experts to deal with areas that take a lot of time and energy: manufacturing, process development and clinical development. However, as much as you try to forecast needs, in small companies, you often seem to end up recruiting after you need someone. This brings short-term pain but does mean we know exactly what person we need when recruiting. Now that we have established our core team, we are recruiting more strategically, ahead of need, to deliver on critical activities.
How did your involvement in Rinri come about?
I’ve been involved in Rinri from the very beginning, even before it existed, and was integral to the process that brought it to life. My involvement in Rinri came about because I was working for a venture capital firm looking at the potential of the IP (intellectual property) that underpins Rinri to form a spin-out company to develop the technology. I met Marcelo during that process and worked closely with him to complete due diligence and develop the investment proposition. During that process, we attracted a syndicate of investors prepared to back the company. These investors then asked me to lead the investment proposition I’d worked up, which became Rinri.
Describe a typical day in your working life.
As we operate a semi-virtual company, much of my time is spent working virtually. The Rinri team and our partners are dispersed across the UK and internationally, so much of my working day is spent in front of a computer, responding to emails and calls, video conferencing with the Rinri team, third-party advisors, and partners. Because you can’t do everything virtually, this routine is interspersed with visiting Rinri’s sites and meeting team members in person. I believe this is essential to maintain relationships and keep up with what is happening on the ground. Besides these operational activities, the other half of my day is spent developing business strategies, writing papers for the board, writing grant applications, dealing with IP prosecution, and dealing with investor and funder requests.
What is Cell Therapy?
Cell therapies are advanced medicinal products that utilise populations of entire human cells instead of using conventional small or large molecules, or altering the genome, to treat disease. Cell therapy looks to leverage the complexity of a cell to treat a condition because it needs the higher-level function of the intact cell or a derivative of that cell to elicit a therapeutic action.
Cell therapy is very varied in its applications. Regenerative therapies, like those Rinri, is working on, look to repair the part of the body which has become degraded or damaged. Equally, you can have cell therapies which hijack the function of a cell, like a T-cell in immunotherapy, to program them to attack a particular disease like cancer.
Cell therapies can also be deployed in different ways: intravenous injection for system delivery for immunotherapy or embedded in a matrix such as a gel for conditions like osteoarthritis. Even devices have been designed to encapsulate engineered cells to treat diabetes, an entirely artificial environment for these cells. However, in this environment, these cells can still perform the same processes as the cells in the body and elicit a therapeutic response.
How does it differ from Gene Therapy?
Gene Therapies correct diseases caused by defects of the genome. For instance, patients deficient in manufacturing a single protein could be treated by inserting a corrected gene into the genome to correct the mistake and make the correct protein. It is a very different process from cell therapy, where you put in entire cells containing entire genomes with a complex mix of components to treat a condition.
What are some of the challenges you face?
Our challenges are significant, but this is nothing new in biotech. What we are trying to do is difficult. We are taking basic science developed in a university and developing it to the point at which it becomes suitable for use as a therapy in a human patient. This requires us to bridge two very different worlds of: the academic and clinical. To successfully achieve this transition, we need to overcome many hurdles: can we make this therapy to the standards required by regulators; how can we demonstrate patient safety before we go into a clinical trial; how do we deliver the treatment and measure its effectiveness? For Rinri, our patients have never had a cell therapy option before, so not of these questions have never been addressed. Cell therapies are also a pretty new technology, arguably, the first wave only came 15-20 years ago, and cell therapy 2.0 is only five to six years old. So we are breaking new ground; we don’t have a playbook or cookie-cutter approach to work from. Working out what to do to get the results we need is the challenge we face daily because nobody can tell us the answer – but this challenge also makes this journey fun and worthwhile.
Did COVID pose a challenge? How did you get Rinri through COVID?
Yes, it posed a challenge because a number of our core partners closed down operations during the pandemic’s peak, which meant that we conducted much of the research activity we planned to do in that period. As little to no lab work could be done in the lockdown period, we thought creatively about what other valuable activities we could do to help us continue progressing, given the circumstances. We focussed on report writing and collating and analysing data, all of which could be done at home. I would estimate that this effectively delayed our plans by six to nine months, but we managed to keep everyone on payroll and honour all our contracts.
How do you hope Rinri’s work will impact the hearing loss community?
Biological therapy for hearing loss will be revolutionary for the hearing loss community. Currently, the only options patients with hearing loss have are devices like hearing aids and cochlear implants. These are externally visible and do not restore natural hearing. Our therapies will be invisible and should have the potential to restore a more natural level of hearing, both of which are demands that people with hearing loss have for new treatments.
If our therapy works, we predict we can materially improve patients’ quality of life beyond what they get from the current treatments. Patients with auditory neuropathy, the target for our lead product, are not well served by current treatment options. These patients have little prospect of their hearing being improved or augmented by current treatments, so it will be completely transformative. They will go from being profoundly affected by their hearing to being able to hear, maybe even for the first time if they lost their hearing at an early age, or recovering some of the quality of life lost at a later stage.
As hearing loss is not a life-limiting condition, it is perceived differently from headliners like cancer, osteoarthritis or diabetes, but it is just as important, in my opinion. Modern society does not recognise the enormous negative impact on patients’ quality of life. Patients with severe hearing loss often withdraw from their communities because it inhibits their interactions with others; this dramatically impacts mental health and their ability to function and contribute to society. Successful treatments for hearing loss will not just affect the local UK hearing loss community but will have global implications bringing significant positive impacts to healthcare systems and economies more generally.
How do you motivate and retain your staff?
When working for a biotech like Rinri, I think motivation is all wrapped up in having a shared vision and a shared mission to develop a therapy for the benefit of patients who have real unmet need. Everybody in the company understands this therapy’s significance and potential for patients, and we ensure everyone we recruit shares this common vision. This means that no matter the role, everyone is pulling in the same direction towards our end goal.
I’m very keen that everyone at Rinri feels valued and has a voice so they can contribute to how we operate and what we do. We are a very flat organisation; we may have different titles which come with different responsibilities and accountability; but I am keen that everyone understands that we are in this together, with every role and activity contributing to our goals having value. Rinri operates with a genuine openness to feedback from anybody in the company. We encourage people to share ideas about things that could be done differently freely. Coming from a large organisation, this wasn’t always the case, so I hope everyone in Rinri feels actively part of the company rather than simply following orders.
Aside from positive company culture, we also have incentives for our staff at Rinri. They can participate in our stock options, which links them to the long-term performance of Rinri, and rewards them for taking on the risk of coming to an early-stage company like Rinri.
Why is hearing loss important to you?
I think the situation that exists now, where you have 7% of the world’s population with disabling hearing loss, is frankly astonishing. Until recently, nobody recognised this significant unmet clinical need and developed therapeutic approaches is equally astounding. I get enormous value from being part of the team, realising the potential of Rinri’s cell therapy approach to treat hearing loss. It is a privilege to be trusted with the development of a technology that could have such a positive impact on people’s lives. I view it as a personal responsibility to make sure that Rinri does everything possible to realise the potential of this therapy by taking it to patients.
What is important to you?
I value personal integrity greatly. I strongly believe that if you commit to do something you should do it and you should never let people down. This ethos infuses my attitude to my work at Rinri. I have made a commitment to the scientific founders, investors and team, but also more widely to clinicians and patients, to fully commit to taking Rinri’s cell therapies to patients; and this is a promise I will continue to strive to deliver.
What are your thoughts on Climate Change?
We recognise that Climate Change is a real and significant problem that will only worsen unless we reduce greenhouse gas and carbon emissions. Biotech companies are not energy intensive but can be seen as wasteful organisations, particularly the use of single-use plastics, which have a significant environmental impact.
Rinri’s approach is to minimise the use of single-use plastics wherever feasible. However, we also look for environmentally sustainable ways to dispose of these plastics, whether for use in novel building materials, as insulation, or being cleaned and then recycled in the conventional recycling workstream. Whilst we are unlikely to ever reduce our impact to zero, we are committed to taking advantage of these more environmentally friendly solutions where feasible and contributing to the environment and sustainability.
Is diversity important to Rinri?
We’re exceptionally diverse as a company. As a policy, Rinri is fair and does not discriminate. Everyone is considered on an equal footing. We have people from various countries, ethnic backgrounds and religions working directly for Rinri or as our very close partners. We’re very proud of the high number of different nationalities we have working for Rinri and associated with Rinri – this brings a huge wealth of diversity into Rinri. In terms of gender, we have women as investors and on our board, as well as in senior leadership positions. Indeed, until quite recently, there were more women than men at Rinri. That said, we are not complacent and strive to ensure that Rinri is a company of genuine equal opportunities and fairness. We always welcome ideas to improve our diversity and inclusion.
Why should people trust Rinri?
Rinri stands for integrity, honesty, and transparency. These sentiments perfuse our company culture. Our employees, and the people we engage as third parties, must share that ethos and apply it to the work they are doing for Rinri. We will do everything we can to ensure that this therapy is safe and efficacious for patients. We are going above and beyond what is required to identify and address any issues before we close to patients. We will not risk the health or well-being of anyone to accelerate our therapies to the clinic, and we will be transparent about the results we get.