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Business & Regulation Business Practice, Drug Discovery, Profession

If You Build It, They Will Come

Why chemistry?

Chemistry is one of those things that people either love or hate. For me, it was more than a subject studied at school or even a profession – it was a calling. I was always fascinated by chemistry as a schoolboy, but I truly fell in love with the logical nature of organic chemistry while studying for my undergraduate degree at the University of Zambia. And everyone knows that when you fall in love it’s impossible to control the feeling! I was entranced by the fact that organic molecules, no matter how simple or complex, could be modified and manipulated to create a whole host of products – including pharmaceuticals.

Who inspired you?

One of the most influential people in my professional life was my PhD supervisor at the University of Cambridge, the late Stuart Warren. I’ll always be grateful to him for taking a chance on a young student from Zambia, and laying the foundation for much of my future work. I began my studies at Cambridge in 1989 after being awarded a Livingstone Trust scholarship to work in Stuart’s lab, where he was developing new synthetic methods for optically active molecules. 

What stood out to me about Stuart was his patience and kindness – he always gave me room to grow and learn. Based on my work in his lab, I secured my first post-doctoral position and moved further north to the University of Liverpool. I then joined the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla for my second post-doctoral position. 

These early experiences and opportunities gave me some insight into the types of people who inhabited the scientific arena – not just bench scientists, but entrepreneurs and thought leaders who were creating companies and driving progress. I was inspired to create similar opportunities for scientists on the African continent. Though the continent is often viewed through a lens of poverty and disease, I knew that there were many African scientists who wanted to contribute to the life science community in their home nations and build the infrastructure necessary for improved drug discovery and development. In 2010, this inspired me to found H3D, a drug discovery research center at the University of Cape Town.

What is the premise behind H3D?

To produce medicines for diseases that predominately affect Africans while also creating jobs and African-specific patient models, so the drugs used by African patients are tailored to their needs – improving patient outcomes. Too often drugs are developed abroad and introduced to African countries, despite never being tested in African people. Given the genetic diversity of Africans, that is an important commission, and I felt it important to address the issue through the center.

As an academic, I always thought big – I wanted the center to hold its own against any pharma company – but I knew that I lacked the practical knowledge of the industry to make it a reality. I turned to my friend and mentor, Tony Wood, former Senior Vice-President at Pfizer and now with GlaxoSmithKline, for help. He arranged for me to visit the Sandwich Pfizer site in the UK to learn more about the practicalities of pharma. He even flew out to Cape Town to read and discuss the business plan my team and I had put together. Tony’s support was one of the greatest assets we had. He eventually became the first Chair of our Scientific Advisory Board.

Since then, many experts from the industry have passed through our doors and contributed to building our pharmaceutical infrastructure. We’ve been able to deliver on multiple projects and currently have a phase II trial underway for one of our patented antimalarial drugs. It’s amazing how easily my initial fears for the center were put to rest once I learned to lean on those around me with the expertise and skillsets that could help us make a difference.

What challenges did you face in getting the center up and running?

H3D is unique in that it is embedded in an academic environment – it isn’t an off-site operation but rather like a pharmaceutical company or small biotech integrated into the university’s infrastructure. In the center’s early days, we had to learn to navigate institutional bureaucracy and work within an environment that wasn’t originally intended for pharmaceutical drug discovery. We also had to recruit the talent that would get H3D off its feet. Though it was challenging to find the right people at first, we were able to assemble a team of talented chemists, biologists, and others. They, like me, wanted to see the center thrive and helped us to bring in more talent from around the continent and beyond – we now have an 80 person-strong team made up of scientists from around the world. 

Our multi-national team proves that with the right framework in place, people will travel to and work in the African drug discovery ecosystem, in the same way that people are attracted to pharma companies in the West.

What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?

Be humble. The people that you meet along the way could open doors that you never knew existed! That said, it’s important not to be swayed by opinions or people you’re not entirely comfortable with. Influence and experience shouldn’t intimidate you. As a business-minded person, you will undoubtedly have a vision of what you want to achieve. Don’t let anyone steer you along a path that causes you to lose sight of your goals. We all have unique life experiences that we can draw on; use yours to make the best decisions for your company!

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About the Author

Maryam Mahdi

Associate Editor

After finishing my degree, I envisioned a career in science communications. However, life took an unexpected turn and I ended up teaching abroad. Though the experience was amazing and I learned a great deal from it, I jumped at the opportunity to work for Texere. I'm excited to see where this new journey takes me!

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