“If there is a sector growing faster than ours, I would be surprised,” says Touchlight founder Jonny Ohlson. “Genetic medicine is growing at a significant rate. We started developing our DNA platform in 2007 and the market is just now maturing. I’m delighted that our platform is being evaluated by most of the leading players.”
Touchlight is in the business of DNA amplification. It synthesises the DNA that is required in large quantities to create new treatments and vaccines, and does it in a new and innovative way that avoids enormous fermentation tanks filled with bacteria. “We call our platform dbDNA and it is better, safer, quicker to create than traditional plasmid DNA,” Ohlson claims. “It outperforms plasmids in every way.”
Serial entrepreneur Ohlson founded Touchlight following an epiphany around the time of the Millennium. “Commerce in the 20th century was defined by the computer and we got there through the advent of coding” says Ohlson. “But at the turn of the century we sequenced the human genome and unlocked a new coding system, DNA, and we believed it had the potential to be a key material of the 21st century.” He began scouring the UK for DNA technologies, interviewing scientists at top universities. This is how he discovered the gap in the market for in vitro DNA amplification. “There was no one innovating in this space. No IP. Nothing. So, I put some money in, and raised some money from people I knew. We hired four scientists and filed our first patents in 2009.”
Life sciences, as an industry, is booming in 2021 as the pandemic shifted the investment community’s gaze towards the sector. Private equity and venture capital inflows to life sciences exceeded $50bn during the nine months to September, surpassing 2020’s previous record of $40bn for the same period.
One of the few barriers to growth, however, is access to top talent. “One of the biggest life sciences companies is reported to have 15,000 open vacancies,” says Ohlson. “It’s tough to recruit great scientists.” Yet Touchlight has grown from 60 people to 125 over the past year. His secret? “I treat biotech like a creative industry,” he explains. “We have incredible offices and have created an environment that fosters creative talent. We also have a generous share option scheme. And what could be more rewarding than working on cutting edge science? Our staff attrition rate is almost nil.”
To fund research and development, Touchlight has raised a total of $125m in 2021 to date. “We have stayed away from venture capital and private equity, and instead have secured finance from high-net-worth individuals who understand our mission,” he says. “Ours is truly patient capital.”
Ohlson and his investors are seeing their patience rewarded after 13 years of painstaking research. “If you really knew the size and scale of the mountain you were setting out to climb, you’d never attempt it,” he admits. “We set a target for every 18 months to show that we were making traction, and that was how we broke the climb down into bitesize chunks.” Touchlight is now making industrial quantities of DNA – enough to create a new global vaccine, for example. “We are now totally focused on commercialisation and to become a pilar of the genetic medicine industry” says Ohlson. “Whether it is Messenger RNA vaccines, gene editing, or vaccine production, we are in discussion with most of the leading protagonists.”