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Fearless entrepreneur: Werner Tschollar on breakthroughs in biotech and staying small and flexible in business

Dr. Werner Tschollar
By Glen Ferris

For nearly three decades, Dr. Werner Tschollar has been at the forefront of the pharmaceutical, biotech and financing industries. With a humanitarian approach to life and a savvy head for business, he has parlayed his extensive credentials and experience into a series of innovative products and treatments that have changed the quality of life for countless people.

"I have a double degree in medicine and pharmacy," says Dr. Werner Tschollar. "I trained in internal medicine, cardiology and got a degree in clinical pharmacology. I was always research-oriented and, early in my career, discovered several at the time unknown disease phenomena and novel treatment principles. That triggered the interest of [Global Biopharmaceutical Company] Bristol-Myers Squibb to hire me as their head of cardiovascular research."

"A short time after I joined Bristol-Myers Squibb, I was transferred to their headquarters in Princeton, New Jersey, where I lived for about seven years with my family - my son was actually born in Princeton. From there, I was responsible for European research and development for several years before I joined [former American pharmaceutical company] Schering-Plough to expand their product portfolios in the field of oncology, immunology, and respiratory diseases. Later, I was hired by [multinational pharmaceutical corporation] Novartis to become their head of R&D for the consumer pharmaceutical group in Switzerland.

In today's biotech world, small biotech companies are actually the R&D units of big pharma.

During this time in his career, Tschollar was instrumentally involved in the development of blockbuster drugs such as Captopril (used for the treatment of hypertension and congestive heart failure) and Pravastatin (the first statin for the treatment of high cholesterol), but the constraints of big pharma led Tschollar to break out and innovate on his own terms.

"I bought out a drug candidate which I developed independently, and which is today on the market," says Tschollar. "That was my step out of big pharma into generating small private companies."

As it turned out, making the move to founding private firms was a progressive one in terms of identifying and developing novel, safe and effective treatment solutions that could later be sold for big profit to large pharmaceutical companies.

"In today's pharmaceutical and biotech world, small companies are actually the R&D units of big pharma," he says. "Big pharma very often has relatively empty pipelines, so they turn to smaller companies founded by people who know how to think outside of the box. This is what gives small companies like ours the opportunity and business rational to develop innovative products for unmet medical needs, products which have the potential to cause a paradigm shift in the treatment of life-impairing illnesses."

"I founded a number of companies, which came about fortuitously because of my broad experience and professional network. Having trained as a doctor, my vision both inside big pharma and on my journey as an entrepreneur, has always been to take actions that will help improve peoples' quality of life."

Across the board, Tschollar's current companies identify and develop ground-breaking products and platform technologies that could make radical contributions to the way cancer, infectious diseases, celiac disease, and diseases of the oesophagus are treated.

"I think I can say that I'm a pretty curious person and I have always enjoyed taking on challenges and risks," says Tschollar, who lives and works in Switzerland. "It's this disposition that led me to create multiple biotech companies in totally different therapeutic areas. AMYRA, develops solutions for gluten-related disorders. CanVirex is developing a platform technology for novel viro-immunotherapeutics for cancer, and also for vaccination. And EsoCap develops a unique application technology for the local treatment of oesophagus diseases."

"In AMYRA, we have two different enzyme combinations which are currently undergoing clinical research and have the promise to establish a new concept for treating gluten-related disorders."

Oncolytic immunotherapies will be a game changer in the treatment of cancer and certainly have huge commercial potential.

"In CanVirex, we are positioned at the forefront of cancer research through an extensive academic and professional collaboration network," says Tschollar. "The company harnesses one of the safest and most effective vaccine vectors – the measles vaccine vector – as a vehicle to encode immune-modulating therapeutics across various cancer entities. We use this vector because it is safe, it has oncolytic capabilities – which means that it has a natural tendency to selectively infect and destroy cancer cells – and it is highly adaptable. We can use the same vector to deliver an almost limitless range of immunotherapeutics. This adaptability stems from the fact that we can insert various transgenes into the measles genome that encode for immune modulatory signals. Combined, the measles vector and the transgenes have the potential to induce what we call 'Multi-functional cellular immune response', wherein cancer cells are lysed or killed, and a patient’s anti-tumour immune responses are restored. This novel treatment principle will be a game changer in the treatment of cancer and certainly has huge commercial potential.

"I'm not sure if we ever will be able to fully cure cancer but we may be able to change it into a chronic disease which is manageable, so that patients do not suffer as much as they do under current treatment principles and have a better quality of life."

Having co-founded a private equity company specialised in the life-sciences, Tschollar's ability to single out distinguished treatment concepts is certainly warranted.

Driven by a desire to make a positive difference in people's lives, Tschollar has a gift for identifying unmet medical needs and finding a respective solution, which he then develops milestone by milestone through the various phases of drug development and clinical research.

"If you want to do something which is relevant and meaningful, then you need to have a certain level of curiosity, courage and perseverance; curiosity helps you generate the idea, but only courage and perseverance will bring that idea to fruition," he says.

"In biotech, you need a clear and flexible development model. You need to work with smart and creative people. But serendipity, personal and professional integrity, and stable financing also play their part."

"Manufacturing is always the first big hurdle because you need to secure a cost-effective way of making your product from the very beginning. Clinical translation capabilities are a very important aspect in being successful in biotech.

"So, in this industry you need a combination of different skills; scientific skills, clinical know-how, regulatory know-how and you need to understand management and finance. You also need to know what the industry is currently doing and where your best chances of achieving an exit are. We identify unmet medical needs, develop new compounds and treatments and then try to sell it to big pharma."

Every company needs funding to get under way and Tschollar's approach to raising capital is typically untypical.

"Most biotech companies actually choose to get funded by venture capital. I did that too in the past, but it turned out to be a mistake for me," he says. "So, I decided that I would raise the money from private investors and family offices. There's a lot of money in the markets and private investors today are probably more prone to do direct investments than in the past. That said, the complexity of the science and the business model in biotech and pharmaceuticals make raising capital from private investors challenging. It's hard for business people who have made their money in totally different sectors to evaluate the risk profile of a product they can't fully understand. To date however, I was quite successful in raising sufficient capital for all my companies. It's not a unique [approach to raising capital] but it is more uncommon in this sector."

You need to have a lot of discipline and clarity to get everything working.

Having proved his skill in his chosen fields, Tschollar sees the future of biotech heading towards tackling the source of underlying disease pathologies by readjusting the system with immune and cell therapies.

"The way I see biotech in the future is that we'll move more and more to disease-modifying immuno-cell and gene therapies," he says. "We need to understand the pathologically affected system and modify and adjust it to normal cell biology. I think that these new treatment concepts will continue to grow in regulatory and public acceptance."

As for Tschollar's place in that future, he's convinced that keeping things small and agile is the way forward.

"Building effective, small teams that can navigate the complexity of biotech and manage research and development is important," he says. "But you also need an effective and efficient external development infrastructure, starting with manufacturing going all the way to preclinical and then to clinical translation. So, you know, getting all your ducks in a row is important. You need to have a lot of discipline and clarity to get everything set up and working."

I think it's important to be fearless

Fortunately, Tschollar is not alone in his mission. He was joined in the business by his son Julian a few years ago and this alliance has proved to be a fruitful one.

"It's one of the best things that has happened to me," he says. "Julian is super smart and super adaptable. He has already made significant impact and is an extremely valuable team member.

"It's rare that families get on well enough to tolerate each other both in a personal and professional setting, but there are advantages to working with family. Being able to discuss projects outside of the office for example or keeping an honest line of communication."

With the stars aligned in his professional and personal life, Tschollar is confident he and his son can meet new challenges and that they have the capacity to make relevant, exciting, and impactful breakthroughs in the biotech space.

"It's important to find integrity and personal balance," he says. "I think it's important to be fearless and not to be affected by induced insecurities from the outside. Beat that and you're ready to deal with any problem."

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