Touchlight: the $1bn biotech pumping synthetic DNA from an old waterworks

·5-min read
 (Touchlight)
(Touchlight)

On a sleepy bend of the river Thames near Hampton Court Palace, something extraordinary is happening.

A long-derelict Victorian pumping station built to pipe clean water into cholera-ravaged 1850s London has been refurbished and retooled to usher in the next healthcare revolution.

Founded by ad man-turned-entrepreneur Jonny Ohlson in 2007, Touchlight has quietly grown to become one of the UK’s brightest biotech stars with 125 staff and a $1 billion valuation.

It broke ground today on an extension which will turn its landmark lab into the world’s foremost synthetic DNA factory, with the capacity to pump out 1kg a month to feed soaring demand from the genetic medicines industry.

Ohlson said: “More than 150 years ago, this building was at the cutting edge of a technology that was stopping a pandemic crisis. And here we are, doing exactly the same again.”

Touchlight’s elegant science does away with the time, expense and hassle of growing tonnes of genetically engineered bacteria in vast fermentation tanks to harvest DNA.

‘The most beautiful labs in the world’ (Touchlight)
‘The most beautiful labs in the world’ (Touchlight)

Instead, it has developed a platform named “doggybone” which uses enzymes in test tubes to amplify specific sequences of genetic code faster, cheaper and more cleanly — all inside a box the size of a bathroom cabinet.

This pure DNA is used to make mRNA vaccines and in gene and cell therapy.

It will underpin a new generation of DNA jabs, the first of which was approved for clinical use in India last month. The market stands at $10 billion a year, expected to triple by 2026.

Touchlight played a key, mostly unreported, role in the development of several Covid-19 vaccines.

Research teams worked through the pandemic, with extra costs knocking profits from £7.2 million in 2019 to £500,000 in 2020.

Ohlson, 59, spent several decades in advertising, ending up at Saatchi & Saatchi on accounts for BP, BA and Cadbury Schweppes before becoming director of private members’ club Soho House.

The building lay derelict for 70 years (Touchlight)
The building lay derelict for 70 years (Touchlight)

And his ‘why not do it this way?’ outsider approach to science, recruitment and attracting investors still owes more to Soho than science.

He said: “Science isn’t traditionally looked at as a creative industry.

“But if you look at the definition of creativity, it’s turning ideas into intellectual property and commercialising them. So at its heart biotech is a creative industry.

“But it’s not seen like that. So having the most beautiful labs, an interesting culture and amazing camaraderie isn’t seen as important in attracting the best scientists.”

Early backers are friends and neighbours: a Who’s Who of billionaires from JP Morgan and Goldman bankers to rock bands and celebrities.

They have so far seen a 100-fold increase in the value of their investments. A recent funding round led by angel investor Hermann Mohaupt’s Bridford raised $125 million.

The banisters are designed to resemble DNA prints (Touchlight)
The banisters are designed to resemble DNA prints (Touchlight)

Betfair founder Andrew Black accidentally became Touchlight’s landlord.

He bought the derelict riverside building for ‘a steal’ before Ohlson, a pal, told him plans to open a hotel there were a non-starter - “there were five good reasons, the first three of which were ‘location’” - but that he might be able to do something with it himself.

Ohlson, a childhood friend of Eddie Izzard at school in Eastbourne (they toured together in cabaret and Chekov), became entranced by the possibilities of DNA around the time the human genome was being sequenced at the turn of the millennium.

He still feigns ignorance of the science and takes an Izzard-ish delight in describing the ranks of cutting-edge lab equipment as either ‘spinny’ things (centrifuges) or ‘clicky’ things (pipettes, and pretty much everything else).

At the beginning, Ohlson admits: “I didn’t know anything about science but I did know how to manage creative people.

Researchers work in the converted pump rooms (Touchlight)
Researchers work in the converted pump rooms (Touchlight)

“At Saatchi you gave a creative person a brief and they would stretch it and push it as far as they possibly could. This was exactly the same.

“Our thesis was that if you could amplify DNA in a test tube you would properly disrupt the way it was made.

“No-one else was even looking at it. We had to fill the patent white-space that we discovered with innovation.”

The last funding round will pay for the expansion of its HQ which is divided into research, contract manufacturing, and in-house product development.

It will add 11 new state-of-the-art production suites making a total of 15 and create up to 60 new jobs.

Ohlson says: “This is just the start. DNA has been called as the new silicon. If that’s so, we’re the new ARM Holdings,” referring to the Cambridge-based semi-conductor firm whose microchip templates power most smartphones.

The youngest of four siblings, whose parents’ finance careers instilled a lifelong aversion to working in the City, Ohlson says an IPO is not on the cards but “never say never”.

Investors will be able to grab a stake in the fruits of its operations next year when spins out promising discoveries into separate companies.

The company will expand to take over the entire building (Touchlight)
The company will expand to take over the entire building (Touchlight)

The company holds around 80 patents covering the combination of enzymes used in DNA production, the automation of the process and and chemistry of in vitro amplification of DNA.

Ohlson said: “The really expensive thing is running phase 3 clinical trials and we won’t do that inside this company, we will spin out other entities, and those separate entities will have to raise money.

He said: “We’ve been subject to a great deal of interest, but we enjoy our independence. We see a rapid expansion of us going out internationally, rather than people coming in to acquire us.”

For now, the focus is on expanding production and ‘democratising’ the technology - drawing up licensing deals to sell its platform worldwide.

Ohlson added: “I think we’ve done something quite special. I didn’t know anything about science but we have a super talented group of scientists and a phenomenal board.

“That’s the real skill. You recruit the best talent and create a wonderful environment in which they can flourish.

“I find it quite bewildering. I’m just good at buying lunch.”

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