Victoria's Victor

Published Jul 13, 2017

He’ll tell you that he’s ‘just a scientist’, but in truth, the successful combination of Professor Richard Furneaux’s scientific nous and entrepreneurial spirit has not only generated tens of millions of dollars of economic activity for New Zealand over the past 25 years, it has also now won him the Baldwins Researcher Entrepreneur Award and the BNZ Supreme Award at the 2017 KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards.

Richard—who is the Director of the Ferrier Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington— started his career as a synthetic chemist. Today, he leads a team of 40 scientists whose innovative medical drug compounds have been licensed to international pharmaceutical and agrochemical companies, and an exciting new start up. 

“Richards’s ability to identify a commercial opportunity, and then form and manage a team able to realise that opportunity, has been vital to this success, along with his understanding of patenting, licence deals and effective relationship management,” says Stephen Lorimer, who works closely with Richard and the Ferrier team in his role as Viclink’s Senior Commercialisation Manager, responsible for Viclink’s biotechnology and chemistry portfolios. 

“Our approach to research usually starts with the idea that we want to help cure a medical problem,” says Richard. “While the world doesn’t need another type of Aspirin, we do need other options to treat diseases like cancer, and to create alternatives to antibiotics.” 

He says the Institute’s work mostly centres around the development of enzyme inhibitors and looking to nature for assistance. 

“Enzyme inhibitors are not new—if you go to your doctor, there is a 30 percent chance that the drug you’ll be prescribed is an enzyme inhibitor, for example, statins for high cholesterol,” he says. “However, through our 20-year collaboration with Professor Vern Schramm at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, we’ve been looking at how enzymes work in nature, and taken that knowledge to create more powerful inhibitors that can also be actively transported into cells, instead of the ‘passive diffusion’ that’s usually relied upon.”  

The Ferrier Research Institute’s most successful commercial deal (in conjunction with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine), is their 16-year relationship with United States-based, NASDAQ-listed company BioCryst Pharmaceuticals, Inc. Under this licensing deal, four generations of novel compounds (covered by over 160 granted patents) have yielded six lead drug candidates with applications as diverse as cancer, gout, psoriasis, transplant rejection and malaria.

One of these candidates, forodesine hydrochloride, is the active ingredient behind a new oral drug, Mundesine®, which treats patients with a specific type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In March this year, Mundesine® was approved in Japan making it only the second New Zealand-invented drug to ever gain an approval, and the first since the 1980s—a fact that Richard and his colleague and co-inventor Professor Peter Tyler are justifiably proud of. 

Determined to capture additional value for New Zealand in Ferrier’s licensing deals, Richard says he’s thrilled that their successes with BioCryst spurred significant commercial benefit to New Zealand through the establishment of GlycoSyn, a Wellington-based manufacturer of pharmaceutical ingredients. More recently Avalia Immunotherapies Limited, has licensed a portfolio of Intellectual Property (IP) developed at Ferrier and is developing a breakthrough synthetic vaccine to treat cancer, allergies and infectious diseases. 

“We are always looking for areas where we can apply our chemistry in ways that differentiate us—so that we can patent the IP we create for the future benefit of both the University and New Zealand as a whole,” he says. “The big driver for funding these days is economic outcomes, so the commercialisation route has always made a lot of sense to me, even though it’s not always easy to do when you’re starting with just a concept.” 

He says that he’s grateful for the “small but beautifully formed” team at Viclink. “Being part of Victoria University has been unbelievably good for us, and the support we get from Viclink has been the icing on the cake.” 

MUNDESINE® is a registered trade mark (in Japan) of Mundipharma AG.