Ricardo is passionate about taking on new challenges and with a solid background in management and business administration, he sold his first company at the age of 22. This led to the creation and development of various companies, predominantly in the field of technology with a strong bent towards innovation. When his son Richi turned 6 years old, he was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, one of the most aggressive brain tumors in existence. Richi is currently a survivor. Ricardo discovered the lack adequate R&D funding in this field, and decided to create the Richi Childhood Cancer Foundation, a non-profit organization based in the US and Spain, with links around the world, and Oncoheroes Biosciences, a groundbreaking biotech company exclusively focused to develop new drugs for children with cancer. The company will be presented in an upcoming webinar on October 15th, 2019, to attend you can register here.
USEC had an opportunity to hold an exclusive interview with Ricardo.
1) Ricardo, you have a truly unique story, an entrepreneur from Spain who moved to the US shortly after your son Richi was diagnosed in 2011 with one of the most aggressive childhood brain tumors in existence, in order to maximize his chances of success. Thankfully he is now a cancer survivor, although he struggles daily with a long list of side effects from the treatment he had to endure. During that process, you were somehow able to find the time and energy to start the Richi foundation to fight childhood cancer through a variety of disruptive initiatives. How did you manage to lead such a complicated project while your personal life was in an extremely challenging situation?
I think it was a combination of several factors, first of all my entrepreneur spirit, always looking for new challenges, and the fact that I tend to be optimistic and persistent, and sometimes even obsessive. Then, the personal drama of discovering that childhood cancer is considered a rare disease despite there is one new case every 2 min and 90.000 deaths every year!
On top of that, finding out how unfair is that just 4 drugs were approved for childhood cancer in the last 20 years vs. 120 for adult cancer! And then you see the courage of your son and the rest of the children with cancer fighting tirelessly and fiercely for their lives, and you get truly inspired.
Finally, being in a country with a very advanced non-profit industry from where I could learn, and an incredible ecosystem willing to contribute and help to make things happen.
Altogether made me decide that I had an enormous responsibility and I must devote the rest of my live to serve the childhood cancer community. The diagnosis of a child with cancer is one of the scariest and most traumatic experience for a parent. Everyone copes it in a different way, and I guess the Richi Foundation helped me in the process.
2) You came from the private sector in Spain and ended up leading a non-profit organization in the US, which was probably way out of your comfort zone. What were the lessons you learned during that transition?
Non-profit sector in the US is an industry, comparable and even bigger to some private sectors in Spain. Just to give you few numbers that shocked me at the beginning, there are almost 1.6 million nonprofits registered in the US so far and contributed an estimated $985.4 billion to the US economy in 2015, composing 5.4% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Another thing that gladly surprised me was that non-profits in the US are very professional organizations, sometimes you don’t even appreciate the difference between a non-profit versus a for profit organization. I think that most of the practices of a for profit company could actually be done also by a non-profit organization. Depending on the sector, non-profits can even be a much better environment to develop a project and sometimes an extraordinary better source of funding compared to traditional investors cause they’re driven by a mission, and this is very powerful.
3) Recently you have made news again by co-founding Oncoheroes, the first biotech company in the world 100% focused on discovering, developing and commercializing new therapies for children and adolescents with cancer. What was your motivation for the creation of this start-up separately from the foundation and how will the two be related, if at all?
Three years after founding The Richi Foundation I realized that funding pediatric academic research would not be sufficient to result in new pediatric drugs. Foundations have been making tremendous efforts for years and years by supporting the discovery of promising new drugs. However, these promising cures have not turned into actual treatments because of the well-known valley of death, which is characterized by the lack of early-stage funding from the private sector; of incentives and of industry interest to move the promising drugs into the clinical phase and hopefully into the patients. This was another tough reality I learnt.
But then two big things happened, first, I met Cesare Spadoni, another dad whose first daughter, Laura, was diagnosed with an advanced cancer in 2005 at the age of 3 and unfortunately lost her battle one year later. Cesare followed a similar path, first founded a non-profit in the UK focused on drug repurposing for pediatric oncology and then, he felt as I did that the only way to guarantee a real impact on kids and teens with cancer would require a completely different approach. The second thing is that there is a momentum in rare diseases and incentives to encourage companies to develop solutions for pediatric indications. This led us to believe that it was possible to create a company exclusively focused on childhood cancer and it needed to be now. Thus, we founded Oncoheroes.
Meanwhile, my devotion and commitment to the Richi Childhood Cancer Foundation have not changed and I will continue leading our organization’s fight against pediatric cancer.
I genuinely believe that both efforts, support from foundations to advance basic and preclinical research and support from industry to accelerate clinical development, are needed to bring new treatments for our future generations.
4) Which is the vision that you and your cofounder have for Oncoheroes and what do you think will be the keys for your success?
Our vision is to deliver benefits to young cancer patients and create value in the process. We intend to become the global leader in delivering new pediatric oncology drugs taking advantage of the momentum in pediatric cancer and rare diseases..
I honestly thing that we have already in place some of the keys for our success like the terrific team we brought on board with more than 30 years of experience in drug development. In addition to that, we are proud of our Scientific Advisory Board, formed by world key opinion leaders in pediatric oncology, as well as the relationships already established with the main institutions and organizations of childhood cancer worldwide (e.g. ITCC (Europe), Children Oncology Group (US)). Continuously engaging the childhood cancer community into our project is definitely a guarantee of success. Only united we will end with this unresolved drama.
As I mentioned one of the key elements that motivate us to launch Oncoheroes was some of the relatively recent government incentives to end with the lack of treatment options for pediatric populations and rare diseases. We need administrations to make those incentives permanent and develop new ones if needed to keep encouraging the development of treatments for childhood cancer.
The other motivation and one of the keys for our success is the current momentum in rare diseases and oncology, and we would like to keep seeing that biotech-oriented investors keep focused and interested on a company like Oncoheroes.
Finally, we cannot fail selecting the assets we are in-licensing to incorporate into our pipeline. We would like to bring to the market at least one of them as quickly as possible within 4-5 years. This would help us to gain credibility and contribute to positioning this unprecedented effort.
5) Childhood cancers are complex, rare diseases for which only four specific drugs have been approved in the last 40 years. The treatments are extremely aggressive and for many types of cancer they have not varied much in recent decades. Among the reasons mentioned often are lack of public funding, due to the low awareness, and low incentive for big pharmaceutical companies to invest in research due to the relatively small target population (as compared to more common diseases). How does Oncoheroes plan to become a successful, profitable company given those constraints?
Pediatric oncology has an estimated niche market opportunity of $5-10 B, calculated from the intersection of three much larger markets such as oncology, pediatric and rare diseases. I would like to highlight that this estimation is just taking into account numbers from the developed world and we expect it to grow much more when introducing developing countries. Unfortunately, nowadays 80% of the kids diagnosed with cancer from the developing world are not even treated because of lack of early diagnosis.
On the other hand, the amount of initial investment needed to develop a drug for a rare disease treatment is smaller and less risky than for traditional drugs targeting largest populations. The clinical trials are normally smaller in terms of participants and thus, faster and less expensive.
There is a clear global momentum, business model and a investment opportunity around rare diseases and specifically pediatric cancer that is facilitating the positioning of Oncoheroes as the main player to lead the development of new drugs for children with cancer.
6) Developing a new medicine in the US is a long and complex project with high research costs and a complicated approval process by the Food and Drug Administration which can easily take more than two and a half years. How does Oncoheroes plan to manage this issue?
Well that is the normal scenario for a drug that intends to be approved for non-rare disease, meaning for a target population larger than 100.000/years world-wide. Based on conversations with regulatory experts, in our case we expect to get FDA or EMA approval much faster due to the existing early approval regulatory paths for rare diseases and the probability of getting the approval at a Phase II stage level, with 25-30 patients. As you can imagine, if you are developing a drug for a type of childhood cancer that its prevalence is 400 patients each year just in the US, you would not be able to run a clinical trial of thousands of patients to get the approval. It would take decades! Moreover, regulatory is less fussy about the kind of data that it requires for approval for a new rare disease drug. For most of the childhood cancer types there is no specific drug designed and approved for pediatric patients and any treatment improvement and being able to show slightly better efficacy would be welcome from a regulatory point of view.
7) You have started companies on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, in Spain and in the US, in Boston. What would you say are the main differences you have found in the entrepreneurship environment and culture between both countries?
I found the market with a higher funding capability. The amount of resources here in Boston for entrepreneurs are countless and one thing that strike me and I always highlight is that the entrepreneurship mindset is also embedded in the American culture. I have realized that we can grow faster and launch more ambitious projects as Oncoheroes on an environment like this. For us that we are in the biotech sector specifically, we cannot feel luckier to be born and have presence in Boston, probably the larger biotech hub in the world. Here I have seen that is not unbelievable to consider become public soon, in 4-5 years. I know at least a couple of examples of US rare disease biotech startups becoming public in that time frame without approved drugs yet. That being said, I am very pleased of the tremendous growth and evolution experienced by the Spanish biotech sector in the last few years. This is in fact one of the strategic reasons we have decided to establish Oncoheroes’ Drug Discovery Lab in Spain through a subsidiary.