Thursday 18 January 2018

I can do job, insists science chief whose own firm failed

Edel O'Connell

THE scientist deciding how €100m in taxpayers' money will be spent on research has insisted he is the right man for the job despite the failure of his own research firm which led to the loss of 200 jobs.

Professor Mark Ferguson's biotech firm Renovo Limited never made a marketable product, even though more than €170m was invested in it -- including a large chunk from the British taxpayer.

Prof Ferguson and his wife received more than €18m from their time with the company, which ended last year.

The academic has since been appointed director general of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), with an annual salary of €189,000.

"I could earn a lot more in the private sector but I wanted this job," he told the Irish Independent.

Despite Renovo never producing a drug that could be marketed, Prof Ferguson received €4.5m in salary, including a payment of over €800,000 when he stepped down.

His researcher wife Sharon O'Kane received more than €2m and the pair also netted €12.7m by exercising a director's option when the shares were at their peak in 2007.

Prof Ferguson has defended the payments. "I invested all of my savings in Renovo. I took a lower salary in the early days," he said.

"Lots of others involved sold shares and lots of investors made hundreds of millions. I wasn't the only one who made money.

"My vision was to produce a billion dollar company employing 2,000 people. Lots of people did well and lots of employees became millionaires," he said.

Prof Ferguson (56), who is originally from Belfast,spent 22 years at the University of Manchester where he conducted research on the healing properties of scars in alligator embryos.

In 2000 he set up Renovo to commercialise this research. Together with his wife, he grew the company from just two employees to a publicly traded one with more than 200 staff.

In 2006 the company was floated on the London stock market and €78m was raised.

It also received €100m from pharmaceutical company Shire, along with over €20m from the British taxpayer in the form of grants and research tax credits.

However, despite initial promise, all the drug products ultimately failed their clinical trials .

By 2009 it had spent more than €100m but had no revenue to show for it. The share price fell sharply and staff were laid off. In February 2011 the potential scar healing drug Juvista failed to meet its goals in a major clinical trial.

Problem

This had a devastating impact on the company. Prof Ferguson restructured Renovo and effectively put it up for sale.

All assets were sold off and the remaining staff let go, with the company rehiring some as consultants. The company has still not been sold.

"The drug development process went through small clinical trials which went very well and the findings were very promising," said Prof Ferguson.

"However, it was during phase three clinical trials that we hit a major problem," he added.

"It turned out there are a small number of people whose wounds heal with extreme variation, so this threw the results off. This could be remedied, but it would mean developing a genetic test to see who was suitable for the drugs which would mean pouring another £100m into it and waiting another five years.

"The investors were not prepared to do this. The most difficult thing I have had to do in my life was make those people redundant," he said.

His contract as chief executive with Renovo ended in June of last year.

Earlier this year, SFI announced the appointment of Prof Ferguson after he applied for the job.

Now, he is overseeing a major policy shift at SFI where research will only receive funding if it can be claimed from the outset that it will make a profit.

Irish Independent

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