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Driving preclinical discovery

Life science applications captured Richard Johnsson’s interest early on and today, as Head of R&D Operations at Red Glead Discovery, he enjoys finding drug discovery solutions, helping clients bring new therapies to market, and being part of the development of the field.

Richard Johnsson’s way into the field of life sciences was organic chemistry. His plan was to study geology for his Master’s degree, but the courses in organic chemistry really inspired him and changed his path.

“Soon after, applications in life science were so much more interesting to me than the actual synthesis and that is how it started. In my graduate studies I was working closely with biologists to understand the effects of the molecules that I was synthesizing and that has continued ever since,” he says.

Richard graduated with a Master of Science degree in chemistry from Lund University and then went on to earn a PhD in organic chemistry from the same university, at the Faculty of Engineering. He did postdoctoral studies at McGill University in Montreal for three years before returning to Sweden, then worked two years at Lund University as a researcher before he joined Red Glead Discovery (RGD) in 2014. Most recently he has also been appointed Associate Professor at Lund University.

Richard joined RGD as a medical chemist to work in a client project. “It was a project that I felt was very close to my education and background and I thought that I could make an impact there,” he says.

After a while he got the opportunity to move over to peptide chemistry, an area that interested him a lot as all his PhD and Postdoc research was on biomolecules. ”After a couple of years, I assumed the overall responsibility for the peptide team and last year I became the Head of R&D Operations. I feel I have gotten a lot of opportunities to develop and to grow at RGD.”

Finding ways to continue growth

As Head of R&D Operations, Richard oversees the CRO part of the company, he ensures that they have the right resources to execute their projects, he meets and discusses projects internally and with clients, and he makes sure that they are ready for the future.

“Our clients include everything from pharma and biotech companies to academic groups and start-ups in Europe, Asia, and North America.”

“Our main business is as a CRO, delivering drug discovery services in the pre-clinical phase. Our clients include everything from pharma and biotech companies to academic groups and start-ups in Europe, Asia, and North America,” says Richard.

In addition to the CRO business, the company also drives scalable projects that they could spin-out or sell. RGD was founded by former AstraZeneca scientists in 2011, when the big pharma company decided to move its research division out of Lund. The founders formed a drug discovery team, comprising of different competencies within chemistry, biology and ADME (absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion). The company merged with Pepticon in 2014 to expand capacity within peptide chemistry. It has grown from seven to over 50 employees in ten years and has served more than 200 different clients to date, so currently a lot of Richard’s time is spent finding ways to continue their growth.

“It could be things like securing the right infrastructure and co-workers to perform our projects, but also looking at new technologies and services to ensure that we can meet the requests of the future,” he says.

 

Medicon Village The Spark. Photo: Anders Tidén. Richard Johnsson. Photo: Freddy Billqvist

 

Opportunities to try new things

In 2016 the company graduated from SmiLe business incubator. Since the start-up, Richard and his colleagues are located at the previous AstraZeneca site in Lund, which currently are the life science hub Medicon Village. Due to the size of the company, there are many ways to interact with colleagues, believes Richard. “It is easy to walk around at our premises and talk on an ad hoc basis. At the same time it is of course sometimes necessary to have more formalized meetings and workshops to solve problems and tasks that have arisen.”

He also believes that there are a lot of opportunities for his co-workers to develop. “As a CRO we work with different projects, so there is an opportunity to switch projects and try out new things,” he says.

In general, Sweden is very strong in start-ups, says Richard. “I think we have many support organizations like incubators and investment agencies to help start-ups, but also “lärarundantaget” that makes it possible for researchers at our universities to spin-out companies.”

He mentions the fields of diabetes, inflammation and oncology as disease areas where Sweden is particularly strong.

“I really like science, so I really like to discuss science with clients, current and potential, and co-workers to see how we together can find the best solution to a problem.”

The best part of his job is to discuss science and solve problems, he says. “I really like science, so I really like to discuss science with clients, current and potential, and co-workers to see how we together can find the best solution to a problem.”

Being prepared for the future

Drug discovery is always changing and evolving, sometimes in incremental steps and sometimes in huge leaps, says Richard. “I think it is a challenge to be prepared for what the future has, and be part of the development. To be sure that we as a company are relevant in the future as well.”

According to Richard, the biggest trends in drug discovery right now, are computational chemistry, machine learning and AI.

“More and more drug discovery projects will benefit from this when we get better and better tools to predict different aspects of the drug discovery process. Better assumptions can be made, less compounds need to be synthesized and tested. I think it will in the end shorten the pre-clinical phase a lot. That will in the long run also mean that we will be more sustainable, another very important thing, as less unnecessary compounds will be synthesized and tested.”

Like most companies, RGD has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and Richard gives us some examples. “We have seen problems with our supply chains with some materials that overlap with the supplies in healthcare. Here we had to find alternative methods and suppliers to be able to continue doing our work. We also had a higher absence from work that we had to balance to make sure we could deliver in our projects.”

The lockdown also generated some new clients for the company, he adds. “When some countries were under lockdown, they could not conduct research in their own country and hence contacted us to help them with their projects. As a CRO partner in drug discovery we have also been involved in some projects aimed at treatment and vaccination against COVID-19.”

Photo of Richard Johnsson: Freddy Billqvist