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Inside The Bradfield Centre Podcast Episode 42: Jenny Barnett, CEO, Monument Therapeutics

James chats to Jennifer Barnett, CEO at Monument Therapeutics, a Cambridge Angels portfolio company. We cover Jennifer's career path, the experience of spinning out from Cambridge Cognition, the problem Monument Therapeutics solves, managing a dispersed team, and their plans for the future.

Transcript

James Parton:
Welcome to Inside the Bradfield Centre where we'll tell the stories of the companies, the partners, and the staff that make the Bradfield Centre community so special. I'm James Parton, the managing director of The Bradfield and joining us today is Jennifer Barnett, who's the CEO of Monument Therapeutics.

James Parton:
So today's episode is the first of a series of meeting some of the portfolio companies of our partner, Cambridge Angels. So Jenny, thanks for taking the time to come onto the show today, very much appreciated. And why don't we start with just learning a little bit more about you and your path to where you are today?

Jennifer Barnett:
Yeah, absolutely. So my undergraduate degree was in psychology and like most people, I thought I'd be a psychologist. And then when I learned a little bit more about what that entailed, I decided to go into research instead. So I did a psychology at Oxford, moved over to Cambridge for a PhD where I was in the department of psychiatry, looking at how cognitive function changes across the life course in people who will later develop schizophrenia. So a bit of an esoteric thing as PhDs often are. I then went over to the States for a year on a fellowship, experienced American academia, and then realized I didn't want to be an academic and came back here to get an industry job.

James Parton:
Did you get exposure to like an entrepreneurial experience in the States? Was that what came?

Jennifer Barnett:
It was more the opposite in that seeing the horrors of, I was affiliated with Harvard and seeing the kind of competitiveness of the academic world, which I'd been quite sheltered from in my PhD, just because I was working for a really lovely guy who I think had protected me from all the politics. And yeah, I think just gradual realization that I didn't want to be a super specialist in one thing all my life. I'm more interested in a broader set of things and industry gave more room for that, I think.

James Parton:
Interesting.

Jennifer Barnett:
So I came back here, worked for a company called Cambridge Cognition, which is based just outside Cambridge and ended up staying there for 14 years. I think this is technically my last month with them, although for the last, well, year and a bit, I've been mostly working for Monument Therapeutics, which we spun out of Cambridge Cognition. So it's been a very unplanned career move, very unplanned career path in general. But I'm very happy with how things have worked out.

James Parton:
Yeah. Maybe I can just ask a supplementary there about spinning out from an established business because another one of our companies based here Gearset has had a similar kind of path. They spun out of Redgate software. So just for kind of listeners that haven't maybe experienced what it's like spinning out, could you talk through at what stage that opportunity kind of presented itself and what did that look like to make that kind of decision, a viable path to maybe pursue?

Jennifer Barnett:
Yeah, absolutely. So from us, Monument came about really as a research project within Cambridge Cognition. We'd been working... Cambridge Cognition is a service provider to the pharmaceutical industry. So it develops software that measures how brains function basically. So software that looks like computer games, but that has really great science behind it that measures precise aspects of brain function. And pharmaceutical companies use it to measure how their drug is affecting brain function. So if you are developing a drug for Alzheimer's and you want it to improve brain function, if you're developing a drug that's going to be used in children, for example, and you need to prove to the regulators that you're not going to be affecting brain development by taking this drug. So in my time at Cambridge Cognition, I probably worked on maybe a hundred clinical trials of other people's drugs.

Jennifer Barnett:
And you learn a lot from doing that. And one of the things that we thought about a lot was how we could do it better. So the sort of intellectual part of the spinout was putting our money where our mouth was and saying, maybe we could try and do this the way that we think it ought to be done, or it could be done differently from standard. In terms of the practicalities, the pros of a spin out are someone is supporting you and paying your salary while you go through the fundraising and sort of ideation stage and Cambridge Cognition were great at doing that. The cons are that you maybe don't have that immediacy of needing to make a specific jump at a specific time. So to be honest, we thought about it for a long time before it became the right time to separate and become an independent company.

Jennifer Barnett:
COVID was in lots of ways a precipitating factor for that, because I think as a lot of people changed jobs, changed careers, moved house in the early stage of COVID when you had time to think about what you really wanted to do. For us, it became clear that now was really the time to do this.

James Parton:
Interesting. And the rational, I guess it means that the parent can focus on their call, but still get the upside of the diversification?

Jennifer Barnett:
Absolutely. So Cambridge Cognition owns shares in Monument. So if Monument does well, Cambridge Cognition will benefit from that. The sort of philosophical differences, I suppose, are that Cambridge Cognition is a listed company. It needs to make a profit and obviously if it invests heavily in R and D, that takes away from its profit. Monument's a drug development company. So we're heavy R and D spend. And potentially, a high risk investment relative to what the investors in Cambridge Cognition originally invested in. So it was sort of a bit of a change necessary to take that big leap into doing R and D ourselves.

James Parton:
Yeah, that makes sense. So that, I guess that's the perfect segue then to talk a little bit more about Monument. So can you explain to us what you do and kind of why you do it?

Jennifer Barnett:
Yeah, absolutely. So, as I was saying earlier, having worked in largely developing drugs for neuroscience for a long period of time, we noticed that one of the things that often happens is that during the early stage of drug development, a particular candidate drug looks really good, seems to work really well. And then when you take that to larger groups of patients in the later stages of drug development, suddenly it doesn't seem to do so well. It doesn't meet its end points and ultimately, doesn't get approved. Most CNS drugs, that's neuroscience drugs, don't get approved. It's historically been one of the least successful areas, I would say for the last couple of decades. But because we were often involved in analyzing those data in great depth, we were able to see what was going on in other people's trials, which is often that some patients are actually responding really well to the drug and would really benefit from it if it were approved.

Jennifer Barnett:
But other patients were not, they're either not responding at all or even having kind of the wrong kind of response, having bad side effects in the drug. And that's quite typical. So if we think of something like depression, if you go and get an antidepressant from your doctor, you've got about a third chance that you'll benefit, a third chance that you won't have really any effect either way and a third chance that you'll have such bad side effects that you'll end up stopping the drug and not benefiting from its antidepressant properties. So this is something about how the brain works and how psychiatry and neurology work that we don't have markers that we use to define patient groups. We decide which diagnosis people have on the basis of the symptoms that they describe.

Jennifer Barnett:
So how are you feeling? Tell me about that. Do you think it's better or worse since I saw you last? And that makes it quite difficult to do drug development because it's not a very precise measurement to target your drug at. So the idea of Monument was to use these cognitive assessments or biomarkers, as we now think of them that have been developed in Cambridge Cognition and use them not as the endpoints of clinical trials, but to define groups of patients up front who we know have a brain process in common. So whatever else is going on with them, if they score poorly on this particular biomarker, we can assume that they've got this one brain abnormality, and then we can find a drug that will treat that abnormality.

Jennifer Barnett:
So we're trying to take a stratified medicine approach. Something that's really common in cancer, for example, where if you're developing a new cancer drug, you'll do it on the basis of a particular genotype that the tumor expresses, but it's quite different in neuroscience. We haven't seen people doing that before.

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James Parton:
It sounds like it was a greenfield opportunity then. There wasn't a lot of competition out there, it was a real gap in the market for you.

Jennifer Barnett:
Yeah, there wasn't at the time. And when I was first sort of trying to sell people on this story, there wasn't anyone else doing it as a company. Although when you talk to scientists, they say, oh yeah, of course, that's what we should be doing. That makes lots of sense. But interestingly, last November, a couple of companies came out of the US saying exactly the same thing. So there's now quite a few startups in this area and we're seeing big pharmaceutical companies starting to talk about precision psychiatry or stratified psychiatry as well. So I think it's an idea whose time has come.

James Parton:
Yeah. Good timing for you guys.

Jennifer Barnett:
Yeah, we're really lucky to take the plunge at the moment when there's a lot of enthusiasm for this area.

James Parton:
With that in mind, then what kind of stage is the company at? We obviously got introduced through Cambridge Angels. Emmy's been on the show before and is obviously a big part of our community here at The Bradfield Center. So you got that kind of seed funding stage right now, is that right?

Jennifer Barnett:
That's right. So we raised seed funding last June, which allowed us to spin out and become independent. Cambridge Angels had been really supportive of that. And we've just completed or just completing another sort of small top up round that again, we've had new Angels involved in. So yeah, the seed stage at the moment. That was to fund the preclinical drug development work. We're reformulating some old drugs to apply here. And then we'll be looking to raise our series A about the beginning of next year. And that'll be to fund the human proof of mechanism studies that will hopefully get us to able to do licensing deals with pharma companies and take the drugs forward that way.

James Parton:
Interesting. Okay. And yeah, I mean, I'm more on the software side of things than the science side of things. But what kind of time horizon does that typically look like to bring something like this to market?

Jennifer Barnett:
Yeah, not very quickly is the answer. So on the software side the digital biomarkers are all really well validated and kind of up and running. And we've had experience at Cambridge Cognition of formulating them into medical devices for use in a general practitioner's office or something like that. So the software side is good to go, broadly speaking. The difficulty is the drug development, which is slow because of the necessary safety steps that you have to take. So one of the drugs that we are working with is basically a really well used anti-inflammatory drug. So we know it's safe, it's been used in millions of people. Except that in its standard form, it doesn't get into the brain at all. And we're interested in it to help dampen down inflammation within the brain. So we've worked with some clever chemists, reformulated it into a lipid formulation that gets it into the brain.

Jennifer Barnett:
But now we need to check that it's safe to do that. So we know it's safe in all other parts of the body. Now we need to go through the safety steps to check that it's safe in the brain. So there's some acceleration over a standard drug development program because we know that it's not going to cause problems with liver or kidneys or something like that. But still, we need to do the kind of careful steps of putting small, low doses into healthy volunteers. And then higher doses and then multiple doses, before we can go into patients and actually prove that the drug works. So the patient studies should be sort of starting the back end of next year. And as I say, we hope that those proof of mechanism studies will give us the data that we need to partner with pharmaceutical companies who will then take these on for the big, late stage studies that involve hundreds and thousands of patients around the world.

James Parton:
Yeah. And I'm guessing a big advantage of working with some like a Cambridge Angels is not just the access to the capital. It's the experience within the Angel group of going through these kinds of things before.

Jennifer Barnett:
Yeah. Absolutely. The knowledge base around here is amazing. It's a real network effect. There's no two ways around it. People invest in us because they know some of the people we work with or they know some of the other investors and know that those people know what they're talking about.

James Parton:
Yeah. They can trust the validation in the idea.

Jennifer Barnett:
Yeah, exactly. Because early stage investing is basically you either trust the team or you trust the idea that those are the only two opportunities. You know that they won't go according to plan and you basically looking for people who you can trust to figure out a new plan when something goes wrong.

James Parton:
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you touched on COVID when we were talking about the genesis of the company. So you are kind of operating well, there's the CEO, you're managing a geographically dispersed team. So I'm kind of really interested to understand what the challenges of leading in that kind of situation look like. And how'd you get that sense of team and how'd you build a culture. And I guess as you move towards series A, you're going to have to start putting in plans of scaling the headcount in the company and all of those kinds of challenges. So just kind of share some of the things that I guess, that you are trying to wrestle with as a CEO right now.

Jennifer Barnett:
Yeah, absolutely. So we were very lucky in lots of respect in that my chief scientist and my head of development had come with me from Cambridge Cognition. So we'd had a period of time in which we had been involved in incubating the company from largely physically the same location. A couple of times a week, we'd all be in an office together. And that definitely helped build that the culture and just the trust and knowledge sharing. So that's been a big advantage. We actually all live fairly remotely from one another. So Monument was always going to be a largely virtual company, and we actually have some investment from the greater manager in Cheshire authority. So we do have physically an office in Alderley Park up in Cheshire. But the reality is that nobody's time is well spent commuting.

Jennifer Barnett:
And so a lot of the work that goes on is remote. I think as we scale, as you say, as we take on more people, that's going to be a lot more tricky than it is now. We're trying to deal with it by making sure we have face to face meetups whenever we can. So we've been having kind of retreats two or three times a year where we all go offsite to a pub in a beautiful place somewhere and spend a few days together. Theoretically doing some walking and non-work things, but actually, doing a lot of chit chat about the company. Because I think that's the part that everyone misses. It's not that you can't work effectively through Zoom or Teams or for your thing of choices. It's the extra time when you're getting a coffee before the meeting and when you are walking out to your cars afterwards and when you go, maybe go to the pub together afterwards, that's where the magic happens in science companies.

Jennifer Barnett:
And that's the bit that I think is hardest to replicate and is most valuable in lots of ways. So that's what we're trying to replicate with this retreat idea.

James Parton:
I guess, in some ways you've got the advantage of being born almost in COVID. So you're creating a modern business that's already predesigned to cope with that kind of lack of need to be all in the same office, nine to five, Monday to Friday.

Jennifer Barnett:
Yeah. I think that's absolutely right. I think retrofitting how to work now to an existing, to a culture that had everybody in the office. And then had nobody in the office, figuring out what to do next is really tricky. In part because people just vary in their preferences of what they want to do. And so anything you implement from above I think is bound to make some people really happy and some people really unhappy and also just people's lives have changed. And two years on people have moved, they moved away from a job or near a different job or something like that. And so it's tricky to manage those expectations. So yeah, I think we have lots of advantages of just being virtual right from the start. And I suspect more and more people will set up these ways and things like The Bradfield Center will become the heart of people's culture rather than anything that involves commuting to a bricks and mortar kind of place.

James Parton:
Yeah, absolutely. So what does this year, or the next couple of years look like? I mean, we touched on some of that maybe when we were talking about the growth that was planned in the company, but what are the kind of big milestones that you are looking towards?

Jennifer Barnett:
So the next big milestone for us is the first time that our anti-inflammatory program goes into humans. So we've done the pre-clinical work now and some safety studies. So yeah, the first clinical trial for us starts next month, I believe, which is a really big milestone. Hopefully, we'll have data from that by the end of the year. And it will show us that the drug is getting into human brains as well as it gets into animal brain. And that's the data that we really want to use to start fundraising for our series A. So my job around the end of this year will all be about figuring out who's going to be with us for the series A and what that really looks like.

James Parton:
And you need that data as the proof point to do that.

Jennifer Barnett:
And that data's really the value inflection point for us in terms of everything looks beautiful in animal models, but animals aren't the same as humans. So that's why we've done this recent raises to allow us to get that first human study the way we want it so that we can hopefully have some really nice human data to go forward with for that funding round.

James Parton:
Yeah. Fantastic. Well, that's amazing. I mean, so if people want to find out more about you guys, well, where should they head to?

Jennifer Barnett:
Our website is monumenttx.com. It has contact emails on it. I'm very happy to chat to anyone that's interested in the area.

James Parton:
Fantastic. Thanks again for coming on. Really appreciate you taking the time. I'm sure you're super busy at the moment.

Jennifer Barnett:
Not at all. It's been absolute pleasure.

James Parton:
Thanks.

James Parton:
Thanks again to Jenny for coming in today and spending some time on the show. The show was produced by Cole Homer of Cambridge TV, and you can listen to previous episodes by searching for Inside the Bradfield Center on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, Stitcher, and Amazon Music, or by visiting, BradfieldCenter.com. If you have two spare seconds, please give us a five star review. It will really help other people discover the show.

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