Adam Kelliher's latest foray into business - a revolutionary treatment for burn victims - is attracting international headlines.
After a two-year sabbatical from the world of commerce, following the sale of Equateq in Breasclete on the Isle of Lewis to BASF, the chemicals multinational, Adam is now heading up a company that is commercialising a new burns treatment that is fast, easy and can be used successfully across the globe by medics in the field with minimal training in its use.
With his wife Cathra, Adam also owns Borve Lodge in West Harris, as well as the Isle of Taransay, and earlier made headlines in the area with the development of the Broch and Stone Cottage visitor accommodation across the road from Borve Lodge.
His new venture is on a different scale. First developed in Australia, the ReCell® device kick starts the healing process by taking a postage stamp-sized sample of healthy skin and converting it into a suspension of skin cells. Essentially, ReCell is a mini-laboratory in a box that uses skin cells and enzymes to produce a cellular suspension in just 30 minutes. Requiring no refrigeration, the ReCell technology can be used almost anywhere either in clinical settings or more widely in the field, drastically reducing the current time frame counted in weeks for other skin culturing techniques.
As well as being an almost immediate treatment for burns, the other advantage of Avita Medical's breakthrough is that one postage stamp-sized skin sample can produce enough skin suspension to cover an area equivalent to an A4 size sheet of paper, a ratio of 1:80 of wound coverage, greatly reducing the need for skin grafting or skin graft sites.
“It is far less interventionist than other methods,” says Kelliher, “And anything that seals off the wound quickly will reduce infection. It is not an anti-infection treatment but anything that triggers healing, reduces shock and seals off the wound is good for the patient.”
Another key point is the ease of use. Doctors and surgeons can be trained in its use in an hour. Together with the lack of refrigeration, its two-year shelf life and being battery-powered, there are obvious applications for ReCell in Third World countries, military field hospitals and in disaster situations.
Explaining what tempted him back into enterprise, Kelliher says: “I was drawn to the company because it has a very exciting breakthrough technology for restoring the skin layer of wounds such as burns, product wounds and some cosmetic applications.
“It is a very exciting technology, the company has been around for about twelve years and they have done a lot of work in that time. They have more than 60 published trials, the device itself has been used more than 6,000 times and we are approved in 32 countries, so it has got some very strong assets.”
Unlike many other biotech companies which are in the growth start up phase, Cambridge-based Avita Medical is in the commercialisation phase. Kelliher's mandate and rationale for joining the company as CEO is to roll out ReCell across the globe and generate sales.
But it is more than just a business opportunity. “It is always good to be involved with something that can transform people's lives and can be of real benefit because when you start hearing the case studies and when people start reporting back to you that they have had terrible wounds that they haven't been able to heal and that ReCell has triggered the healing process, you feel you have made a real difference to people's lives.”
Recently ReCell received endorsement from an arm of the US Government. After two years of intensive talks, Avita Medical landed a contract valued at up to $54 million from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a US federal agency, tasked with disaster preparedness in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The five-year contract is a comprehensive offering that will support Avita Medical in its drive to launch in the USA.
Winning the contract was in itself a major achievement. Due diligence was intense so the award of the contract signals that BARDA believes in the product. “They don't do things lightly. You are talking about a big federal contract that is spending taxpayers' dollars which they, quite understandably, don't do in a flippant way. They have got to know this product works and can be of real value to the American population. Beyond the cash value of the contract is the validation of being supported by a US federal agency which carries a definite cachet.”
The milestone contract will also be viewed positively by the influential Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is in charge of medical licensing in the USA and are currently overseeing a separate approval trial with Avita Medical.
Kelliher was at his own admission not ready for early retirement at the age of 53 and needed “something to get his teeth into”. His two-year sabbatical “was good for a little while but I do think you need to be out there in the world doing something worthwhile, and from this perspective, Avita really fits the bill.”
But he underlines that getting back into business is not an undertaking to be taken on a whim: “I know from my previous businesses you have to live, think, breath the business. This is a full contact sport. You can't do it halfway, you really have to believe in the venture to make it succeed.”
Looking to the future, Kelliher expects Avita Medical to have in the next 12 months a very good idea of the efficacy of their FDA approval trial, be well into fulfilling many of the aspects of the prestigious BARDA contract, operating in more markets and selling more ReCell units than at present.
But though a serial entrepreneur in the past, his new job at Avita Medical has not been without its challenges, he admits. “I saw things that needed to be done, but there has been a whole learning curve that has come with the new job. For a start, my first two companies were wholly owned by my wife and I, and those were private companies. This is a public company listed on the ASX [Australian Securities Exchange] so there is a whole range of disciplines involved in that and ultimately I am beholden to shareholders as well. It is a different approach and more regulated by its nature. But I have been fortunate that these disciplines were already in place in the company, and so I have not had to set anything up on the compliance front.”
The main focus is to achieve the value that recognises the hard work to date and the potential of the technology. Currently the company is operating on a low capitalisation and low share price basis, so much of Kelliher's attention is on improving those fundamentals.
His outlook is upbeat: “Who knows where it will lead? Once you show proof of concept and recurrent sales in various markets, and show that kind of traction, all sorts of doors will open.”
Interview by Taylor Edgar