Owlstone Medical’s Co-founder and CEO, Billy Boyle, was recently named an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2021. Following the announcement, we caught up with him to talk about the Honour and Billy’s ongoing vision for the company.
How did you feel when you found out about the Honour?
I was actually in a meeting when the email came through, so I had to keep it pretty quiet, and I couldn’t quite believe it to begin with. It was very exciting, it’s a great reflection on what the Owlstone Medical team have achieved over the last few years and the big steps forward that we’ve helped to make in the breath field. I’m looking forward to going for the investiture and talking to the Queen about Breath Biopsy.
Which of Owlstone Medical's achievements so far are you most proud of?
Good quality breath research is much more complex than it first appears, and it’s taken some time for the field to get to grips with the fundamental challenges. I think a lot of the core issues in the field have been around for a while: How do you get a good sample? How do you remove background contamination? How do you ensure robust biomarker discovery?
With Breath Biopsy®, I think we’ve made really fantastic progress in addressing these fundamentals, and once you have the tools in place that’s when you can start to apply them and see how breath can make a real difference in different kinds of tests. We’ve done a really good job since spinning out in 2016 on addressing those challenges. It’s been a significant commitment and a lot of work to address these challenges but what we’ve ended up with is a valuable resource for the whole community. Many of them can’t afford to go out and spend a huge amount of money on setting up and optimising their own high-end GC-MS labs, but they can access it through Breath Biopsy for a fraction of the cost.
The second bit where the team has excelled is in flipping the conventional notion of breath research on its head. We’ve helped to progress beyond simply searching for endogenous compounds in breath by developing the concept of EVOC® Probes as a way to target known biology. My bet would be that this is how breath will make the biggest impact, particularly when you think about how it can be combined with the more typical endogenous approaches.
What motivates and inspires you about the work at Owlstone Medical?
I think it’s the same for many of us in the company. Our mission to save lives and reduce healthcare costs is the fundamental reason why I get out of bed in the morning. And we know that early detection and precision medicine are two of the biggest challenges that exist in healthcare today, and I think these have much greater potential for impact than simply making new treatments.
What are you most excited about for the future?
We now have a solid foundation for collecting breath samples, analysing them in the lab and wrangling the data to get meaningful, valuable results. So, for me, it now comes down to finding those clinically relevant biomarkers that can help us address some of the world’s biggest healthcare challenges.
Our new work using EVOC Probes that target the microbiome for digestive health, for example, is one area where there’s a big problem, affecting a lot of people and there’s a clear unmet need. Breath is a robust way to help those people. Fundamentally we need to find new biomarkers so we can get more tests out there.
With the advances we’ve made in the core technologies and our discovery capabilities, I have more optimism than ever before that we can crack the problem and find biomarkers.
Why do you believe breath has so much potential for use in clinical tests?
I think breath can address two main problems. The first comes down to acceptability for patients. A lot of tests that exist today, patients don’t do them because they’re invasive, uncomfortable etc. If you put the patient at the heart of your work, and ask how you make the process of clinical testing better for them, then you can’t get better than breath.
The second thing is about to performance. Breath won’t be suitable for every application, you need to pick the ones that can be solved practically with breath. Both with endogenous VOCs but also particularly using EVOC Probes, I have a lot of confidence that we can achieve good clinical performance in really important problems like lung cancer.
Breath has the potential to give you both high performance and high acceptability, and it’s this combination that makes it so powerful.
Why is Owlstone Medical the company best poised to make Breath Biopsy a reality?
When we started, we had some caution around breath because it’s been slow to develop as a field. Our different background means we took a very different approach to developing Breath Biopsy compared to anything that’s been done before. We were able to ask questions to find out what wasn’t working and to build up a robust new foundation for breath analysis. We then threaded in EVOC Probes to further improve performance.
Breath biomarker discovery is an inherently multidisciplinary exercise, it’s not just engineering, or biology, or data sciences all of it needs to come together. We’ve been fortunate enough to be able to raise the investment from amazing partners like Horizons Ventures, which has allowed us to bring together all these specialist skillsets to build an outstanding team. Without that you just don’t have a chance of success.
How important is it to have a diverse and talented team behind you? And how has that enabled Owlstone Medical’s many successes, including our recent OBN Award?
When we came into the breath space, we saw a lot of highly capable and skilled groups doing fantastic work, but they largely specialised in only one area. They knew sensors but didn’t understand sample handling, or lacked knowledge of the biology or compound identification.
Bringing all of that together was a key part of what we wanted to achieve at Owlstone Medical. But it’s about more than that. Our success is in how well our whole team works very effectively together, sharing understanding from different perspectives and supporting each other to solve the problem in its entirety. I’m very proud of all that we’ve achieved and it’s the whole Owlstone Medical team working together that makes that possible.
We are recruiting now, so if you’d like to join Owlstone Medical, visit our Careers pages. Earlier in the year Billy was interviewed for the Thermo Scientific podcast, Science with a Twist, which is available on-demand.