Creativity at the frontier of science

“I have always worked in creative industries, but science is the most exciting and inspiring of them all,” says Jonny Ohlson of Touchlight Genetics. Follow the successful entrepreneur’s journey from advertising agencies to technology that may underpin the next generation of DNA products.

You might imagine the founder of a company at the forefront of advances in the manufacture of DNA would be a white-coated boffin whose career was nurtured in university laboratories. But 55-year-old Jonny Ohlson of Touchlight Genetics is as far from that archetype as he could be: his credo is that the creative processes behind successful business-building are the same — whether they are applied to consumer offerings or at the frontiers of science.

From Saatchi to Soho House
A business studies graduate, Ohlson knew from the age of ten he wanted to be an entrepreneur — and that he didn’t want to follow his father and older siblings into the City of London. 

Having first thought of opening a restaurant, he opted for advertising and joined Saatchi in its 1980s heyday, working for clients such as BP and British Airways under the tutelage of a legendary creative director, Paul Arden, who encouraged him to believe he could do anything he set his mind to. He went on to be managing director of the Griffin-Bacal agency until it was sold to the Doyle Dane Bernbach Group (one of the largest creative agency networks in the world) in 1994.

When one door closes another door opens. As a next step Ohlson partnered with Soho House founder Nick Jones to help develop the format and brand of his original clubhouse in Greek Street, Soho — hugely fashionable with London’s media crowd — and replicate it in international hot spots like New York and Miami. Jones ran the operations while Ohlson was responsible for the marketing. He stayed involved as a director until 2006, by which time he had also begun investing in tech ventures and his imagination had been gripped by the potentialities of DNA. 

A different kind of creativity
“I was fascinated by the Human Genome Project,” he says. “I began to see that DNA coding could be a force for change in the 21st century the way computer algorithms had been in the 20th.” He met the biologist Dr. Vanessa Hill and commissioned due diligence on some of her ideas in the DNA field: from there was born Touchlight’s concept of an ‘enzymatic’ DNA manufacturing process for a range of medical and research purposes — radically reducing the cost, time and space required by the established method that utilises bacterial fermentation. 

Touchlight’s enzymatic DNA vector and manufacturing platform deploys a linear vector that is free of backbone/bacterial sequences, has high and durable expression, and is manufactured at multi-gram scale in a 5-day GMP process. The company translated an idea into practice, evidencing the concept and then rigorously scaling the technology to levels that will enable new medicines such as DNA vaccines and gene therapies. The company is also advancing the potential of DNA nanomaterials as DNA can store data, power nanoelectronics and be used in computation, metabolic engineering and sensors. Touchlight’s overall aim is to enable the next generation of genetic medicines and DNA industries.

“Science is the most exciting and inspiring industry of them all”     
Shunning the conventional path of raising venture capital with the target of listing on Aim or selling to a large corporate within five-to-seven years, Ohlson first funded the project himself, then raised ‘patient capital’ from friends of friends who invested through an enterprise investment scheme (EIS). Patents were secured and an initial team of three grew to 45 at Touchlight’s headquarters, a former waterworks in Hampton, UK. 30 more professionals will be recruited to meet the needs of a joint venture with a major gene therapy company.  In 2018, a significant research collaboration with Johnson & Johnson in the area of oncology and infectious diseases was announced. 

“We recruit incredibly clever scientists and have built a truly wonderful team. It’s been a mountainous challenge: if I’d known it would take ten years, I don’t know whether I would have embarked on it. But we’ve built a company that’s unique, happy, private and British, and I’m very proud of that.  Science hasn’t been seen as a creative industry, but it is the most exciting and inspiring of them all.”

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