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Pacific Edge Biotech chief executive David Darling has had a momentous 12 months. The Dunedin-based company that provides high-performance cancer detection tools is receiving global recognition. Dr Darling is the Otago Daily Times 2012 Business Leader of the Year. Business editor DeneMackenzie caught up with him.
Tracking down David Darling to tell him he had won the Otago Daily Times Business Leader of the Year award was not an easy task.
Dr Darling has been travelling extensively this year, as the Pacific Edge Biotech company continues to introduce its diagnostic cancer text, Cxbladder.
The Dunedin-based company has broken through globally, actively recruiting staff in the United States, introducing its product there, launching in Australia and being on track to launch in Spain and Portugal.
During the next 12 to 18 months, Pacific Edge would continue with the transformation from a research operation to a world-leading cancer molecular diagnostics company providing high-performance cancer detection tools.
During an interview, Dr Darling acknowledged that the path to success had not been easy for Pacific Edge but that the persistence he learnt in a ''previous life'' has paid off.
Dr Darling was involved in tree genetics, in Rotorua, which involved developing trees particularly suitable for the pulp and paper industry. Some of those trials took 14 years for the trees to show the signs the researchers were looking for, he said. Patience was something he learned early in his career.
It was easy for media stories to focus on the negative-type stories coming out of Pacific Edge in the early days. The company was making continual losses as it poured money into market and product research, he said.
But those early years of struggle had allowed the company to build a base from which it could launch subsidiaries around the world.
''Into the new year, we will have more announcements. I am delighted by the people we have recruited in the United States.''
In the US, executive, technical and laboratory teams had been recruited and Pacific Edge was ready to go to market. While it appeared the company was chewing through cash, franchising the operation from Dunedin meant it could be done at a relatively low cost.
''We are burning up a bit of money flying people in and out of the US but our core operations are at a lower cost than in the US.''
Dr Darling said he needed to be very careful talking about how much money Pacific Edge had spent when he was travelling overseas.
When he had originally told people how much money Pacific Edge was spending on developing Cxbladder, there was a sense of disbelief.
''They asked how far had we got. They didn't believe how much less we spend than them. We compared it to being offered a new Jaguar car for $10,000 - you would think it was stolen or broken.''
That was a salient lesson for Dr Darling. But now, people were more understanding of the New Zealand attitudes of keeping costs low but working hard to get the results.
Once the prototype of the product was established, it took a long time to get it commercialised, he said.
Pacific Edge wanted to build its own capability and become its own commercial entity. When the product was taken to Healthscope, in Australia, Dr Darling wanted it ''plugged'' into Healthscope's laboratory.
''We told them our people will come in and train you. It's like Starbucks or McDonald's. It's this cup for this type of coffee or this beef patty with this bun. The process has to be exact.''
The health professionals needed their own clinical experiences and Pacific Edge needed to establish Cxbladder as its own brand.
''This should be known as the Cx family of products and Pacific Edge should be marketed internationally. Every brand should produce a good customer experience.''
With franchise operations, those skills had to be taught across the organisation, he said.
Keeping it ''small and tight'' in New Zealand gave Pacific Edge the ability to change any part of the product at the same time around the world.
''We can say that on July 26 the colour of the coffee is going to change from brown to green and everybody will change on that date. It's a different business model.''
Cxbladder continued on its schedule to launch in March next year in the US, the largest market for medical applications.
The inevitable question had to be asked. What motivated Dr Darling in his quest to succeed and help Pacific Edge succeed?He remembered being asked the question once before and still struggled to find an answer.
However, he decided it was about the challenge.
''There is nothing quite like it. It comes down to people. We have an outstanding guy as our chief scientific officer, Parry Guildford, who can be staunch at times. We don't always see eye to eye but after 30 minutes of 'discussion' we are having a laugh and coffee.
''It's a tough road to race when everybody is racing it. You have to have fun. You have to believe in what you are doing and have enough wins. If you are not winning, you are not making progress.''
Pacific Edge decided to target five cancers, building data and making the tools to better understand each cancer, he said.
There was a ''glimmer of hope'' as the company moved from one cancer to another and that kept staff motivated as they searched for more data.
Dr Darling became convinced that Cxbladder could be used by general practitioners in their tool box to combat bladder cancer.
If a patient had blood in their urine, the GP could only use cystology or refer them on to a specialist urologist.
With the test, there was 99.7% certainty that if the result was negative, then the patient was negative for cancer, he said.
For women, Cxbladder also provided a breakthrough. It was rare for blood in the urine of women to mean that cancer was present in the bladder. Often, women were sent home without tests because of the rarity.
However, the use of Cxbladder could either completely rule out cancer or indicate there was a problem, Dr Darling said.
Asked about his reaction to the progress that had been made since the results really ramped up, Dr Darling said when the results were tangible, ''it was a thing of beauty''.
''The first time we got paid for it ... it took time to sink in that it was here. We knew we had a product that was making a difference to people and we felt good about that.''
Cloning trees was technically challenging and rewarding but it was not the same as making a difference to people and that was what the Cxbladder tests could do, he said.
One of Dr Darling's favourite stories about the company's loyal shareholders was about an elderly woman in the North Island who bought into Pacific Edge, not to make money from the shares but to provide money for the research. Her husband had died of bladder cancer.
Later, when the company was going to shareholders with a share offer, she phoned Dr Darling to say she was in hospital with some broken limbs and could not sign any documents. She asked would he hold her allocation of shares for her as she wanted to participate.
When the shares started rising, she again phoned Dr Darling to congratulate him.
''She didn't come in to make money from the shares but now she was seeing the work we were doing come to fruition and her shares rising in price. That sums up our loyal shareholders. You have to believe in what you do.''
Other more commercially-focused shareholders had latterly come into the register but the band of loyal early shareholders and directors remained.
None of the board had taken on the job to make large amounts of money, he said. They had provided him with loyal support as the company went through its teething problems. Pacific Edge was now trying to find a US director but was being careful to ensure that the person appointed would blend in with the current mix of directors.
''People have to fit the style that we have and be in tune with the team. That doesn't mean they are sycophants. If the going gets tough, then the board has to make some tough decisions.''
When Dr Darling started at Pacific Edge, he noticed how many times staff were going out of the building to buy coffee. So he installed a coffee machine that made 18,000 cups in eight years for 13 people before it broke down. All the staff were trained as baristas as they take their coffee seriously. When the machine broke down, it was replaced by a new one and the coffee culture rolled on. Couches are placed around the machine so staff can bounce ideas off each other. A coffee machine and couches are being installed in the US laboratory to encourage the drinking of better-quality coffee, in the belief that better-quality ideas will result.
AT A GLANCE
Cxbladder is a non-invasive, accurate test that enables the early detection of bladder cancer from a small volume of urine. It provides general practitioners and urologists with a quick, cost-effective and accurate measure of the presence of the cancer, and provides urologists with the opportunity to reduce their reliance on the need for invasive tests such as cystoscopy.
The recently completed multi-centre international clinical study recruited 467 patients from Australia and New Zealand. Results show that Cxbladder outperforms all of the benchmark technologies in the trial and detected nearly all of the tumours of concern to a urologist; greater than 95% of all late-stage and high-grade tumours.