Q&A  | 

Alfons Nonell: using data and technology to transform healthcare, bridging the gap between research and the real world

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CEO and co-founder of The Patients Resource, Alfons Nonell is also a mentor at The Collider, providing advice, guidance, and feedback to teams on their projects as they bring their scientific expertise to market. With a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy and a PhD in Computational Chemistry, he’s passionate about combining tech, research, and entrepreneurship to create more efficient and personalised medicine for all. He spoke to us about his experience in the world of med-tech and as part of The Collider tech-transfer programme.

Can you briefly share with us your experience in biotech and drug discovery?

I started off doing a bachelor’s in pharmacy before completing a PhD in computational chemistry. In 2011 I founded Mind the Byte, a bioinformatics company specialising in computational drug discovery. Later, I co-founded The Patients Resource, a company that uses real-world data to improve global health. We collect, store and distribute real-world data for drug development and precision medicine.

You have more than a decade of experience in the C-Suite of companies that capitalise on emerging technologies for medical advancement. What interests you about this field of work?

My motivation to work on these kinds of projects comes from a combination of things. Firstly, I’m a pharmacist, so obviously I’m interested in health. But I know that our health system has a lot of problems, with people unable to access the drugs they need when they need them.

 

I’m also interested in technology and using it to help people – not just to make money. So I’m interested in how we can leverage technology to improve the health system – specifically, using computational models to improve drug development and create more precise medicines. I want to make healthcare more effective and more accessible.

Today, you’re also a mentor at The Collider. Can you explain exactly what your role entails there?

Being a mentor isn’t about telling people what to do. It’s more about guidance and advice. I help my team to reach their milestones during the programme. I set a date and encourage them to finish certain things by then. It’s a challenging programme with lots to do so it’s useful to have someone who’s following up and providing feedback, as well as offering a different perspective or a fresh angle. Each week I ask, “have you considered this? Have you given this enough thought?”.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing emerging companies in your sector?

The biggest challenge for researchers and scientific teams at the early stage is making that jump to a business mindset. Of course, if they’re already taking part in The Collider, then they’re open-minded. But they often start with very little business knowledge. It’s challenging – but I find it very satisfying to help them make this leap. I really like being able to help them take their technology out of the lab and into the real world. You see how people change and are capable of big advances.

Why would someone take part in The Collider? What are the benefits?

Of course, for research teams, being part of The Collider will allow them to commercialise their idea, which is great. But it’s more than that. You’re investing a lot of energy and time in the lab. Do you want more than a paper at the end of it all? Do you want your research to be able to help society? With a programme like The Collider, you can impact society and really change lives.

 

And, from the other side, The Collider allows entrepreneurs to develop projects with a solid scientific basis.

 

Then there’s the network too. It’s really beneficial to have access to all these people with different skills and expertise – to meet others and see how you might be able to help each other.

Of course, this time around, The Collider programme was all online. Have you found that The Collider is always changing and adapting?

The team at The Collider definitely listens to you a lot, as a mentor, and then they make the necessary changes. It’s always evolving, and they take on board feedback to make these changes. As for working online, it has lots of advantages. Of course, it’s a pity not to have that face-to-face contact. But we are a tech-transfer programme so we have to be open-minded and to adapt.

Why is Catalonia such a good place for medical research and these kinds of med-tech companies?

We are a very innovative society, historically speaking. There was always a big movement of people in and out of Catalonia throughout our past, so we’ve had to evolve a lot. This makes us good entrepreneurs and we have lots of small businesses here. Plus, we’re not that wealthy as a region, comparatively, so we’ve learned to work with restricted budgets. These days, there are a lot of international funds coming into Barcelona. We attract investors because we have a lot of researchers and entrepreneurs.

What is the future of tech-transfer in Spain and in Europe more generally?

There are some obstacles. Money, for one thing, which is always a hurdle. But it’s also a question of mentality. In Spain, companies aren’t always seen that positively by researchers in academia. They see them as the “bad guys.” This is true in healthcare in particular. In Europe, companies are considered too money-orientated to be involved in hospitals.

 

But we need to change this mindset. Researchers and companies should be able to work together. We need a two-way flow between corporations and researchers and initiatives like The Collider. Tech-transfer is the future. Research should be monetised and applied, so that it has a social return on investment. Splitting everything off into distinct parts, whether that’s business and science, or public and private, creates separation and competition. It’s not productive. Collaboration is key.