Dr David Hulcoop

Executive Director of Open Targets

I lead Open Targets to address a major challenge in drug discovery: identifying and prioritising targets that have the best chance of leading to safe and effective medicines.

The Open Targets associate research programme helps bridge the gap between industrial and academic scientists,  to enhance the translational impact of academic science on human health and enhance the capabilities of industry to envision new medicines.

I believe that Open Targets is working on one of the most important problems in drug discovery, if not the most important problem. If you choose the wrong target for which to develop a drug, then almost anything you do after that doesn’t matter. In my early career I  I worked in late-phase drug discovery , and saw how projects could fail because our therapeutic hypothesis didn’t hold up to clinical testing — a considerable waste of both time and resources.

This problem of target selection is a big one. It’s a multi-dimensional, cross-disciplinary problem, requiring an understanding of genetics, of disease biology, and of drug discovery factors. For example, there are often many potential targets you could consider developing a treatment against for a given disease; how do you choose between them? Even the word disease is a very catch-all term, and doesn’t accurately describe what patients might be experiencing at different time points in a disease process. As you dig deeper into this problem, you realise that everything is much more complex than it looks at surface level. Open Targets’ work will help drug discovery scientists gain a more in-depth understanding of the diseases they are developing therapies for, the most promising targets to pursue and hopefully, via improving success rates, reduce the cost and time to develop new medicines. 

As Executive Director, my role is to lead the Open Targets consortium, and to make a difference in how we identify and prioritise drug targets by bringing academia and industry together to work systematically and at scale on aspects of that important target selection problem. Much of our work at Open Targets is about trying to enhance the translational impact of Campus science, and so I will be working closely with the Open Targets Executive Team, faculty on Campus, and industry partners to try and find the places where we can work to make a difference.

Personal development has been a driver of my own career, and I am a certified coach, so as a manager I try to bring a mixture of support and challenge for the people I manage. The aim of coaching is not necessarily to give people answers, but rather to help them find their own answers. I want to make sure the people I manage are stretching and developing themselves, thinking really hard about what they might want to do in the future, and what they’re delivering in the moment for their own benefit and maximum impact.

More broadly, one of the challenges at Open Targets is to bring together the different perspectives and ways of working within our partners to build a cohesive, progressive research programme that is more than the sum of the parts. Academic and industry teams function differently, and performance metrics differ. My background in industry gives me a way to understand what our partners are looking for, and how they will work with us most effectively. I hope to foster a genuine strategic effort where elements of the programme mutually reinforce to propel us forwards.

Before joining Open Targets, I worked at GSK in various roles. I’m actually a chemist by training, and after completing my PhD in organic chemistry at the University of Cambridge, I went to Canada as a Leverhulme Trust postdoctoral fellow. I then moved back to the UK to work as a process chemist at GSK, designing the manufacturing routes for small molecule drugs. This involves scaling up the process of making a few grams of the compound in the lab to hundreds of tonnes in a factory, in an environmentally friendly, cost effective way.

Process chemistry is incredibly multidisciplinary, and my role in this group evolved from technical delivery to one of leadership and coordination, combining technical project management and business factors, and working across different organisational cultures. I applied for the CEO Future Strategy Group to broaden my horizons and learn which other areas my experiences and skills could be applied. The programme challenged me to find a new difficult role where they can make the most of their skillset, which is how I started at Open Targets as Operations and Strategy Director.

If you are interested in working with Open Targets, please get in touch at contact@opentargets.org. You can view our current vacancies on our website.

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