New Zealand may be small, but Julie Jones, CEO and founder of clinical research organisation BioValeo, thinks it has the potential to be mighty on the world’s biotech stage. While our neighbour across the ditch has size and scale on its side, there’s plenty of home-grown elements we can be proud of.

“We have a well-established research community, combined with a patient pool that is underutilised for clinical trials. We’re also fast to set up and cost competitive, and we have built a solid reputation for delivering really high-quality data,” explains Jones.

“Patients in New Zealand tend to be healthier but have run out of treatment options sooner, as there aren’t as many lines of treatment here as there are in other countries – resulting in good participant retention rates on our trials.”

Of course, it’s not all about competition and rivalry when it comes to providing individuals with personalised medicines that would otherwise not be available to them. Jones believes it is important that New Zealand positions itself to attract large and small pharma and biotech organisations to these shores, while also supporting and enabling small homegrown biotech businesses to develop their products. Which is exactly why BioValeo was established.

“One of our main aims is to help New Zealand companies get their biotech studies to the trial phase, and then guide them through that. It’s about offering a bespoke, personalised service that they can’t get anywhere else, as most CROs won’t give them the level of support and flexibility that we can.

“Clinical trials are incredibly complicated. We’re here to take them from start to finish, or even just provide assistance for the areas they aren’t adequately set up for.”

In 2022, BioValeo received a Callaghan Innovation grant and financial investment through Bridgewest Ventures, which has provided a one-year runway for the organisation to establish itself.

Jones and her team have spent the last six to nine months designing and developing the operational side of the organisation before welcoming their first official clients over the line – which has proved to be a bit of a balancing act.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. We need to have a variety of systems, documents and standard operating procedures in place in order to run a study. Alongside this, we need to engage in marketing activities to be sure that the work will come through.”

Freshly back from the largest international biotech conference in Boston, Jones is confident that she has been able to make a few solid connections.

BioValeo CEO & Founder Julie Jones (left) and Bridgewest, NZ General Manager John Robson.

“We’re not as ‘plugged in’ down here in New Zealand as everybody else, especially when it comes to accessing potential clients. However, I met with a number of organisations who I’m now in further discussions with.”

While New Zealand has a great deal going for it in terms of its biotech agility and capabilities, some areas are lagging. One of the biggest hurdles facing Jones is that the Australian research and development tax incentives appear more achievable than New Zealand’s.

She hopes that changes may be implemented, but in the meantime, one of her responsibilities is to help international sponsors see the value and potential in New Zealand.

“We can often open and run studies faster in New Zealand, which can result in New Zealand being more cost-effective than other countries.”

Jones says there are other government regulations which can slow down the process of clinical trials here in New Zealand. One of the more significant ones is that of the Environmental Protection Agency, which has to give approval for the generation or importation of CAR T-cells – immune cells that can be engineered to treat cancer. This is a process which can take from four months to a year, time that clinical trials – and more importantly patients – often don’t have.

“Not only is there an application fee, but the legislation we’re required to adhere to isn’t really appropriate for what we are actually doing with these cells. There is certainly a need for reformations to be made in that space, which would be appreciated sooner rather than later,” explains Jones.

When all is said and done, Jones and her team believe New Zealand is a great place to run clinical trials. She knows there are many patients out there who are ready, willing and able to participate in studies. Jones is building an organisation that will grow awareness of the opportunities out there and provide more clinical trial and treatment opportunities to patients.

“We want there to be more of a national emphasis on clinical trials, and for people to ask their healthcare professionals for them. We’re aware it has been difficult for hospitals and the healthcare industry post-Covid, but we’re hoping to work alongside them in a greater capacity over the coming years.

“We can provide clinical trial guidance, support services and ensure compliance with the regulations and standards. Throughout the life of the study, we work closely with the medical sites conducting the studies and our clients, who own the medical products.

“Because we’re able to tailor our service and flex to our clients’ needs, we’re able to offer a better service and improved client satisfaction, ensuring that New Zealand continues to attract high-quality clinical trials and provide patients with treatment opportunities.”

Story by Erin Harrison

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