Celebrating National Science Week | Q&A with Dr Jai Rautela

Celebrating National Science Week | Q&A with Dr Jai Rautela

In celebration of National Science Week 2020, Solubility is supporting the #InspiringAustraliaInitiative by profiling five dynamic scientific careers.

Next up in our daily interview series is Dr Jai Rautela.

Why do you do what you do?

At oNKo we perform full-stack R&D on special innate immune cells with the goal of developing truly curative cancer therapies.

I do what I do because as a life scientist I was frustrated at being so far removed from basic discovery to a product that might eventually help a patient. For me, there was always this longing to be involved in that bench-to-bedside journey. The part I found hardest to accept was that relatively few local scientists were championing the commercialisation of their own discoveries. I was convinced that the focus and fervour that drives scientists might just as well be deployed in running their own start-up company.

With that, Professor Nicholas Huntington and I founded oNKo and have not looked back. Although the R&D we do at oNKo still drives the inner scientist in me, i’m rarely in the lab, and if i’m honest, probably more of a hindrance than a help when I do put the lab coat back on. I am very fortunate, however, that I now draw energy not just from the cutting-edge science we do at oNKo, but also from the exceptional team that I am honoured to work with. Everything I do now is for the team and for the cancer patients we look to cure.

Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here? – Alice (in Wonderland)
What is the best piece of advice you have for aspiring founders, and what is the one thing you would do differently??

I think there are two key pieces to this question. Firstly, that it is never too early to start. To anyone seeking to do a similar thing, give it a shot. It’s never too early because quite often launching the idea or company will help you find the rest of puzzle pieces that you are looking for. Don’t wait to have the full picture, because it’s rare that this will be apparent on day 1. Get out there and apply your scientific skills to understand what the market wants and learn from any wrong turns you might make.

Secondly, see through the roadblocks. Though Australia has a strong scientific community, we are fairly risk-averse and unassuming about the potential of our collective outputs. Perhaps my predisposition to being an entrepreneur comes partly from the ability to see potential in an idea or discovery no matter how early or what potential barriers lay in wait. I would urge others to pursue an idea or vision with the mindset that no barrier is unsurmountable.

What would I do differently? With the benefit of hindsight, lots. But perhaps having a law degree up my sleeve would have been very handy before embarking on this endeavour. Having said that, I have revelled in the steep legal learning curve and who knows, I might one day go back and pursue a law qualification (watch this space).

Reality is a sliding door. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
What is the best career decision you have ever made?

The best career decision was to ‘park’ my academic science career and give the start-up thing a go. It’s risky but also rewarding, and I can’t think of anything else more exciting and fulfilling to be doing on a daily basis. The ‘riskiness’ I note is mainly due to Australia’s science funding being geared toward academic output and not adjacent scientific impact, and also because Australia doesn’t have the support of a deep start-up community that some other countries do. It’s very much going out and learning by yourself, which isn’t for the faint-hearted. But again, the best career decision I have made.

Elegance is not standing out, but being remembered. – Giorgio Armani
How do you distinguish yourself/your brand from your competitors?

oNKo competes in one of the hottest areas of biotech and so there is a natural urge to make the company stand out in as many ways and as often as possible. However, we strive to distinguish oNKo from the competition by pursuing our mission tirelessly and with excellence, and not always by making the most noise. This approach is really a reflection of oNKo’s values and culture. With so many great ideas and so much commercial activity in our field, science alone cannot be our only point of difference. Culture is what sets high-performance teams apart, and so we have made this central to everything we do at oNKo. I’m honoured to be working alongside some of the best scientists out there, and so I hope that oNKo becomes known for the how our exceptional team had such a positive impact on patient’s lives.

Success is a science; if you have the conditions, you get the result. – Oscar Wilde
What does “success” in your role look like?

Success is partly science, but also the intangibles that we were speaking about earlier. Yes, you need to have great science behind you and various other mechanical parts to create a biotech start-up, but those alone are never going to be the defining factors of success. The culture and people you bring around that idea are just as important, if not more so.

One of the founding motivations for Nick and I was turning what we did in the lab into something that would help people. That’s ultimately why we do it, and everyone at oNKo shares that same goal. Success to us would be one day being able to say that we actually cured a patient of their cancer.