Health Tech: Ro Hastie On How Metabolon’s Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our Overall Wellness
It will take way longer and cost more than you expect. It’s taken this company 20 years to get to where we are and to develop our platform into the cutting-edge technology platform it is today.
In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ro Hastie.
Rohan (Ro) Hastie is a proven life sciences executive with 20 years of leadership experience. Before joining Metabolon as the President & CEO, he was president of Arrow Life Sciences & Healthcare, a consulting firm specializing in commercialization and operational excellence for life sciences companies. Ro also held various senior leadership positions in diagnostics and corporate development at Hologic, Inc. He grew the Hologic Diagnostics business into one of the world’s leading diagnostics companies with more than 1,800 employees and $1.25 billion in annual revenue. Ro earned his Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Queen Elizabeth Medical School in Birmingham, England, and a degree in biological sciences from the University of Birmingham.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?
I grew up in Northern England in the Pennines — a range of uplands between Leeds and Manchester. I am the son of two exceedingly hard-working parents. Growing up, it was my mom, dad, older sister, and seven very large Newfoundland dogs. My sister got all the art genes, while I got the science genes. By far, my best subject in school was biology, and I developed a love for the sciences — particularly life sciences — very early on. I followed this love to the University of Birmingham, earning a degree in biological sciences with a focus on genetics. I enjoyed the degree so much that I ended up pursuing a Ph.D. in the molecular genetics of cancer at Queen Elizabeth Medical School in Birmingham. While I enjoyed bench science, I ultimately decided I didn’t want a career in it. I knew that I always wanted to be working in science in some capacity, so combining biology with business seemed like a logical step. This has been the focal point of my career and what brought me to Metabolon.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
When I first joined Hologic, the world-leading women’s health company, I got my first exposure to cancer and its ravages; I had the decided honor and pleasure of meeting a cervical cancer survivor. Speaking with her inspired me to write a speech for one of our national sales meetings, the theme of which was, “I cut her (surgery), I burn her (radiation oncology), and I poison her (chemotherapy).” All of these heinous interventions could be avoided with the utilization of a very cheap screening test: the pap. The adage that prevention is better than a cure is so accurate. Now, working at Metabolon, we aim to empower patients, doctors, and individuals to have the right biological information that they can act upon for the benefit of their wellness, health, and/or disease management.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My father immediately comes to mind. I was a relatively late developer academically. I remember going to see a career advisor who told my dad, “we just need to get him into a university; get him a degree…any degree.” I’ll never forget it. I walked out of the room fearing my father’s reaction to his son striving for mediocrity. I had nothing to fear though. My dad told me to ignore him and his advice, to work hard, do the best job that I could, and chose the degree I wanted (I actually far exceeded my, and the career advisor’s advice, and got into my first-choice university). It was a single moment in life, but I’ve always kept that advice with me wherever I’ve gone and throughout my whole professional career thus far.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Mine is not a life quote but a quote from the poem Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson….”To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”. This is a mantra I incorporate into all areas of my life; to work hard, to be passionately curious, and to persevere.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Empowerment — You have to accept that you can’t do it all. It does take a village. It’s all about sharing your vision and making your people feel like they are part of something bigger, and then being able to step back, delegate priorities, and trust in your teams’ expertise and ability to execute. Since joining Metabolon as CEO, I’ve been fortunate to build a truly incredible group of leaders with phenomenal functional abilities.
Passionate — This is actually one of our company values. You have to have to be passionate in all aspects of your job; passionate about your employees, customers, your technology, and the difference that you are trying to make in the world. Passion is infectious and helps others strive for results.
Conviction — You have to believe in yourself and your people and continuously assure them that their work matters. Leading with conviction means making a lasting, positive impact and having a passion for not only solving issues but learning how to constantly evolve and adapt. You also have to have conviction in the purpose of your company, and in our case, the technology we are developing.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on our wellness. To begin, which particular problems are you aiming to solve?
Put simply, we are helping patients — and physicians — understand their health and wellness and disease status. We developed the ability to sequence the human genome over 20 years ago. The prevailing wisdom at the time was this would be a panacea for all healthcare. That by doing so, we would understand everything that it means to be healthy and how we develop diseases. The reality has proven to be quite different. It turns out the genetic contribution to most common diseases is very modest, and the risks for getting most diseases arise from your metabolism, your environment, and your lifestyle. So, by just looking at the genes, we are missing this vast wave of biology that is instrumental to keeping us healthy and understanding how we develop diseases. That is where Metabolon steps in. We are world leaders in something called metabolomics, or more simply world leaders in understanding small molecule biochemistry. These small molecules give us a functional readout of all biological activity of a cell, organ, or patient. They are also an essential link between the environment and an individual.
How do you think your technology can address this?
Our technology and platform fill in the gaps and show what you’re not seeing from looking at the genes or other biological components, such as proteins. The genes tell you what could happen, the metabolites tell you what did happen. For instance, let’s take your microbiome. We have 150 times more bacterial cells in our body than human cells. Two pounds of your weight is made up of bacteria. We have lived with these microbes for millennia, and they are essential for maintaining our health. They are also implicated in modulating and/or causing a multitude of diseases; everything from cancer to Parkinson’s disease. The way the bacteria interact with a person is through the metabolites that they secrete. When we look at the metabolite present in an individual’s blood, six to eight percent are bacterially derived. Our technology is unique in being able to identify and help understand the role that these metabolites play in health, wellness, and disease.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
Simply put, seeing the power of the technology and the impact it has on patients’ lives. When I first joined Metabolon, we were approached by a physician to see if we could help one of his patients. He had a patient, Marley, that he had first met when she was 11 months old. At the time, she had low muscle tone and no hair. She couldn’t hold her head up, couldn’t crawl, and continued to struggle to eat. Her symptoms were caused by a then-unknown genetic disorder now called Bachmann-Bupp Syndrome which stems from a mutation of the ODC1 gene and contributes to the production of polyamines that are key to cell survival. They also contribute to a child’s development, including muscle tone and motor skills. As it happens, there was an approved drug called, Difluoromethylornithine, which is used to treat ODC problems that are found in diseases such as African sleeping sickness. The drug worked by deactivating ODC proteins, which were building up in Marley’s body. The FDA was approached to see if they could try the drug on Marley, however they required a drug efficacy assay to grant compassionate use (i.e. they needed proof that it would work and was working). The expected efficacy signature would be reduced polyamine levels, but pediatric normal levels were unknown.
Metabolon’s clinical metabolomics assay could measure polyamines, and Metabolon’s healthy reference cohort provided normal pediatric ranges for polyamines, thus allowing this assay to function as the compassionate use, drug efficacy assay. This allowed the FDA to approve the use of the drug for Marley. Once she was placed on the drug her polyamines fell back into the normal pediatric range following treatment. In the two years since Marley began taking the medication, she’s seen an increase in muscle tone and can hold her head up. She can feed herself with a spoon and scoot across the floor. And happily, for her and her parents, her once-bare head is covered in new hair, and she has eyelashes and eyebrows. This massively positive impact on Marley’s life would not have been possible without the power of our technology and the insights that we could provide around what it means to be normal and well for a child.
How do you think this might change the world?
With metabolomics, in the future, you will go to your physician and have your metabolomic makeup taken as part of your routine check-up. Those small molecules will tell you how healthy you are. If you are not healthy, the metabolites will inform what you need to change in your lifestyle to help you move back to being more normal and well. Those metabolites will tell you what diseases you are at risk of developing. They will also be used to diagnose what disease you may have. They will inform you what therapy you should take and how you are responding to that therapy. This will all be performed from just 250 microlites of blood (a drop of blood).
I can’t think of anything specifically. I guess the only thing I can say is that we might find ourselves in a world where everyone is healthy and living longer thanks to the actionable data metabolomics can provide.
Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)
I will answer this from the perspective of developing a new state-of-the-art technology:
- It will take way longer and cost more than you expect. It’s taken this company 20 years to get to where we are and to develop our platform into the cutting-edge technology platform it is today.
- It is not just about the technology; it is planning how to get your technology out to the masses. This is just as, or even more, challenging to do than developing it. The “build it, and they will come model” very rarely applies. We have had to strategically grow and develop our commercial team to succeed in doing this effectively.
- You have to take complex concepts and distill them down for a non-technical audience. This is extremely important, and even more so in healthcare technology. You have to ensure people can understand the positive social impact of your technology.
- It’s going to take a multi-disciplinary team. We have chemists, bioinformaticians, data scientists, program managers, and quality and regulatory teams, all of which are developing our products. We also have a commercial team to drive it into the market and make our customers aware. You have to have the ability to evangelize — not everyone is going to understand it. We have the task of making a case for ‘why metabolomics;’ to change this mass thinking that the human genome can tell you everything.
- It takes conviction and belief. I’ll say it again, you have to lead with conviction and learn how to constantly evolve and adapt to get to your end goal. Science and technology can be challenging and difficult. You have to stick with it while constantly keeping the positive end goal top of mind.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Very few of us in our lives are going to be remembered for who we are as individuals. To leave a lasting impact or legacy, don’t focus on yourself, focus on something broader that can last or have a sustaining benefit even after you are long gone.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
We are a small, private company that has the potential to make a huge impact on health, wellness, and the understanding of disease. As such any person who is well known, well respected, and has a vested interest in health and wellness, such as Oprah Winfrey, for example, could help us spread the word about what we are doing.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.
Health Tech: Ro Hastie On How Metabolon’s Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our Overall… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.