The inhalation company Iconovo was founded in 2013 by several people with extensive experience in the development and commercialisation of inhalation drugs. Today, the company has four patent-protected inhalation platforms, nine development agreements with international pharma companies and over 30 employees. BioStock interviewed Orest Lastow, co-founder and CTO, about Iconovo’s journey from the start to now.
Few pharmaceutical companies have the expertise required to develop complete inhalation products. The complex interaction between drug substance and inhaler poses major challenges. This hurdle can be overcome by collaborating with Iconovo which has extensive expertise in the inhalation area and four inhalation platforms – ICOres, ICOcap, ICOone (and ICOone Nasal) and ICOpre.
By collaborating with Iconovo, pharmaceutical and generic companies do not need to build up internal expertise in inhalation, which minimizes costs, risks, and lead times. In Iconovo’s specially equipped laboratory, it is possible to develop complete inhalation products consisting of both dry powder formulation and inhaler.
The company’s development projects include both generic inhalation products and novel drugs. The most advanced project is a generic version of the blockbuster asthma and COPD drug Symbicort, which is being developed in collaboration with Amneal Pharmaceuticals and is expected to be launched in 2024.
How the idea was born
The idea for Iconovo arose when Orest Lastow saw a clear need to change and develop the market for inhalation drugs. Many drug developers considered it too difficult and risky to develop inhalation products and abstained for this reason. The generic companies needed a competent partner for the development of generic products to challenge the companies with the original products.
After 15 years at AstraZeneca, Orest founded Iconovo in 2013 together with several experienced people in the inhalation area. During the first seven years, he combined the role of CEO and CTO before Johan Wäborg took over as CEO. Today, Orest Lastow is the company’s second-largest shareholder with approximately 826 400 shares, corresponding to a stake of 9.34 per cent (Holdings, 2022-09-28).
Interview with Orest Lastow
Orest Lastow holds an M.Sc. in Engineering Physics from Lund University and a PhD in Aerosol Science from Brunel University in the UK. He has invented about twenty inhalers, including Iconovo’s inhalation platforms, and is also responsible for about 50 patent applications and several research articles and books.
BioStock talked to Orest Lastow about Iconovo’s role in the market, why inhalation is a good way to get drugs into the body and how we can use inhalation treatment in the next pandemic.
You have spent a large part of your career in the field of inhaled drugs, previously at AstraZeneca and now at Iconovo. Why do you think this is an interesting industry?
– Inhalation is a multidisciplinary industry that requires a good interplay between many different areas such as chemistry, pharmacy, biology, mechanics and aerodynamics. This makes the inhalation area a challenging but also very interesting industry. If you possess the ability to combine these disciplines, you have a unique head start.
»Inhalation is a multidisciplinary industry that requires a good interplay between many different areas […] If you possess the ability to combine these disciplines, you have a unique head start«
– The lungs are also an underutilized and overlooked target organ for drugs. It has traditionally been used to treat lung diseases like asthma and COPD, but many other things could be done.
What are the main advantages of inhalation of drugs compared to injections?
– There are many obvious advantages to inhaling a pharmaceutical instead of injecting it. No needles and medical staff are required for the administration, and the risk of needle contamination is eliminated.
– Pharmaceuticals that are injected usually must be maintained in a cold chain, in some cases at very low temperatures, which is both expensive and cumbersome – this complicates the entire supply chain. A dry inhalation powder is stable at room temperature and does not require cold storage. In addition, it has a long shelf life, up to two years.
»A dry inhalation powder is stable at room temperature and does not require cold storage«
– However, dry powder is moisture sensitive and needs to be protected by the inhaler. But this is not something that the user or healthcare professional needs to think about – the product should be pre-packaged and ready to use when the developer hands it over. Here you must understand thermodynamics and moisture transport through the plastic. Again, it is a multidisciplinary area!
Could you tell us about why you chose to found Iconovo?
– I worked for almost 15 years at Astra Draco in Lund where I had several different roles, such as group manager, special researcher and project leader. On the site in Lund, there was an enormous amount of knowledge and experience in inhalation development and we were world leaders for many years. It was here that Symbicort Turbuhaler was developed.
– When Astra chose to close in Lund and move the business to Mölndal, many of my colleagues chose to stay. I took the initiative to bring them together and start a new business where we would continue to work with what we are really good at – development of inhalation products.
– Iconovo was founded in 2013 and at that time we were 6-7 people in the company. I was primarily responsible for the technical development of the products and customer management, while Mats Johansson was chairman and focused on building the company, financing etc. Other co-founders were on the board and provided capital, but they did not have operational roles.
Has your business model and strategy changed over the years?
– From the beginning, the business idea has been to develop devices and license them to pharmaceutical companies, mainly generic companies, which lack the ability to do the development in-house. Gradually, we noticed that customers wanted the product to be more complete. Therefore, we raised more capital and built up knowledge in formulation development and analysis work. For the last five years, we have had everything needed to develop a complete inhalation product.
– Now that we are a large company with financial muscle, we are also looking at conducting clinical studies ourselves and not handing them over to the customer. Here it is about climbing higher up the value chain. If we have both developed the product and done a first clinical study, the project is worth much more in the out-licensing process.
»Now that we are a large company with financial muscle, we are also looking at conducting clinical studies ourselves. Here it is about climbing higher up the value chain.«
Could you also tell us about the subsidiary Iconovo Pharma, which was established last year?
– We have started the pharmaceutical company Iconovo Pharma, which will sell and market products on the Nordic market. The Nordic region is our home market and here we know the regulations well. For large companies, the Nordic region is a small market that is quite complicated, but for us, the market is gigantic but manageable.
– We will both sell our products under our name and in-license other products that we think could fit in our portfolio. When we sign licensing agreements with customers, we retain the sales rights in the Nordic region.
– One of Iconovo Pharma’s first products on the Nordic market will be Amneal’s generic Symbicort in our inhaler ICOres.
Which of Iconovo’s projects are you most involved in right now?
– Right now, I am mainly focusing on our vaccine projects, which are part of our third business area – new innovative medicines. Inhaled vaccines are a very interesting area and it is an idea that I have carried with me from my time at Astra. It was already in our minds when we started Iconovo, but the development has taken off the recent years, probably driven by the covid pandemic. The lung is a very good target organ for inducing an immune response, and today, inhaled vaccines are greatly interesting. Our single-dose inhalers ICOone and ICOone Nasal are well suited for this purpose and the administration of other single-dose drugs.
– The project I am working on now is the project with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation where we are preparing for the next pandemic. We do not know when the next pandemic will come or what it will look like, but we do know that a new pandemic is coming and that it is likely to be caused by an airborne virus that causes symptoms in the nose and airways, similar to Covid.
Could you tell us a little more about the project with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the importance of acting quickly in the event of a new pandemic?
– Our project with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation runs for about a year. The goal is to ensure that there is both a technology platform and manufacturing equipment in place so that a vaccine or prophylactic drug can be quickly developed in the event of a new pandemic.
– Next time it is serious, we should be ready to vaccinate or treat as large groups as possible with an oral or nasal inhalation product. We envision a simple inhalation product that can even be sent out by letter. In this way, many people can be vaccinated or treated at home without health professionals. If we act fast enough, we could even avoid the outbreak of the pandemic.
»Next time it is serious, we should be ready to vaccinate or treat as large groups as possible […] We envision a simple inhalation product that can even be sent out by letter.«
– The goal of our platform is to be able to quickly develop a powder formulation and complete inhalation product that can be tested in clinical studies and reach the market. There should also be a plan for commercial manufacturing in place. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is responsible for the investments in the project, which reduces the risk, costs and development time for the company developing the new drug or vaccine.
On October 25, a network meeting will be arranged at Medicon Village in Lund with the theme Preparing for the next pandemic – focusing on infectious disease. What is your role in the event?
– I will present the pandemic project with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, what we have achieved, and what the long-term vision is. The theme of the next pandemic is very relevant for Iconovo because inhalation treatment will save lives and health.
– Recently, an Inhalation Symposium was also arranged at Medicon Village. It was great that the event was back again after a two-year pandemic break. The industry has certainly not stood still during the pandemic – we heard about many interesting developments during the event. Also, it is always nice to meet industry colleagues.
Since 2013, Iconovo has developed into a large business with many employees and projects – did you think that you would have come this far in ten years?
– Yes, I could say that we thought so. We are growing according to plan, and we will continue to grow! We have a strategy-driven business with clear, long-term goals that have been communicated to the market. We expect to reach sales of 250 million SEK in 2027.
– Our projects are progressing according to plan, but drug development, as you know, always takes a very long time.
How has your job changed since you transitioned from CEO to CTO?
– I have been able to go back to what I like the most and what I think I do best. In the beginning, we were able to put great focus on research and development, but over time the workload in administration and company building increased, not least after we got listed. We realized that we needed a CEO who is dedicated to company building, strategic work, IR and financing, and that was when we chose to recruit Johan Wäborg for the CEO role.
»I have been able to go back to what I like the most – product development and inventing new inhalation products«
– Johan has done a fantastic job over the past two years, and he has brought new energy and new thoughts to the company. After he took over the role as CEO, I have been able to focus on what I think is the most fun – product development and inventing new inhalation products!The content of BioStock’s news and analyses is independent but the work of BioStock is to a certain degree financed by life science companies. The above article concerns a company from which BioStock has received financing.