Peter Keeling: 'I saw very early on how a disease can be transformed by the pharma industry... it was my inspiration'
Peter Keeling of Diaceutics plc tells Lisa Smyth about confounding his school teachers' expectations to build a listed company in personalised medicine
Just a matter of weeks ago, Northern Ireland pharma firm Diaceutics became the fourth company from here to be listed on the junior stock market.
While it may have appeared a brazen move to some, to those who know the man at the helm of the company, it was very much a measured and deliberate step to take Diaceutics to the next level.
The Belfast-based firm, which analyses data from patient records and insurance details for use in precision medicine, is the result of more than three decades of hard work and dedication by its chief executive, Peter Keeling.
And, given the history of his company, it is clear that Peter is ambitious, forward-thinking and able to spot and harness business potential.
"I saw very early on how a disease can be transformed by the pharmaceutical industry," he says.
Diaceutics was established in 2005, when personalised medicine was something very few people knew about.
Fast-forward almost 15 years and it has become the gold standard in treatment for a whole range of conditions, including cancer and Parkinson's disease, and Diaceutics is playing no small part in bringing this type of revolutionary healthcare to the masses.
The idea behind personalised medicine is that patients are tested after diagnosis to identify exactly the type or subset of their disease.
They then receive a targeted treatment most suitable for their condition, minimising the risk of enduring potential complications from treatment while seeing little benefit.
In cancer treatment, for example, it means that patients are only treated with specific chemotherapy drugs if doctors know those are effective in tackling the disease.
Not only does this improve the outcome for suitable patients, it also means that those who won't benefit from the treatment don't suffer harsh and potentially lethal side-effects while receiving a treatment that will provide little benefit.
Diaceutics also uses medical data to guide pharmaceutical companies to ensure that patients are tested earlier and with more reliable diagnostics, once again improving the patient journey and outcome.
It is currently the only company in the world that provides such a range of services.
So, while the firm, which employs 100 people across 17 countries, is undoubtedly forging its place as a success story in the world of business, it is actually helping to save lives around the world.
Peter says: "By improving the way patients are tested, they can access better treatments more quickly.
"If you take lung cancer for example, the chance of survival is much greater the earlier the person is diagnosed, and that's what we aim to do, to ensure patients get the right tests at the right time.
"We look at each individual disease and we use a lot of healthcare data which helps us identify gaps where issues are.
"We then collaborate with pharmaceutical and diagnostic companies, with clinicians, with multiple parties, to ensure the best tests are out there and that the doctors working the patients are aware of what's available, to make sure everything is done in the right sequence.
"Look at the likes of Herceptin and the effects it has had on breast cancer survival rates and compare it with lung cancer which is 10 years away from the advances we have seen in breast cancer care.
"I think with the way that things are going, we will be having a conversation in five years time and the survival rates for lung cancer will have significantly improved as a result of better testing and targeted drugs.
"There is a revolution going on in relation to cancer treatments as a result of personalised care and we are looking to treat other diseases in the same way.
"Look at the huge problem society is facing with Alzheimer's and think about how much better the outcomes would be if people were being diagnosed at 40 or even earlier, or in cardiovascular disease, one of the biggest killers in the world. There have been huge advances in my lifetime, but there is still some distance to go."
For Peter, who is 58, the realisation that he could make a real and tangible difference in the world came in the very early days of his career.
"I've worked in the pharma industry all my life.
"I worked at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) back in the 1980s when the first treatments and viral load tests were developed to better treat HIV.
"At the time, an HIV diagnosis was a death sentence.
"However, as a result of investments in new treatments and better tests, HIV can be managed in a similar way to diabetes.
"I saw very early on how a disease can be transformed by the pharmaceutical industry," Peter explains.
"For me, personally witnessing the synergy between better testing and better treatment was part of the inspiration to focus more time on the better testing part of the equation for other diseases.
"I think we need to do some work, however, on convincing people that there is equal or even greater value in improving when and how patients are tested for disease, than by the treatments they receive."
It is obvious that Peter is passionate about healthcare and offering hope and the best outcomes possible to people around the world.
But a career in the pharmaceutical industry didn't automatically beckon when he was a child.
"I'm a product of Belfast and a product of Queen's," he says.
"When I was at school, I certainly was not a straight A student.
"I was one of those people the maths teacher said that I was 'a maybe' and the science teacher said was 'a certainly not'.
"There was a notion at one stage in my life that I might do architecture, but I had pretty mediocre careers advice.
"I was told I couldn't add up so I would never be able to work out the measurements.
"Looking back, it was terrible advice.
"I came out of university with a general degree in business, thinking what was I going to do?
"To be honest, I think I have probably found myself in this career through serendipity more than anything else.
"In a way, it's not surprising as I come from a family with a great entrepreneurial history as my grandfather, father and brother were all businessmen.
"I think that maybe I ended up where I was always supposed to be."
That's not to say, however, that success has come easily.
Peter was fortunate that his first job was with GSK and he was sent to work in Egypt for four years, where he managed 12 people.
This was followed by a four-year period in Indonesia where he managed 350 people across two factories.
"It was thrilling and scary at the same time. I remember when I first took the job my mother thought she would never see me again.
"But I knew how fortunate I was, I looked at other people in my peer group who had gone into the civil service and there I was, 26 or 27 years old, and it was sink or swim.
"I was always quite cocky and ambitious and I wanted to swim, although I made plenty of mistakes early on in my career - actually, I made some howlers," Peter recalls.
It was during the early years of his career that Peter married Delia, and he said his wife of 33 years has been an unwavering source of support throughout: "They say that behind every successful man there is a supportive woman and Delia has absolutely been that for me.
"She has been both my partner in life and my partner in my work, she has been there through it all, encouraging me, supporting me.
"Someone else may have told me to go and get a proper job but she didn't.
"She was always okay with what I wanted to do, she would say 'okay, we won't get the new kitchen' or 'we won't do this or that'. I've been very fortunate."
Undoubtedly the most difficult period in Peter's career came after he set up his first company.
He says: "With any disease you are dealing with pharmaceutical companies that spend £200m on launching just one drug.
"When you're spending £13m to launch five or six diagnostic tests, you're already a poor man in a big man's game.
"You have to think on a different scale and after seven years we ran out of money.
"I don't think there is a CEO alive who hasn't thought at some point that they were in over their head - you do have to have a level of humility.
"I would be lying if I said there have never been any tough times, the last three years of running that company were particularly hard, especially as I had a whole team of people working for me.
"I had 30 people working for me, so that was 30 lives, 30 families working, for whom I was responsible and I let them down, that is a hard thing to bear."
However, Peter - dad to 27-year-old Dylan and 23-year-old Derry Mae - believes the experience made him a more successful businessman.
"In the UK and Western Europe we tend to be suspicious of someone who has failed but it is failing that sharpens the mind, you understand what to avoid the next time around," he reflects.
It was thanks to his earlier experience setting up a business that he was determined he would be able to finance Diaceutics, and is also the reason why he has taken time to build up the company.
"If you raise capital too early, you make decisions before the business is ready.
"Perhaps we have progressed more slowly than we should have done, but I'm content we have done things the right way this time around.
"I've learnt over the years that whatever your vision is, you should stick to it, and it's also important to build a good team around you.
"As much as people talk about my success in business, it wouldn't be possible without the team I have working with me."
Looking to the future, Peter plans to continue to build on Diaceutics' success to ensure it remains at the forefront of the introduction of life-saving healthcare for people around the world.
"I want us to continue to make a difference to peoples' lives and I believe we are really well-placed to do that.
"I've always had a hankering that some day I will be on a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean but Delia tells me I'm living a pipe dream, apparently I love my work too much."