Jack O’Meara (Co-Founder and CEO, Ochre Bio)
Jack O'Meara is co-founder and CEO of Ochre Bio. Ochre is a biotechnology company developing a portfolio of liver medicines for patients and families affected around the world. The company uses a combination of advanced genomics, machine learning, and human-centric translational models to improve the probability of clinical success for its products. At Ochre, Jack's role involved raising $44M in venture capital from tier one global investors, assembling a seasoned management team and board, and shepherding the development of novel RNAi medicines for chronic liver disease—soon through to human testing. Jack's work has been featured in the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, and he was previously listed on the Forbes 30 under 30 list. He received his Bachelor's degree from National University of Galway and his Masters from the University of Notre Dame.
Can you explain your job to a five-year-old?
At Ochre, we make medicine for liver disease, and liver disease is the third leading cause of premature death. It's a very big public health challenge, but we don't fully understand the biology of the disease or what's going wrong with liver disease progression. So in order for us to make better medicines for this complex condition, we use a lot of the latest and greatest discovery technologies—different forms of genomic tools that essentially allow us to zoom in on the disease and better understand what's happening as people develop it—in order to then design more effective medicines to treat it. So we do a lot of science to get us there.
What excites you most about your job?
Probably three things excite me most about it. The first is the people. I'm very fortunate to work with tons of extremely smart, enthusiastic, motivated, passionate, inspiring people. The second is that the science is very intellectually stimulating. It's very cutting-edge research that we're doing, and we’re really asking hard questions about how we really solve this complex disease.
And the third thing is this: the mission statement and the impact. At the end of the day, if we're successful in our endeavor to try and find more effective medicines, we could ultimately prevent or cure what is the third leading cause of premature death. So, one of the biggest public health epidemics in a lot of ways.
And that is a hugely motivating and inspiring thing to be working towards. It's such a highly leveraged industry—medicine. You know, with one lifespan and a certain sphere of focus, you could potentially develop something that has this inordinate effect on human health and human health span, which I think is a really inspiring and motivating thing to be working on.
Which trend will change the future of medicine?
I think medicine needs to continue to shift towards prevention. We know we have a better chance of improving outcomes for patients the earlier in the disease process that we can act. It gets increasingly more difficult and complex the more a disease compounds. So I think drug developers, diagnostic tools, the broader healthcare implementation—what it should collectively shift increasingly towards is developing preventative treatments for diseases.
And we've seen success in this domain. Statins are an amazing example of an intervention that's effectively prescribed prophylactically because we know it dramatically reduces the risk of heart attack, and we know it's saved millions of patients globally a lot of pain and families a lot of pain.
So I think continuing to move in that direction is a positive thing. And then I think about things like the NHS, this really ambitious, inspiring project towards a nationalized health service. They can't economically sustain the increased cost of sick care for an elderly and aging population.
The costs just exponentially go up with these long degenerative diseases that affect people in their old age, and we need medicines that can prevent those symptoms of age-related disease earlier in the process, or it is just going to bankrupt the whole system. So, finding better therapies that can prevent and keep people healthier for longer. And I think therapeutics have a really profound potential to do that if designed in an effective way.
It is always spoken of as an unavoidable truth, right? As people live longer, there's inevitably going to be cancer, and kidney disease, and heart disease, but how can we perhaps delay that, shorten it, minimize it as much as we can to give people that better quality of life as they do live longer, right? And of course, then save a lot of people and the system overall significant money?
And pain and human suffering, right? You think about these sorts of chronic age-related diseases, a lot of it's like organ failure. Your liver is barely working, your heart is really fibrotic and under pressure, and then all of a sudden all your muscles start to waste, and then you get this really drawn-out sick period. But if you had a healthy organ system for longer, you would likely have a lot less pain and suffering systemically as a result.
So that's sort of the long-term vision for the types of medicines. You hope to keep your liver rejuvenated and healthier for a longer period of time. And then the liver is this sort of central node of so much of your systemic health. It regulates your metabolism. It plays a very key role. So if we can do that, maybe we'll have a much broader impact than just liver disease, which is in itself a very big problem.
Looking back, which trends have you missed or underestimated?
I think it's going to be an odd answer because I think omics has been extremely over-hyped. And then we had this large wave of investments initially around the Human Genome Project and then more recently with a lot of the ARK investments and then they all sort of crashed. That has probably put a lot of people off of the genomics field or genomic medicine field.
But I think the thing that consistently causes drug programs to fail is not that the chemistry wasn't quite optimized, it's that the fundamental biological thesis was wrong. And the tools that allow us to better understand the biology of disease will enable us to get better at making medicines.
So I do think advanced omics, particularly more functional genomic tools that really can zoom in and describe the disease process, rather than just looking at genetics, I think that will ultimately lead to a better understanding of how we intervene with these diseases and how do we really get smarter at treating them.
And that ultimately could unlock a real uptick in the productivity of our sector, because we know how 95 percent of drug programs fail and so on. And if we can change that number even slightly, we'll have a much higher success rate and do a lot of good for public health. So I think, while it's this odd answer—because it has been very over-hyped—I think the backlash is probably overly punitive, and there is a lot of merit to the omic sector.
Which MedTech initiative or startup deserves more attention?
The startup I’m most excited about right now is Cellular Longevity, founded by Celine Halioua. It’s a really elegant approach to derisking novel medicines that could have a broad-based preventative effect against multiple causes of morbidity. They’re starting by trialing their medicines in dogs, to increase the health span of dogs, and once successful there, they intend to move the drugs into human testing. It’s a really elegant clinical strategy.
Where would you put a million dollars?
Consequently, I think I would put my $1M into them [Cellular Longevity]!
What's the best advice you've ever received?
I think some of the best advice I got was: If you're gonna go fishing, go for the big fish.
Life is short. You only get so many years on this planet, and it tends to get faster and faster as you get older. And so, you know, if you're going to take some big ambitious bets of your time, it'll make them really impactful if they're successful. So, go for the most impactful programs that you can work on.
If you're going to work on a startup, make it the third leading cause of death. Make it a really ambitious goal that you're striving for because it's just, it's more exciting. Even if it's more ambitious or even it's more risky, then, you know, life is relatively short. So it could be you giving yourself the best chance of having a really significant impact on humanity.