High-speed drama for Accelerate@Babraham pitches
The second Accelerate@Babraham start-up competition final at the Babraham Research Campus proved even more full-throttle than the first.
Eight candidates get five minutes to put their business and scientific case to a panel of six judges in front of an audience that included those who had attended the Babraham Investors Conference earlier in the day and stayed on. Some of these remainers were investors, some scientists, some were gathering intelligence for agencies both national and international – and they all got their money’s worth. And of course everyone is curious because you get to hear about so much dazzling science they should issue hazmat suits for the afternoon.
After the five-minute pitch, the judges get to ask the presenters about their company’s business and scientific strategy. And by the way, we’re talking about a hugely illustrious, surgical-level, panel: David Grainger of Medicxi, Dr Vishal Gulati of Draper Esprit, Dr Jane Osbourn of the Bioindustry Association, John Trainer of AstraZeneca, Olivia Cavlan of SV Health Investors and Derek Jones, the chief executive of Babraham Research Campus.
The super-condensed format requires ground-breaking science to be understood in seconds, plus an appreciation of where the gap in current and future markets lies, and on top of that a decision on whether the science will solve the challenge. And the prize – the real prize, beyond the £10,000 and five months on-site lab time plus mentoring – is knowing you can cut it in Cambridge’s uber-focused life sciences sector.
So here are the presentations:
1. Shift Bioscience: “A drug discovery platform to slow or stop ageing,” said founder/CEO Daniel Ives. This pre-clinical biotech company has identified a fragility in disease burdens loaded towards those aged 20 to 65. Why? It’s all about a new biomarket called Horvath’s multi-tissue epigenetic ageing clock. The recent discovery and experimental use of this highly accurate ageing biomarker has revealed that some cellular processes interacting together – ‘hallmarks of ageing’ – have a significant impact on the ageing clock while other hallmarks have little or no effect. So can that be used to extend healthy lifespans?
“We need the lab space – we’ve been virtual up to now. We don’t want to wait for a six-week turnaround from contractors,” says Daniel.
2. CC Bio: Using synthetic biology to develop “exquisitely specific antimicrobials for the treatment of urogenital/vaginal pathogens which will transform the treatment of infection for millions of women worldwide”.
“We feel we’ve got momentum and being at Babraham would allow us to solidify our data into robust IP,” said Matthew Cummings. “Hopefully we’d like to become permanent residents and move from pre-clinical to clinical. We all know AMR is the next existential crisis.”
Antimicrobial resistance – AMR – threatens the effective prevention and treatment of an ever-increasing range of infections.
“How are you going to get this to market?” asked Olivia.
“It’ll be a hydrogel or a cream, we’re not quite there yet,” was the response.
3. QBio: QBio is developing a novel molecular diagnostic test and a “pioneering platform to deliver personalised antibiotics faster”. Will Pritchard says the current three-day wait for the best microbial treatments in a hospital setting is “unacceptable”.
“We’re collecting the quantative data that is the key to personalisation,” he says. Much of the IP is patentable, though “the algorithmic recipe behind it all will remain a trade secret”.
“What is it you’re selling?” asked Vishal. “Is the algorithm actually built?”
“We’ll be developing a cartridge and assay for use in hospital machines – initially just the cartridge” was the response.
4. Pregenerate: It is ‘Accelerating Arthritis Answers’ – the goal is to “provide products and services to replace expensive and inefficient animal testing in medical and pharmaceutical research,” says Julie Rosser. Pregenerate has come up with a “model on a chip” for faster and improved treatments.
“Our technology outperforms existing ergonomic chip technologies,” says Julie. “The international patent application was filed last year, the European one in 2017, and covers potential upgrades. Pregenerate accelerates drug medicine and treatments for arthritis.”
“The product is the chip,” says Jane. “What is the business model?”
“It’s a hybrid drug/service business model for personalised medicine,” replies Julie. “The goal is to raise enough funds to develop high-throughput screening for drug pharma companies.”
“What are the technical challenges?” asks Derek.
“Upscaling. We need to generate user feedback.”
5. Reflection Therapeutics: Motor neurone disease (MND) sufferers are “trapped in a feedback loop”, says founder Tim Newton. “Breaking this loop – where cells die – is fundamental to treating their cases.” Reflection’s solution will “protect motor neurons from an overactive immune system, prolonging their function and delaying disease progression”.
“How good are current MND treatment models?” asks Derek.
“There’s two treatments currently available for MND but both have problems,” says Tim. “We have targeted regulatory T cells, we have proof of concept and the same technology can be used for other diseases.”
6. TroMega Therapeutics: The goal, says Marloes Tijssen, is “to lower blood platelet numbers to prevent heart attacks and strokes between being an inpatient and the emergency theatre”. TroMega develops small molecules that change the activity of Tropomyosin4, creating novel drugs for heart diseases patients. Current treatments “all have long-term side effects and are not effective for all patients”.
“Is there any level of competitive activity?” asks Olivia.
“Not that we’re aware of.”
7. Subcode Sequencing: It aims to ‘map and quantitatively measure changes in interaction networks underlying cellular information processing for drug discovery and diagnostics’. Dr Jorg Morf suggests that this “all sits on a bedrock of quite complex statistical mechanics”. “It involves looking at which proteins are talking to which, and has problems of repeatability,” says Jorg.
“How much of this is unique?” asks Vishal, “and how much is software and statistics?”
“I’d say both are original.”
8. Microfluidx: It offers a microfluidics platform that’s fully scaleable and automated, aimed at large-scale advanced cell therapy manufacturing.
“We’re at the point where the science is there, manufacturing is the challenging part,” says presenter Antoine Espinet. Microfluidx has three strategic steps to make: £500k to build and test the prototype – “this is where we need Babraham; £5-7million for the beta prototype and a £50million pre-revenue exit”.
“Can you take an existing product that’s been approved?” asks Vishal.
“We sell our technology to research facilities and accompany them during scale-up,” says Antoine.
“What’s the IP strategy?” asks Jane.
“We’re developing the IP around manufacturing.”
The judges discussed the entries for half an hour, and then announced the winners: CC Bio, Shift Bioscience, Reflection Therapeutics, Microfluidx and TroMega Therapeutics, to whom many congratulations.
If I have one suggestion – as a member of an audience Derek Jones called “the seventh judge” – it would be that each presenter spends the first minute of their pitch explaining in layman’s terms where they fit into the wider picture of medicine. And maybe not to be so nervous, though being asked to display genius, scientific understanding, business acumen, strategic vision and technological savvy and appear relaxed is a big ask for anyone.
Accelerate@Babraham is compulsive theatre. Congratulations to head of Babraham Accelerator Dr Zapadka and the Babraham Research Campus team.