Inside Cambridge Science Park’s new bio-powerhouse
The Cambridge Science Park Bio-Innovation Centre is the result of a landmark partnership between the Park’s owners Trinity College and TusPark, the development arm of Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. The £200m joint venture led to 350,000 sq ft of office and lab space being developed for five new buildings on the Science Park, including the 40,000 sq ft Bio-Innovation Centre next door to Frontier Developments.
The three-storey building opened in May 2019, and being fitted with laboratories for multiple occupiers in the life sciences sector has already proved its value, says David Chaplin, director, Life Sciences (TusPark UK) and general manager of the Bio-Innovation Centre.
“The name TusPark derives from Tsinghua University Science Park,” David explains. “It’s an organisation strongly associated with Tsinghua University in Beijing, and growing science parks internationally. Cambridge was a natural place for TusPark – as a developer and also an investor of science parks – to look. So far in the UK there’s the site here, and also another science park in Newcastle. And as you might expect we are very interested in establishing collaborations between China and Cambridge, and indeed the UK in general.”
In addition to the science parks, TusPark UK has also made equity investments into Cambridge life science start-ups as well as Cambridge Innovation Capital. It partnered with Innovate UK on helping British start-ups soft-land and accelerate in China and will continue to work with UK and Chinese governments, industries, associations, universities, and institutions on cross-border collaborations.
“The Bio-Innovation Centre’s biggest tenant, occupying one entire floor, is Mogrify,” David notes. Novogene, Applied Biotech, Swift Diagnostics, Xampla, AI VIVO, Immaterial and Vital Signs Solutions are also based in the building. The centre also includes a co-working space – a sort of hot-desking with wet labs.
“The co-working space opened in June this year,” David says. “Covid provides some challenges in a lab which is shared but it is working well. We’d expect people to be here for a minimum of a couple of months, maximum one year. After that they will have demonstrated their technology works and can move to find their own unit.
“It’s an exciting venture for us as we’re getting really early start-ups here, many of them are straight out of university.”
There are currently four companies in the co-sharing section – XGenomes, HexagonFab, Cambridge GlycoScience and Higher Steaks. Representatives from three were kind enough to take the time to tell their stories:
XGenomes: “It’s a much-needed gap in the start-up journey which the UK didn’t have.”
Sam Woodhouse is VP of assay development at XGenomes, which has developed a new way of sequencing DNA. The company is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts: the Cambridge (UK) base was established in March.
“We had our first seed round, involving several million dollars, 18 months ago,” says Sam.
“We are using the Bio-Innovation Centre as a foothold to start our UK entity and are looking to expand the team here in the UK.”
The company – currently six in the US, three in the UK – was founded by Kalim Mir, who previously co-founded Singular Bio (recently acquired by Invitae). The seed round came from several global technology investors including Hof Capital, Romulus, Funders Club, Cantos and YCombinator [US seed funding for start-ups].”
The current cost of sequencing a genome is around $1,000 and it takes a couple of days, but XGenomes has identified a way to reduce both costs and time by sequencing each molecule of DNA directly in an entirely new way using machine learning to deconvolute the sequence. Because XGenomes sequences directly on unadulterated single molecules of DNA, the upstream preparation of DNA is eliminated, while retaining structural and single nucleotide variants plus the long-range sequence information.
“Typically the process of sequencing a genome means lots of amplification and lots of enzymes are needed, which is expensive, but our technology uses no enzymes and reads DNA more in words than in letters, so it’s 100 times lower in cost but still very high fidelity.”
The “words” are groups of letters.
“The four bases in DNA are AGTC,” explains Sam, a molecular biologist who hails from the Isle of Mull. “Where competitors read one letter at a time, XGenomes reads blocks of letters or ‘words’, which increases the number of molecules we can read at one time. It’s a completely different way of reading DNA.”
A Series A seed round is expected in the next six to 12 months, which probably makes XGenomes the ideal venture for the Bio-Innovation Centre. Sam certainly likes it there.
“Co-sharing a wet lab space is quite a unique model in Cambridge,” he says. “We didn’t want to rent lab space and then spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to kit it out. You rent a bench, walk in and start work.
“This model is actually very popular in the US. This is the first in Cambridge, even in the UK, though Babraham does something similar. It’s a much-needed gap in the start-up journey which the UK didn’t have. The top floors are the larger companies, all the companies in the co-sharing space are early stage, it creates a really nice atmosphere. We lunch together, it creates a bit more of a community. XGenomes has got a very similar space in Boston.”
HexagonFab: “It’s very nice here.”
Dr Ruizhi Wang is co-founder and director at HexagonFab, whose mission is “to simplify analysis of proteins and small molecules for pharma research and manufacturing”. It is achieving this by fabricating nanomaterials such as graphene in large quantities, using chemical vapour deposition. It then developed methods to integrate the material into graphene-based sensors which can be used in life sciences, industrial monitoring or medical diagnostics.
Last year, HexagonFab was a winner in the materials and enabling technologies category of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Emerging Technologies competition. Grants from Innovate UK and the Royal Academy of Engineering have also been forthcoming.
“We moved in in July,” says Ruizhi. “We heard about the development from the Royal Society of Chemistry . It’s very nice here.”
HexagonFab is accelerating drug research and manufacturing with portable on-site biomolecule analysis tools.
“We’re making research instruments for the pharma industry to test future drug molecules,” says Ruizhi. “These are substances possibly useable as drugs in future, before cell or animal tests.
“The current equipment is very complicated and rare: ours is 10 times faster, affordable for everyone and it makes it easier for everyone to do tests much faster.”
The company, which was launched in 2018, has developed the Reader, “half the size of a shoebox, with sensor chips that look like USB sticks”.
“The researcher puts a substance on it, such as a drug molecule, the sensor chip goes into the Reader which performs the test, and the test spits out the result in less than 30 minutes.”
Previously HexagonFab was at IdeaSpace in West Cambridge.
“We’ve bootstrapped since the start,” says Ruizhi, “and been funded through awards, and Innovate UK has kindly supported us. It’s important for us to build a minimum viable product – a prototype – and that was up and running last November. Our customers are satisfied and we are now working on user friendliness. and handling, with the launch due in Q2 or Q3 next year.”
The Reader is expected to be priced at less than £20,000 – “10 times cheaper than the current options” – with each sensor somewhere between £25 and £40. Ruizhi spent years researching graphene in Stephan Hofmann’s group at the University of Cambridge.
“Graphene sits in the sensors,” he says. “It’s the sensing element. When people are trying to measure bio-molecules, graphene helps transfer the biological signal into an electrical signal and now we can make it reliable, and it’s easy to use for our customers.”
Higher Steaks: “It’s like a big family.”
Dr James Clark, CSO, and Dr Ruth Faram, head of R&D, moved into the Bio-Innovation Centre with Higher Steaks on September 1.
“There’s five at present working on the site, and the team is expanding,” says James. The team was previously based in Bristol. It was started by Benjamina Bollag in June 2018. The company makes meat from cultivated stem cells – firstly for pork, with beef and chicken to follow. The cells are taken non-invasively via a fibroblast sample.
“Pork is the priority for the next three years,” says James.
“It’s not different in the sense that we’re all trying to accomplish the same thing,” says Ruth, “but we use a different process when you turn the cells to muscle and fat – the process is quite protected, it’s under patent. They use an OPTi-OX process [OPTimised inducible OvereXpression] and we do not. They also use an antibiotic tetracycline for part of their process and we don’t.”
The move to the TusPark site occurred because “the labs in Bristol weren’t large enough”.
James, who was recruited during lockdown, lives in Cambridge, which made the choice – “Cambridge, Oxford or London” – easier.
“It’s excellent here,” says James, “really welcoming with the other tenants as well, it’s like a big family. There’s space available once we outgrow co-sharing – that’s how the building is designed. You can take a floor, as Mogrify has done very well. It’s a good environment for life sciences, we want to grow here – it’s not fun moving labs!”
Higher Steaks is at an early stage – how to get the product to the market is “still to be discussed”. Regulatory approval will take time. But ultimately this is also about saving the planet .