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Start Codon aims for ten Cambridge start-up successes a year

Jason Mellad, Smart Codon CEO. Picture: Keith Heppell
Jason Mellad, Smart Codon CEO. Picture: Keith Heppell

Start Codon is aiming to help 10 start-ups a year through what CEO Jason Mellad describes as a “new model of life science and healthcare business accelerator”.

He told the Cambridge Independent how each will receive £250,000 plus support as the company aims to kickstart “more Abcams”.

This week, the recently-formed company announced Daniel Rooke as partner and head of operations, and Sakura Holloway as partner and head of diligence.

Sakura said of her appointment: “In meeting with Jason, as well as Daniel and (chairman) Ian Tomlinson, it was obvious that we all shared a common passion for early stage biotech sector development.

“More excitingly, our skills and experience are very complementary, which not only makes it very exciting for us to work and learn from each other as a team, but also presents a unique team of mentors for our cohort companies.”

Daniel added: “This is a superb opportunity for me to get further involved in the pioneering healthcare ecosystem of Cambridge.

“I’ll be spending a large proportion of my time in Cambridge and will be initially working out of the entrepreneurial hub that is Idea Space South, located at the Cambridge Biomedical Innovation Hub at Addenbrooke’s.

“It’s a perfect place for me to be based and to fuel what we are trying to achieve at Start Codon.”

Dr Mellad said: “The appointments of Daniel and Sakura form part of our ambitious plans and mission to provide a new model of life science and healthcare business accelerator, with a world-class team to create maximum value for us, our investors and our investee companies.

Dan Rooke is a partner and head of operations at Start Codon
Dan Rooke is a partner and head of operations at Start Codon

“Daniel and Sakura’s industry experience and expertise will be invaluable to the companies joining our acceleration program.”

Start Codon’s proposition was established with a depth of intent unusual even in the life sciences sector: keystone investors include Cambridge Innovation Capital, Babraham Bioscience Technologies, Genentech (a member of the Roche Group), Dr Jonathan Milner and Dr Ian Tomlinson.

The name was Jason’s idea.

“The ‘start codon’ is a sequence of three letters in the genetic code that initiates the translation of messenger ribonucleic acid – mRNA – into the proteins that regulate cell identity and function,” he explains. “Though there are thousands of unique mRNA and protein molecules encoded by the human genome, each shares the same start codon in common. The sequence downstream of the start codon is tailored to the specific function of each individual protein.

“Similarly, Start Codon fundamentally believes that all healthcare start-ups need the same solid foundation to begin their operations, followed by a focused support programme tailored to their specific needs, in order to translate their early-stage technologies into the clinic and commercial success.”

When it comes to solid foundations, Jason is in a good place. He came from a good place too – New Orleans. His first encounter with Cambridge was in 2004 when he began a PhD in medicine at Clare College. His business career then got off to a good start with Cambridge Enterprise as technology transfer associate.

From there he moved to Horizon Discovery as business development manager, before joining Cambridge Epigenetix as VP business development in 2016. In 2017 he became CEO, leaving the biotech company at the start of the year as Start Codon unfolded.

Sakura Holloway has joined Start Codon as partner and head of diligence
Sakura Holloway has joined Start Codon as partner and head of diligence

“We see ourselves as upstream from what others are doing,” he explains. “People need expertise and guidance, a lot of opportunities are sold too soon. If we can get a couple together then we can make the change – to see more Abcams.

“The plan is to take on 10 companies a year for the next five years. The timeframe involves enrolling, six months of intense handholding, then a lighter touch, making sure the company is hitting milestones and not falling between the cracks. Then, within a year of starting with us, they shoot for a Series A funding round or other investment.”

The initial cohort will be five organisations selected this autumn.

“We’re assessing for five special, amazing companies. Then there will be another five early in 2020. Broadly speaking, the sectors involved will be healthcare, therapeutics, digital health and medtech.”

Those selected can look forward to working at the Milner Institute, which recently moved into the new Jeffrey Cheah Biomedical Centre on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus.

“Each receives £250,000,” says Jason. “A small amount of equity is upfront and the rest converts into different equity after Series A funding. We want to make sure we are tied to their success – so we want to make sure they are successful.

“The laboratory and office space at the Milner Institute is for six months, then we’ll help them find new accommodation. A lot will choose to be virtual. We want to make sure they have partners. Too often early-stage companies burn through capital on offices and labs when what’s more important is who’s on the scientific board, outstanding science, a very strong team and an understanding of the market opportunity and the product’s market fit. They will have a clear and well-identified problem that they have a solution for.”

Not that Start Codon is sitting back.

“We’re actively pursuing companies,” adds Jason.

Lucky them.

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