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Accelerate@Babraham start-ups selected

Accelerate@Babraham winners
Accelerate@Babraham winners

How the pitches went for eight life sciences incubator finalists

Accelerate@Babraham finalists
Accelerate@Babraham finalists

The final of the Accelerate@Babraham Start-Ups competition took place on the second day of the One Nucleus ON Helix conference last week.

Eight finalists had to be whittled down to five, who would be awarded a three-month residence at the Babraham Research Campus, £20,000 in prize money and access to one-to-one mentoring and facilities at the world-class centre, starting in September.

The occasion began mid-afternoon. The judging panel consisted of John Trainer, VP and head, Partnering and Strategy at MedImmune; Jo Parfrey, non-exec director of Babraham Bioscience Technologies; David Grainger, partner at Medicxi; Tony Kouzarides, professor of Cancer Biology at the University of Cambridge; and Derek Jones, CEO, Babraham Bioscience Technologies.

The incubator showcase is a first for Cambridge and could be an annual opportunity.

Accelerate@Babraham Kalium
Accelerate@Babraham Kalium

So what of the eight finalists?

1 Qkine

Qkine manufactures high quality growth factors and cytokines. Spun out from Cambridge University, the company has a strong foundation of know-how and licensed technology.

Accelerate@Babraham Derek Jones
Accelerate@Babraham Derek Jones

Co-founder and CEO Dr Catherine Elton told the judges that the firm has expertise in growth factors: it is already achieving modest turnover. The goal is “to deliver value to the stem cell industry and achieve turnover of £5million by 2012”.

Is there a scale-up issue, asked the judges? Dr Elton replied that “there’s such an opportunity to innovate in this space and it isn’t being taken advantage of by competitors”.

Result: Top five

2 Sixfold Bioscience

“Gene editing, delivered” is the mantra here. Co-founders Zuzanna Brzosko, Anna Perdrix and George Foot are creating nanoparticle-based tools which deliver multiple drugs to individual cancer cells at the same time. The potential is “to cure genetically-driven conditions and diseases”. Current process are “complex, lengthy and not very scaleable... our platform bridges the gaps”.

Sounds incredible, but there are concerns about the funding model. Silicon Valley has already invested, and Sixfold is now completing a seed round. So why do you need us, ask the judges? They want a UK base and a win would mean “access to the right people and clients”. There’s perhaps a slight concern that why did Silicon Valley let them go?

Result: Not selected

3 VisusNano

VisusNano has developed drug-releasing lens implants for use in cataract surgery, providing sustained, controlled release of drugs within the eye.

CEO Joanna Gould nails her pitch: blindness is terrifying and cataracts are the biggest cause. Surgery has complications including infection.

“By improving patient outcomes, obviating the need for eye drops after surgery, and avoiding the need for laser treatment after surgery, our project has the potential to revolutionise cataract surgery in both the human and veterinary markets.”

Is it a drug or a C-type market, asks Derek Jones?

“It’s a Class 3 medical device,” says Ms Gould. “Yes, we will need to do a clinical trial.” They will need help, especially on the regulatory framework: is that the sort of complex business model Babraham wants to take on?

Result: Top five

4 Flomics

Flomics is developing a proprietary novel blood-based diagnostic tool to identify pattern changes in circulating long RNA molecules of patients. CEO Nuno Alves promises “a revolution in diagnostics by using liquid biopsies”. Flomics’ blood tests will “guide smarter diagnostics”. The advisory board looks good: Professor Alan Barrell and Professor Rory Johnson. What’s your IP position to protect this, asks Derek Jones?

“We want to generate different models for different diseases,” says Mr Alves.

Result: Not selected

5 SNPr

The firm’s platform links genomic variants (SNPs) in non-coding genomic regions to their target genes. The head of SNPr is Tol Trimborn.

“The platform is linked to a lot of diseases,” he explains, “for instance Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel disease, COPD, asthma, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s – and a lot of work has been done.” By SNPr, he means.

Patients with these diseases “have a change in a specific location, from an A to a T, or a C to a G”. If the gene is linked to a protein then the change becomes obvious, but that’s just five per cent of cases: the rest are untraced – so far.

“Our technology can bridge this link to the function of diseases.”

There’s huge new databases SNPr can utilise and Tol has been working with Professor Petyer Fraser, who’s been at Babraham for the last 10 years. “The level here is very high,” Tol says. “Some already have funding: we’re at a very early stage.” SNPr has published results in Cell, Nature and Science.

However the team seems to be very small. Nothing wrong with that: the potential is incredible.

Result: Not selected

6 Antiverse

Accelerated drug discovery. One-day return instead of the industry standard of three-18 months. In addition to speed, Antiverse differentiates itself from the competition by superior scale, consistent quality, difficult-target binding, and an animal-free process.

Director and co-founder Rowina Westermeier outlines a “massively shortened drug discovery pipeline with 95 per cent predictive accuracy”, with the next step “testing the model in the laboratory”.

The Antiverse team includes Ben Holland and Murat Tunaboylu. “We can predict which antibodies will bind and which won’t.” Antiverse is “currently closing a £200,000 funding round” and has had a £70,000 Innovate UK grant.

The firm needs access to a lab. “It’s for three months but hopefully we’d have the capacity to extend.” The presentation “went well”.

Result: Top five

7 Oppilotech

Oppilotech is taking a systems biology approach to build one of the most detailed computational network models of the outer envelope of Gram-negative bacteria ever assembled. The model is being utilised to develop first-in-class antibacterial drugs that will address the looming antibiotic resistance crisis.

“We all need new antiobiotics,” Derek Jones had noted in his earlier remarks. Did that comment please him? “Yes,” says CEO/founder Ajay Mistry. “We hear about that on a daily basis and the problem with this market is that the pharma industry doesn’t find antiobiotics attractive, they only want to use them as a last resort.”

The science is “a new approach on how to discover antiobiotics, we’ve built a very detailed computational model of how the outer wall of gram-negative bacteria operates”. There’s an outer and inner wall the antiobiotic has to go through, and the model analyses “how it passes through the walls”.

Oppilotech was founded by five people and work has been going on for four or five years. How was the pitch? “Trying to explain something so sophisticated in four minutes... I wasn’t too sure to be honest.” How does the business model look? “We want to stay nimble and small at the moment, so we can control things.”

Result: Top five

8. Kalium Diagnostics

Kalium Diagnostics is developing the world’s first blood potassium test for home and bedside use. This test has the potential to improve the safety, health and lifestyle of more than two million people who have kidney or other problems causing too-high or too-low body potassium levels, including dialysis patients and those with particular rare diseases.

Fiona Karet is professor of nephrology at Addenbrooke’s while Tanya Hutter is a Chemist, together with Liz Norgett, technical specialist.

“I’m a kidney doctor,” says Fiona. “Patients told me they need a better way to know their potassium levels.”

Kalium have come up with a gizmo similar to the one used by people with diabetes to test their sugar levels.

The test involves a tiny (fingerprick) amount of blood, and from that you can see if potassium levels are too high or too low.

“This will save the NHS money on GP and hospital attendances for blood tests, and emergency admissions,” says Fiona. “Potassium abnormalities can be life-threatening, so we hope we can avoid that.”

“We’re well on the way to making something people really want and it’s being driven by patients themselves,” says Tanya.

Was there a breakthrough moment?

“The first time we put a drop of blood on a sensor and got an answer, that was really exciting,” says Fiona.

Result: Top five

The entries were so good that Babraham wants to keep an eye on them all. “Even if you’re not in the top five we will help you,” said Derek Jones. “It won’t be the case that you don’t hear from us again.”

So the big question is what happens after three months – will the firms be out the door? There’s some uncertainty about this but Dr Karolina Zapadka, Accelerate@Babraham’s business acceleration manager, is confident there will be a positive outcome from the process.

“We’re hoping some of them will be able to stay,” she said.

We’ll keep you posted.

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