I learn about new and exciting biotech start ups on a weekly basis – there is no shortage of ideas as health challenges become more complex to solve and no lack of investors, willing to speculate on the next 23andMe.
Scientific incubators and accelerators have sprung up like mushrooms, which are on a mission to turn geeky scientists into successful entrepreneurs and their ideas into profitable businesses. In the middle of it all, there is a consumer – who I imagine must be quite confused in making sense of it all. While it should be quite easy to decide whether or not you need a new hoover or a blanket - how easy is it to decide if you need the latest medical gadget, service or app?
I am a scientist, a geneticist by training. My PhD research concerned a peculiar organelle, a cilium, which is a hair-like protrusion on almost every cell type. We know that when the cilia structure or function is compromised, it leads to a plethora of clinical phenotypes from obesity, learning disabilities to kidney problems. In fundamental research we often turn to cells to study the disease – I would recommend reading about the famous Henrietta Lacks story which highlights the importance of cells in research, and also bioethics.
The “best” kinds of cells are the ones that come from patients directly as they have the same genetic make up as the donor and may hold information that other models do not. The not so glamorous part of my research involved the extraction of cells from fresh patient urine samples – as an attempt to model the disease using non-invasive cell extraction method.
The idea for Encelo was born out of my frustration, which I experienced as a PhD student – samples had a very short shelf life due to the toxic urine environment and had to be processed almost immediately to yield viable cells. While I was running around central London with a little cooler bag - from the laboratory to the clinic and then back, and then inside laboratory from one centrifuge to the next; I’d often think how ridiculous it was, there must be a better and more efficient way to do what I was doing.
Fast forward two years to now, we have in development a Cell Catcher device, which can be sent directly to the patients or donors of interest, it captures and preserves cells, these will now be sent by mail. It is essentially a very fancy pee cup. In addition to spending time inventing and designing this device my team and I spend equal time trying to decide whether or not the world needs what we are working on and how it should be packaged.
Finding the best use for our invention and the cells it gives bountiful access to, has been the trickiest part and we are currently on our third pivot. So far we’ve explored applications in toxicology, kidney disease diagnostics – and are currently looking into creating virtual biobank, where people will have the power in deciding who has access to their biological material, which is currently not the case.
The reason for all these multiple iterations is the constant dialogue that we have with investors, mentors and potential customers. Encelo is currently part of the P4 Precision Medicine accelerator programme, which is a partnership among UCL, Capital Enterprise and Barclays Eagle Labs, that provides us with a vital support system, contacts and continuous feedback that shapes the direction of our business.
The new and exciting world of biotech start-ups is dominated by very brave and creative people – you need a hell of a lot confidence to push novel ideas forward. However, the reality is such that innovation by definition has a largely unknown impact on the future world. Isn’t it interesting that some of the biggest scientific discoveries – X-rays, penicillin and heparin – had an element of serendipity in them? Being humble or doubtful is a taboo, as no one funds uncertain founders.
Many founders are also scientists by training, and in science it is not only normal, but also essential to never stop questioning, even your own experimental results. I am sceptical of over-optimistic pitches and claims to have found the next big thing by the early stage companies – and so should be the consumer. The drivers of scientific discovery and commercial success may not be the same; finding this delicate balance between the two may be the most important task for companies that want to make a lasting impact.