Spinning out science

The impetus for pursuing science through a company
Published in Microbiology
Spinning out science

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A frustration of academic science can be when your research project falls between the remits of the available funding bodies. For me, a clear example of this was my work on developing oligonucleotide antimicrobials, based on Transcription Factor Decoys. The promise of such an approach is the production of a pipeline of rationally designed drugs, hitting new therapeutic targets to circumvent current resistance mechanisms.

It looked good on paper but we needed to deliver solid proof of concept data, and soon learned that beyond that the next steps were to understand, design and execute a proper pre-clinical programme in order to attract industry attention.

This needed and needs money, expertise and energy. As an academic I initially looked for the money from grants but this seemed to be limited in four ways: too early for innovative science schemes, too medical for biological research grants; too far away from clinic for medical grants; too naive for larger funders. Maybe I agreed with the last point as moving the concept from the bench towards a lead candidate was indeed a multidisciplinary challenge at the scientific level but has also needed to involve different cultures: regulatory, manufacture, clinician and economic.

The route we took was to form a spin-out company (Procarta Biosystems) as the offer seemed better suited to the investment community. As with all successful communities it is made up of different individuals and the challenge is to find the right ones for your project and vice versa. You can consider them in terms of how much risk they are willing to bear- how likely is your project to work and if so how much it will return for them, and also what their resources are. Importantly they will have their own strengths, in terms of expertise and reputation, and strategic drivers. It is a large pond full of frogs and if you have the energy you need to kiss as many as you can to find your prince.

It is an onerous process and once you have raised investment the challenges escalate, not least the complexity of running a company and satisfying or managing expectations. Overall I have found it enjoyable and rewarding. You need to, and will be expected to, champion your science, as well as being your worst critic.

For our project it has allowed us to take a concept that we struggled to get grant funding for to a point where we are planning entry into preclinical trials. Our improved data and thorough understanding has also significantly raised our chances of bringing in additional, non-dilutive grant funding- which makes the investors happy too.

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