Kevin Fitzgerald, CEO of F-Star
With major research sites in Cambridge UK and Vienna in Austria, F-star is leading the development of the next generation of therapeutic antibodies and antibody fragments based on its unique Modular Antibody Technology.
Modular Antibody Technology allows the introduction of additional binding sites into antibodies and antibody fragments by engineering the non-CDR loops of constant or variable domains. Using Modular Antibody Technology, small sized antibody fragments with full antibody functionality and long half life (Fcab™) or full length antibodies with dual functionality (mAb² ™) can be created.
F-star is developing a novel pipeline of products in therapeutic areas such as oncology, inflammation and autoimmune diseases, angiogenesis and other disease areas. F-star is also forming strategic partnerships to further develop the technology.
1. What were the origins of F-Star?F-star was founded in 2006 to develop and commercialise the Modular Antibody Technology that originated in Prof Florian Rucker’s lab at the Institute of Applied Microbiology, Vienna. The company subsequently opened a second research site in Cambridge in 2008.
2. How is the business funded?The company benefits from a very strong syndicate of venture capital investors (Aescap Venture, Atlas Venture, Novo Ventures and TVM Capital) and corporate venture investors (Merck Serono, MP Healthcare Venture Management and SR One). The company has raised approximately €34m in equity finance since its inception. In addition the company has received non-dilutive funding from a number of Austrian grant awarding bodies (e.g. AWS and FFG) and it has also received some significant revenue from the establishment of R & D collaborations with Boehringer Ingelheim and Merck Serono.
3. Do you have need - or plans - for further funding as the business grows and what form might this take?The company will most like need to raise further funds as it progresses compounds into clinical development. The company anticipates that such funding will come predominately from the existing investors and additional venture investors but that this will be supplemented with new grants and with further revenues.
4. In terms of your two bases in Cambridge and Austria, which operation handles which functions?There is a roughly equal split of the discovery and biology functions across the two sites.
5. You have a relatively small headcount across both sites? Is that likely to grow as deals like the one with Merck produce ongoing revenues?It is very likely that the company will grow, albeit in a tightly controlled way. Our aim is to use our resources as efficiently as possible in order to maintain as lean an organisation as possible.
6. Has it been difficult finding the right calibre of scientific staff in such a competitive arena?Attracting talent is always a difficult task. However our technology appears to be very attractive to a wide range of scientists and our growing profile within the industry is helping us to secure the services of very high calibre individuals.
7. Do you perceive multi-applications for your technology and in what areas of medical need?F-star is developing two therapeutic antibody formats. The first is called an Fcab which is a monospecific antibody fragment that, despite its small size (it is about 1/3rd the size of a full antibody), retains all three main functionalities of conventional antibodies, namely the ability to bind to a target molecule (the “antigen”), the ability to recruit the immune system to attack cells that the Fcab is bound to and the ability to survive for a very long time in the body (it has a long ”half-life”).
We think that there are many applications for this class of drug given that Fcabs have biological activities that differ from those of conventional antibodies (their small size and long half-life promote different biodistribution properties compared to conventional antibodies and the way in which Fcabs bind to their target antigen is very different to that of conventional antibodies which can result in novel biological outcomes).
The second platform that F-star is developing is a bispecific antibody which we call a mAb2. mAb2s are structurally very similar to conventional antibodies (meaning that the processes for the manufacture, development and delivery of these molecules does not differ from those of conventional antibodies) except that they additionally have a binding site for a second, different antigen.
We have observed that the ability of these molecules to bind simultaneously to two different targets on the same cancer cell, thereby crosslinking the two bound antigens, can result in the propagation of death signals into the cell. This activity cannot be replicated by conventional antibodies, either on their own or in combination. We therefore think that there are many applications for this technology in cancer, immunology and many other disease areas.
8. What is your overall mission for the business, in terms of where you want it to be in, say, 10 years time?F-star is aiming to discover new medicines that address serious and poorly treated illnesses. To bring a drug to market requires very significant amounts of investment and for F-star to succeed in seeing its novel technology properly utilised it must find ways to fund the full development and commercialisation of its compounds.
It might be possible for the company to raise these significant funds through floatation on a major stock exchange. However, with the current lack of a strong appetite within the public markets for biotech offerings, this route to financing the company’s longer term ambitions looks somewhat un-promising at present. It is therefore perhaps more likely that F-star will combine with a large pharmaceutical or biotechnology company that already possesses the human and financial resources to fully exploit our technology.
9. How important is Cambridge in the growth strategy for the business?Perhaps the main advantage of locating in Cambridge is the availability of R & D talent. Not only does Cambridge already possess many talented antibody research and development scientists (due to the city’s long-standing association with antibody technologies which dates back to the original development of monoclonal antibodies, the humanisation of rodent antibodies for clinical uses and discovery of methods to make fully human antibodies and antibody fragments for clinical uses), but the city’s reputation as an internationally recognised centre of excellence in the antibody field helps to attract talent from all over the world.
10. Are there any problems or issues that keep you awake at night?Running a biotech business is complex and always demanding. Being able to sleep soundly at night despite these demands is a prerequisite to a long career in the industry. I’m still working very hard to perfect this skill.