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3 April, 2020 - 12:07 By Kate Sweeney

Startups the rock stars of our generation

The second life science bio-incubator programme at the Babraham Research Campus ended on a high for its participants as they presented their science and achievements to a distinguished audience.

Mentors, investors and strategic partners were in attendance to hear the progress of the winning science startups: CC Bio, Reflection Therapeutics, MicrofluidX, Shift Bioscience and TropoFour Therapeutics, which started the programme in September 2019.

Their journey culminated in a final invitation-only presentation day held at the Campus which also included a panel Q&A session, chaired by Dr Karolina Zapadka, with some of the Cambridge Cluster’s most influential movers and shakers including Dr Anna Williamson, Roche Pharma Partnering, Dr Catherine Elton, Qkine CEO; Dr Vishal Gulati, Digital Health Investor; Dr Andy Richards, business angel and entrepreneur; and Theo Harold, Crescendo Biologics CEO.

The [email protected] startups competition ([email protected]), gives selected ventures access to a five-month programme of lab access, mentoring and workshops with the aim of supporting the development of science concepts, the creation of new companies and helping to grow early stage biomedical ventures.

The presentations were overwhelmingly positive, with several of the enterprises already securing patents, investments and hiring staff.

Matthew Cummings, co-founder and CEO of CC Bio, which is producing genetically engineered therapeutic bacterium, said the company had evolved, pivoted and grown in aspiration during their time on the programme and is currently seeking a seed round of £2.5 million.

He said: “Babraham has introduced us to a whole host of experts who have been incredibly helpful. One of the key value-adds of being on the campus is the network, the eco-sphere. It’s enabled us to develop four collaborations, one patent, one investment and two grants.” 

Daniel Ives, founder and CEO of Shift Bioscience also reported that the company had pivoted, from rare disease to anti-ageing cosmetics as its first target market, since starting the programme.

He said: “Shift Bioscience is poised to disrupt the anti-ageing cosmetic industry with its technology, with the potential to repurpose the technology for clinical applications. 

“Being on the programme has helped to shape our business plan and we have moved forward faster because of it. We’ve been delighted to welcome David Billington as an adviser, who was previously global head of discovery at L’Oréal, and have our first commitment to seed round funding from an external investor.”

Tim Newton, co-founder and CEO of Reflection Therapeutics, which is harnessing anti-inflammatory cell therapies to treat neurodegeneration, revealed the company is building the team, filing for IP protection and has raised more than £500k in grants.

“One of the most exciting things about the programme is the huge number of phenomenal people we’ve met both in the Cambridge eco-system and beyond who have supported and mentored us,” he said.

“This, in addition to access to well-equipped lab facilities and equipment, has helped us leverage our idea into a development discovery programme over the five months.”

Marloes Tijssen, CEO of TropoFour Therapeutics, whose mission is to develop a medicine to prevent heart attacks and strokes in patients with Essential Thrombocythaemia, explained how the programme had helped them to take an idea and turn it into a business.

“We had a very early idea that we needed to shape. I’m from an academic background and have really benefited from all the business advice and mentorship from experts who have given their time for free. We are now in advanced conversations with several angel, seed and VC investors.

“I would recommend this programme to startups; it’s a really brilliant programme with access to advice, lab and office space and it really is fun!”

Antoine Espinet, founder and CEO of MicrofluidX, which is developing equipment to produce cell and gene therapy at scale, shared the many achievements made during the programme including closing a seed round of £1.4m, securing two additional grants and undertaking more than 60 customer interviews to test product-market fit.

“I really recommend this programme as it has facilitated a great acceleration of our company. Our visibility has improved within the UK eco-system which has allowed us to attract investors and advisors and build trust with suppliers which is enabling us to progress on our journey.”

Although the five-month programme has now concluded, some of the startups are staying on site. 

Derek Jones, CEO of Babraham Bioscience Technologies said: “Congratulations to our second cohort of [email protected] startups. It’s so inspiring to hear what this group of innovative discoverers has achieved in a relatively short space of time. 

“I’d like to thank the incredibly experienced group of strategic partners and campus companies who generously gave their time and expertise to help develop these life science ventures of the future. 

“We all share and celebrate their successes which are also successes for the wider campus, the Cambridge cluster and the UK life science industry as a whole.” 


From left: Dr Karolina Zapadka, head of Babraham Accelerator; Theo Harold, CEO Crescendo Biologics; Andy Richards, business angel and entrepreneur; Catherine Elton, CEO Qkine; Dr Anna Williamson, Roche Pharma Partnering and Dr Vishal Gulati, digital health investor.

The startups were given some final advice from the expert panel as they take their next entrepreneurial steps. Andy Richards, chair of Babraham Bioscience Technologies, advised the cohort to enjoy the intensity of the journey: “It’s a much about the journey as it is getting there so enjoy it – the small band of brothers and sisters’ stage is great fun in this sector. 

“But then it has to grow and scale. You need to build a team of people with complementary skills and leadership capabilities. [email protected] focuses on this and allows you to hold a mirror up and see how the world sees you. The majority of investors won’t invest if the team doesn’t work for them, although they will rarely tell you this!”

He went on to describe what inspires him: “I’m addicted to working with really bright people, those who are doing difficult things to make a real difference. And I need good people alongside me. 

“The team gives me the courage to go and walk through walls. When the people are great, the ideas are great and it’s important to remember that we are not in competition with each other, we can all succeed.” 

Theo Harold, CEO of Crescendo Biologics, echoed the sentiment of being driven by bright people and by the challenge: “Bright people doing exciting things is compelling,” she said.

Her advice to the startups was to seek out the super connectors, listen to them and draw on their experience: “If you have a great board, use them! 

Keep them super updated and tap into their connections. It’s really important to leverage your personal network and that of your investors too.”

Catherine Elton, founder and CEO of Qkine, told the group that self-awareness and gut instinct were important: “The start-up journey is a rollercoaster and the challenge of it is what motivates me. Qkine has offered the ability to create jobs and opportunities out of nothing and that’s what motivates me. 

“Advisers and investors are a great help but trust your gut; it’s your company. Have self-awareness and anything you don’t have you can learn! When I have an issue I reach out to try and solve it through my network. I also have 9 and 11-year-old daughters, who see me as a role model, which is my personal motivation and I want to show them you can have a non-typical career path.”

From a pharma perspective, Anna Williamson from Roche Pharma Partnering encouraged the ventures to understand that it’s all about the people, both in terms of building teams and in selecting partners.

“When we’re hiring, personality, culture and a shared passion for bringing breakthrough solutions to patients is key. We look for someone who can work in a large organisation and be a team player, but who can also lead a team. “So, hire the best team you can and choose your partners wisely. Deals and collaborations are all about people, connections and a shared purpose.”

Dr Vishal Gulati, from Draper Esprit said that we were living through an amazing time in the industry: “We are living in a time where the best people are working with the best technology to solve the world’s hardest problems and [email protected] is a great example of that. 

“There has been a major shift in perception and starting a company has now passed the ‘grandma test’ – we are not embarrassed by working for a startup rather than a big brand. Startups are the rock stars of our generation.”

On investing, he added that in early stage companies, he invests in the team, not necessarily the initial idea: “I meet people as individuals rather than in the context of their idea, it’s the combination of the whole.

“If you look at many entrepreneurs, they have had lots of good ideas, but human ideas are an inexhaustible resource so don’t be locked into your first idea, or company as a CEO, because you’ll get stuck. 

“And don’t ever apologise for your imperfections – if you wait until everything is perfect it’s too late. With the right combination of ambition and naivety you can do anything!”

• Applications for the third [email protected] competition are now open; the programme itself will start in September 2020. Interested in applying? Find out more by visiting: https://www.babraham.com/accelerate-babraham/accelerate-babraham-competition-2020/

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