Near-death experience breathes life into small molecule startup
A brush with death prompted a change in career direction for Cambridge entrepreneur Hannah Sore and has led to a surge of success for the company she helped start – PharmEnable.
Dr Sore, a medicinal chemist as well as co-founder and CEO of PharmEnable, was working as a consultant in London when she fell ill and developed septicemia.
She pulled through and decided she would dedicate her future career to innovative drug discovery: unlocking novel medicines to treat conditions of high unmet medical need.
Dr Sore had compiled enviable experience within the life sciences and drug discovery sector with the likes of Millennium Pharmaceuticals, Astex Therapeutics and the University itself – in addition to 10 years of consulting and business experience across healthcare sectors at Frost & Sullivan and HFS Scientific Ltd.
She helped fashion PharmEnable into a drug discovery company that develops the next generation of small molecule drugs using a combination of medicinal chemistry and a proprietary AI platform.
The fledgling business was swiftly welcomed to the bosom of the Cambridge BioMedTech cluster; PharmEnable raised £1.8 million in seed financing in 2020 to develop its early stage drug discovery program and is fundraising again on a larger scale, encouraged by growing demand.
Hannah believes a key factor in the company’s progress was early engagement with the Accelerate Cambridge programme run by the University’s Cambridge Judge Business School.
Accelerate Cambridge offers a structured approach of three-month programmes that combine entrepreneurship training, regular coaching and mentoring, as well as access to shared workspace.
Hannah says: “We started on the programme very early in our development. Obviously we had a clear idea of what we wanted to achieve but Judge helped us to really understand where the value was in the business. They helped introduce us not just to investors but also to industry contacts and showed us how to shape a business model and value proposition.
“Like a great many businesses we pivoted a few times in the early days but we never lost sight of the ultimate goal to bring small molecules back to the spotlight. To do that the starting point for a business such as ours all comes down to quality; in drug discovery, if you put rubbish in you get rubbish out.”
PharmEnable swiftly mapped out what the chemical space it was targeting actually looked like and how its proposition could prove a game-changer within that scenario. It identified potential partners in the sector.
Once again, Accelerate helped PharmEnable articulate its message to investors and potential partners and also to build the launchpad needed to start growing the enterprise.
Hannah says: “I knew I wanted to disrupt the sector and improve drug discovery. But how to do that was the initial issue. I knew I wanted to run a company I could scale. For my own part that meant developing a completely different skill set when I co-founded PharmEnable.
“I had nearly died of septicemia in 2012 and it is no exaggeration to say that deciding to start a company was a genuinely life-changing moment. While I was ill I challenged myself that if I survived I would do something about getting better drugs out there to give patients more and better options.”
That mission is already being achieved. The vision for PharmEnable was to replicate the specificity of biologics in the powerful and scalable form of a small molecule.
To that end, and inspired by nature, the company specialises in designing complex, 3-dimensional small molecules. Its powerful AI platform explores novel areas of the chemical universe to find specific drugs for otherwise untreatable conditions.
Novel genomics and structural biology technologies have enabled the business to study disease mechanisms in ever increasing detail and have already identified a large number of challenging new disease targets to drug.
Hannah is happy at the progress to date and modestly ventures that the company is “going in the right direction.”
PharmEnable is creating genuine value and eliminating hype; headcount is steadily growing; a new fundraise is underway and should close early December.
“It’s exciting and it is what I set out to do,” says Hannah, “to give hope to many more patients by unlocking more and better drugs to increasing numbers of disease areas. We have a fantastic board in place to help us achieve our targets.”
The company also collaborates with select partners to work on challenging targets, which is their speciality. A great example is its technology collaboration with Sosei Heptares for AI-driven drug discovery against a challenging G protein-coupled receptor target associated with neurological disease.
Sosei Heptares is an international biopharma group focused on the discovery and early development of new medicines originating from their world-leading GPCR-targeted StaR® technology and structure-based drug design platform capabilities.
Miles Congreve, chief scientific officer of Sosei Heptares, says: “We have been very impressed with PharmEnable’s technology and approach, which we believe to be highly complementary to our own, offering important synergies for drug discovery on challenging GPCR targets.
“We are excited to apply these technologies on a peptidergic GPCR target that has proved particularly difficult to drug. We have so far assembled a wealth of structural and ligand-binding information on the target and created several promising molecules but have yet to identify compounds with sufficiently desirable neurological drug-like properties to advance into preclinical studies.
“Combining our respective technologies and expertise may be the key that unlocks this target and enables the identification of higher quality molecules to progress into preclinical development.”
Dr Sore concludes: “We have proven the strength of our platform in tapping unexplored parts of the chemical universe to find novel and specific hits for currently undruggable targets. Combining our platform with the technology and structural insights developed by Sosei Heptares should enable us to generate several potential hits and to establish our pipeline of candidate molecules for the treatment of challenging diseases.”
• This is the first in a series of articles on companies that have benefited from the Accelerator programme at Cambridge Judge Business School.