From idea to business
Start-up School can be seen as the very first stepping stone in this long but exciting journey of building a spin-out company. It’s a journey in which steps are not defined but follow the same direction. Mariya Chhatriwala, Business Development Manager in Sanger’s Technology Translation team, gives an initial piece of advice: “Always write down your ideas. Ideas in one’s mind don’t progress, they need to be identified and fleshed out.”
Let’s take Trevor Lawley, co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Microbiotica and Sanger senior group leader, as an example. Microbiotica was created in 2016 as a Sanger spin-out company with the aim of designing and developing novel therapies that use bacteria as medicine. Trevor had been thinking about this idea since his undergraduate degree studying microbial ecology, back in Nova Scotia, Canada. He kept a record of his thoughts, jotting down notes and drawing figures about his research and how he envisioned using the human microbiome and the deep understanding of our digestive system to develop live bacterial solutions to treat diseases and enhance clinical responses to life-saving drugs.
Trevor’s is the story of turning basic, fundamental research into innovative science with potential to treat a broad range of human diseases. He could see the scope of his research work beyond academia. But it’s also the story of someone who knew he couldn’t fly solo. He was in this along with Gordon Dougan, his mentor and a former Sanger senior group leader. They both knew about their own research and potentials extremely well, being widely recognised as the experts in the field globally. But they didn’t have all the key pieces to start a biotech company – how to raise funds from investors to develop a product, develop a commercial patent portfolio, grow and manage a company and go through the regulatory authorities’ approval process. That’s when Mike Romanos came in as CEO of Microbiotica, bringing that knowledge with him. Mike had ample experience in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry, and helped scope out and focus the spinout’s mission, objectives and milestones.
“You’ll normally develop a business plan in partnership with a CEO elect or entrepreneur in residence,” Gary Dillon, Business Development Manager at Sanger says. Their aim is to sketch out the company’s pathway enough so it makes sense to investors to come in, put money into the company and take equity. They know their ecosystems inside out and can draw on a wide network to build a robust business plan. They understand which collaborations will flourish and, very importantly, build a portfolio – a catalogue of services or capabilities of a product that will form the basis of a new company.
In 2016 the founders of Microbiotica licensed a portfolio that covered software, data, materials and therapeutic patents into the company. They knew that their company’s assets needed to be founded on a well-rounded portfolio of Intellectual Property (IP). “This is one of the first steps towards building your company. It not only comes in the form of a patent of a scientific system or technology but softer IP elements, such as software or different intangible assets, like your know-how,” Gary explains.
A year and a half later, Microbiotica had partnered with a strong collaborator from the pharmaceutical industry, giving them third party validation of the company’s microbiome analysis platform. Today, Microbiotica is a company with 45 employees, investment from Cambridge Innovation Capital, IP Group plc and Seventure Partners, and a partnership with Cancer Research UK. It’s an invigorating time for Microbiotica, as they enter one of the last phases of the long road to market – the clinical phase.