Biotech Startups in the Age of COVID-19

The lunchtime panel discussion at Genesis Digital 2020 will discuss the question ‘Has Covid-19 make it easier or harder to create a biotech company?' In advance of this, science writer Dr Clare Sansom caught up with one of the panellists, Dr Anne Lane. Dr Lane is CEO of UCL’s commercialisation company, UCLB.

Q. How has COVID-19 changed the way that UCLB operates? What has been hardest, and has anything been easier?

A. Surprisingly little has actually changed. Our work is progressing quite smoothly even though we are all working from home. We all miss informal interactions with our academics outside planned meetings; there is no equally productive virtual equivalent of serendipitous encounters in corridors. But there are positive points too. It is easier to reach many people, particularly those in senior posts now that they are travelling so much less.

Q. Have you and your portfolio of companies had any significant pandemic-related successes (e.g. in designing breathing devices, testing, in vaccine design collaborations)?

A. I can think of two important examples here. A group of virologists led by a former UCL professor, Ken Powell, a serial entrepreneur with two earlier antiviral drug discovery companies, Arrow Therapeutics Ltd and ReViral Ltd, under his belt, have set up Collaborative Community Against Coronavirus (3C) as a not-for-profit community interest company to design small-molecule drugs for COVID-19 and other emerging viral threats. And a team based at UCL’s Institute of Healthcare Engineering has developed a CPAP breathing aid known as UCL-Ventura that can help keep COVID patients out of intensive care. This device was developed in less than 100 days, it is widely used in the NHS and it has been licensed free of charge to almost 2,000 institutions globally.

Q. Have you seen changes in how UCL academics are preferring to work with UCLB?

A. Since the first lockdown, we have dealt with a large number of material transfer agreements. These are contracts that govern the sharing of (typically small-scale) research tools between institutions. This seems to imply that our scientists are using the hiatus in which they have little or no access to their labs to plan future research projects, which is a hopeful sign.

Q. How does 2020 compare with previous years in the numbers and types of new spinout companies coming through the system? What has and hasn’t worked for them, and are there any advantages in being spun out during a pandemic?

A. We have spun out seven companies in 2019-20, which compares with 11 the year before and seven the year before that. These numbers always fluctuate, so the pattern seems to be comparable with previous years. However, realistically, a decline in research output is unlikely to be reflected in business activity for a few years, so if there is a drop-off we won’t see it in the figures for perhaps three years.

Q. What role are collaborations between universities playing in promoting innovation during the pandemic?

A. UCL is part of TenU, a partnership between 10 leading research-intensive universities and their technology transfer offices (six in the UK, three in the US and one in Leuven, Belgium). Knowledge exchange with these partners is proving very helpful. In the UK, PRAXISAuril, the professional association for knowledge exchange, shared best-practice with smaller institutions that have been working locally (for example to manufacture PPE), helping them license products made on a not-for-profit basis and ensure they comply with all relevant safety regulations. UCLB has also made our e-lucid platform available for COVID-related IP from other institutions.

Q. What lessons are you hoping to take forward into the post-pandemic tech transfer landscape – both generically, and ‘for the next one’?

A. Our academics and partners have worked very quickly and flexibly throughout this crisis to solve problems. We can’t expect that to continue in exactly the same way – for example, Mercedes were able to work on UCL-Ventura with us only because Formula 1 racing had completely stopped – but we hope they will work faster and more flexibly than before. But as for ‘the next one’: that depends on what you mean. There is more appreciation of the dangers that we face from emerging infectious diseases, which is leading to more investment in that area from private as well as public and charitable funders, and this can only be a good thing. In my view, I think we will now see a similarly massive effort to tackle climate change. Many people have been appreciating the global benefits of less pollution and less travel, and if we can remember this once we are all vaccinated, we may finally be able to get to grips with this even more insurmountable problem.