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Breaking Barriers: The Challenges Faced by 6 Biotech Start-Ups in 2024

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Scientific research helps us to make sense of the world around us, and even change it. A fascination with the pursuit of discovery, and the possibility of having an impact on society, is often the underlying motivation for pursuing a career in science. But to deliver that impact, you might need to take your discovery beyond the walls of the laboratory and enter the realms of scientific entrepreneurship.

The resilience of life science entrepreneurship shines through the UK Bioindustry Association’s biotech financing 2023 report. UK biotech companies secured £1.8 billion in equity financings in 2022, in spite of the global economic downturn. The UK also maintained its position as Europe’s leading biotech hub, contributing to 41% of the total venture capital raised across the continent. The industry appears to be thriving, but that’s not to say the journey from research scientist to successful start-up has a linear trajectory – there are a myriad of barriers to overcome.

At the European Laboratory Research and Innovation Group’s (ELRIG) Research and Innovation 2024 event, we asked a selection of start-up companies in the biotech space the same question: what are the key challenges you currently face?

Jeroen Verheyen, co-founder and CEO at Semarion:

“Because we are a platform technology company, a key challenge is trying to identify the core applications that we want to focus on. Our long-term vision for the company is that our microcarrier technology is used across various applications in the life sciences space to increase the data throughput of cell assays and accelerate in vitro drug discovery. However, we currently have a small applications development team, so we have to strategically select applications with high end-user demand which we can validate in the short-term. This is hard, because individuals in pharma, biotech and CROs are often suggesting slightly different, yet great applications for our technology. A second challenge is that we are creating a true paradigm shift in adherent cell assays, and convincing individuals to try a new technology isn’t always easy.”

Ruben Tomas, lead development scientist at CryoLogyx:

“Innovation is fantastic, but it can be a barrier in itself. For instance, cell culture has been conducted a certain way for decades. At CryoLogyx, we are introducing modern technologies and asking scientists to change their approaches to cell culturing, which comes with certain challenges. Initiatives such as alpha testing and early adopter programs can help us to reduce and overcome this barrier; once customers have the opportunity to test our plates, they then understand the potential of the technology. Attending tradeshows and conferences, such as ELRIG Research Innovation, can also help as it allows start-up companies to engage with their audience. We can bring demos and physically show the audience how to use our product.”

Irene González, key account manager, and Julio Martín, senior strategic liaison at A4cell:

“I would say a lack of resources is a big challenge. Start-up companies are typically extremely limited in numbers, so we have to multitask, and we have to pick the right conferences to attend. We would love to exhibit in all the conferences, but it is just not possible as a start-up,” said Irene.

“We also need to have a sense of the problems that our users – our target customers – have. We need feedback. We are a technology provider, and so we rely on insights from our target customers to understand how we can help to solve their problems. Events and conferences are very important for us, as they provide an opportunity for us to interact directly with individuals that can provide us with relevant feedback. I think that, across technology-based companies, we need to be able to progress from technology to applying that technology to specific applications that provide unique solutions to a specific problem. For A4 cells, our field of application is cell biology – it’s a universe, it’s infinite. So, it is a challenge, because the potential applications are vast,” said Julio.

Sam Windsor, CEO at Ignota Labs:

“A key challenge for AI drug discovery companies – such as Ignota Labs – is that there are different types of investors that typically fall into two categories. Firstly, life science investors – who are used to assessing drug assets, but often don’t understand how to differentiate between different technology approaches. Secondly, technology investors – who might understand your technology but are used to Enterprise B2B SaaS business models. Techbio often falls within that intersect, and as a result, life science investors don’t always feel that they understand the technology enough to invest, while technology investors don’t feel that they understand the industry enough to invest. There is a small pool of investors who specialize in techbio, but as one investor told me, ‘Nobody is quite sure where the techbio business models will end up, because no investor has quite figured it out yet. Therefore, you will always struggle to fundraise and or have your valuation lowered.’ This presents a challenge for gaining capital.

The other challenges are largely based on sales – how do we build trust, and how do we convince the relevant people that the products are adding value? The ultimate test for a novel therapeutic is in humans, but the time to get to that proof point is exceptionally long. People are having to make assessments based on proxies, or based on sales pitches, and that’s not how you sell to scientists – you need to come with evidence and data, and you therefore need more proof points and therefore need more funding. This is one of the biggest challenges in AI drug discovery.”

Raffaello Sbordoni, research scientist at Revivocell:

“The biggest challenge is always the resistance to reduce the use of animals in favour of in vitro models. However, a cultural shift is already taking place, thanks to the efforts of scientists communicating to the public the advancements and benefits of high-complexity in vitro models.”

Véronique De Conto, project leader, in vitro pharmacology at HCS Pharma:

“The biggest challenge is finding funding. Health issues require long-term research and development and can be cost-effective in the short term. Although we have strong collaborations with academic researchers leading a growing number of proof-of-concepts, we are still looking for funding and strong partnerships that will help us improve the drug discovery process and human care. BIOMIMESYS® is a versatile tool, which must be developed. In the future, it could be used not only in multi-well plates for drug assessment, but also in bioreactors, for cell amplification and regenerative medicine.”

About the interviewees:

Jeroen Verheyen is co-founder and CEO at Semarion. Semarion is built on fostering collaboration across disciplines to tackle foundational bottlenecks in drug discovery. We operate at the edge of the physical and life sciences by using microchip industry materials and techniques to transform cell-based research.

Ruben Tomas is a lead development scientist at CryoLogyx. CryoLogyx was founded by Dr. Tom Congdon and Professor Matt Gibson driven by their groundbreaking research in cryopreservation. They discovered a novel approach to freezing cells, significantly reducing post-thaw damage and enabling direct use from the freezer. This breakthrough not only shortened testing time, but also empowered scientists to conduct research more efficiently.

Irene González is a key account manager at A4cell. Julio Martín is a senior strategic liaison at A4cell. A4cell's vision is to offer powerful and innovative tools to the Pharma and Biotech industry for monitoring and enhancing single-cell analysis studies in drug discovery and development.

Sam Windsor is the CEO at Ignota Labs. Ignota Labs' interdisciplinary team of world-leading experts in AI, drug discovery and toxicology has created state-of-the-art in silico models that accurately predict key toxicology endpoints.

Raffaello Sbordoni is a research scientist at Revivocell. Revivocell develops complex in vitro models to address multiple issues associated with drug discovery in the pharmaceutical industry. 

Véronique De Conto is project leader in in vitro pharmachology at HCS Pharma. HCS Pharma is a biotechnology company focused on in vitro R&D, specializing in high-content screening (HCS), namely automated cell imaging.