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Startup Slam: The Dragons’ Den of Biopharma in Europe

Startup Slam: The Dragons’ Den of Biopharma in Europe content piece image

One of Europe’s largest biopharma conferences, BIO-Europe, was held in Copenhagen last week.

In addition to company presentations and panel discussions, this industry-focused meeting really was a hub for conversation.

Private meeting booths filled halls of the Bella Centre, where aspiring biotechs and big-pharma companies met to begin conversations that may lead to long-term partnerships.

To top off day two of the conference, the ‘Startup Slam’ was held. This was a Dragons’ Den style competition where representatives from eight up-and-coming biotech companies presented their case to a jury of leading investors, pharma deal-makers, biotech business key opinion leaders — and an attentive audience.

Each speaker had a three minute time limit and could present up to two powerpoint slides, followed by questions from the judges (four minutes max) and the audience (four minutes max).

The judges* received 60 applications from over 17 countries.

These were the finalists who were selected to present (in the order of presentation):

  1. SunRegen (Basel, Switzerland) plan to produce a synthetic version of a Chinese herb-derived compound, for the treatment of severe neurological/neuromuscular diseases. Their compound has reportedly shown remarkable neuroprotective and neurorescuing effects in multiple in vivo and in vitro models. Claimed promising results had been shown in studies with rhesus monkeys, whereby monkeys with optic atrophy that received the active ingredient of this herb showed increased thickness of the retinal nerve fiber layer. 

    Question from the judge: Why do you want to produce a synthetic version of this compound, rather than use the natural herb?

    (Paraphrased) Answer: The herb is not easy to grow and only thrives under certain conditions – we wish to produce a synthetic version of the herb so more people can benefit.

  2. Abarceo Pharma (Lund, Sweden), a spin-out of Lund University Diabetes Center, claimed to have identified a novel diabetes target. They have patented the use of their active compound which has shown promise in restoring function of dysfunctional beta cells in type II diabetes. The compound ‘blocks’ VDAC1, a mitochondrial membrane channel, which is upregulated under glucotoxic conditions. Their work is based on cells from deceased donors with type II diabetes and some animal models, and they were seeking 20 million Euros to continue their work.

    Comment: There was some uncertainty as to what stage of the disease they proposed to use this treatment.

  3. Hoba Therapeutics (Copenhangen, Denmark) are a Danish biotech company who are developing treatments for two separate conditions: neuropathic pain and hearing loss. They hope to harness two related neurotrophic growth factors to benefit people with a variety of CNS disorders. Their lead biopharmaceutical candidate reportedly targets satellite glial cells and increased the paw withdrawal threshold in rodents.

  4. REVision Therapeutics (New Jersey, USA) are developing treatments for three main disorders: Stargardt’s Disease, proliferative vitroretinopathy, and dry eye disease, by repurposing approved drugs (or rescue shelved drugs).

  5. Mindpax (Prague, Czech Republic) have developed a wristband which is designed to predict relapses in people diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Not only are relapses undesirable and taxing for the people who experience them, relapses are considered costly occurrences, with extended hospital stays not uncommon. Boasting a long battery life of 10 months, the Mindpax wristband is to be worn constantly and collects data which reflects sleep and movement patterns. Data can be accessed by the clinician, and can theoretically be used to guide treatment, dose adjustments, and frequency of visits to the clinic. A ‘validated questionnaire’ has also been designed to complement the wristband, which reportedly generates an objective measurement of mood.

    Comment: Judges questioned the likelihood of compliance, i.e. asked whether people with schizophrenia would be happy to wearing a sensor that constantly tracks their activity.

  6. Cambridge Cancer Genomics (CCG) (Cambridge, UK) are on the hunt for novel biomarkers in blood, which may indicate whether or not a cancer therapy is working. CCG believe that over time, they will be able to better predict the best therapeutic strategy for cancer patients, before they begin treatment. In addition, it was proposed that such biomarkers and algorithms could be used to guide modifications in adaptive clinical trials.

    Comment: One of the judges questioned what financial incentive would exist for biopharma companies who are testing their products in clinical trials – why would they want to find out if their treatment was not working?

  7. Kutanios (UK) have developed a new skincare ingredient to protect skin against the aging effects of sunlights, tobacco smoke and atmospheric pollution. They have been awarded an EU trademark and are seeking to partner with a company already established in the skincare industry.

    Comment: While the mechanism for this approach was unclear, it was interesting to hear that skincare as an industry supposedly has an 80% profit margin, which is only second to mineral water!

  8. Braizon Therapeutics (Tokyo, Japan) are focused on enabling drug delivery to the brain. They have engineered glucose ligand nano-micelles (with a 15-30 nm diameter), into which a variety of drugs can be inserted. Braizon report that fasting in mice increases the transport capacity of GLUT1 in cerebral endothelial cells, and that by controlling blood glucose levels they have managed to deliver the micelles from the blood, to brain parenchyma (unpublished).

Tough competition, not easy to judge

Chatting with others in the audience, we agreed that it was very difficult to judge this competition.

Given that speakers only had three minutes to present, and that they couldn’t give away all of their secrets, the nitty-gritty details of their approaches had to be skimmed over.

Judges often asked about the level of expertise in the company, involvement of mentors in the work, and the business model.

What was the verdict?

The winner of the Startup Slam was SunRegen Healthcare.

SunRegen will receive a complimentary registration to BIO-Europe Spring® 2019 in Vienna, and access to a top-tier mentoring program with industry experts from Johnson & Johnson Innovation.

REVision Therapeutics were selected for the inaugural Audience Choice Award.

Comments from the judges

Sir Harpal Kumar, Head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, EMEA, based in the London Innovation Centre, commented on the event:

"Today's world presents new challenges and new diseases - which is why Johnson & Johnson Innovation is committed to accelerating healthcare innovation and supporting great ideas no matter where they come from. The Startup Slam at BIO-Europe reflects the high calibre of life sciences research going on worldwide, and we look forward to providing mentorship to SunRegen Therapeutics as they develop transformative healthcare solutions for neurodegenerative eye diseases."

Ingrid Teigland Akay, Managing Partner at Hadean Ventures commented on the significance and calibre of the competition:

"The life science industry is currently offering highly attractive investment opportunities based on unprecedented rapid progress in science and technology. Today's Startup Slam showcased a number of such emerging companies developing promising new healthcare products. I was very impressed by the high quality throughout and congratulate SunRegen Therapeutics as a very worthy winner amongst fierce competition. It was a great atmosphere during the event and it was a pleasure to contribute as a judge.

*The expert judging panel consisted of Guenter Huhle, Head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation — JLABS, EMEA; Ingrid Teigland Akay, Managing Partner, Hadean Ventures; Claus Andersson, Partner, Sunstone Life Science Ventures; Dr. Stefan Luzi, Partner, Glide Healthcare; and Anna Gran, New Venture Lead, Johnson & Johnson Innovation, Nordics.

Interested in putting your company's name in the hat for this competition?

Keep an eye out on the BIO-Europe website for the next opportunity: