By Julie Nixon
With my background in cell and molecular biology, the fourth BioQuarter Networking event was of special interest to me given the speaker was James Noble of Adaptimmune, a company specialising in T-cell therapy technology to combat cancer. James is also CEO of Immunocore, and his talk tonight was a tale of the survival, and growth of both companies.
Both companies are focused on using the T-cell receptor for cancer therapies, but applying different technologies. Immunocore has patented soluble affinity enhanced T-cell receptors (ImmTAC technology) that target proteins displayed on the surface of cancer cells. A T-cell that comes into contact with the cancer cell decorated with ImmTAC is directed to kill the cancer cell. Adaptimmune has technology that engineers the T-cell itself by transfecting the cell with engineered T-cell receptors. This enhances the T-cell receptor’s affinity to bind cancer proteins found on the surface of a diseased cell. Clinical trials have so far shown this cell therapy technique effective with multiple cancers.
Both companies started out of Avidex, an Oxford University spin out which was founded in 1999. Avidex was then acquired by Medigene. Adaptimmune in turn was spun out of Medigene in 2008, with Immunocore following as a subsequent spin out three months later. When asked what Medigene gained from spinning out the companies, James explained that the spin outs reduced the cash burn for Medigene, and they acquired shares in Immunocore. Importantly all the relevant IP was assigned over by Medigene to each company, owning IP rather than licensing it is an important factor for any company seeking investment.
Both companies have survived through significant angel investing and commercial partnering (£100 million raised to date) and no VC investment has been made. When asked why this was the case James explained that the 14 years taken to develop the companies does not fit with the VC timeframe which is typically ten years or less from investment to exit. This combined with Europe as a poor prospect for IPO exits did not make the companies attractive for VCs.
For me an important point made by James was “getting the IP right from day one”. Interestingly however, although the initial technology arose 14 years ago, it is the know-how rather than the patents from that period which has contributed to the current successful technology. Indeed, although the patent portfolios of both companies are important, James estimated the IP in the companies is 50% know-how, and staying ahead with know-how contributes to success and allows more patents to be filed.
James advocated never to have a fixed plan of where you want to go, be flexible and be prepared for it to take a long time. But never give up! University spin outs can be successful with lots of money, patient investors and technology worth investing in. And of course a bit of luck always helps!
I am sure I was not alone being excited by the prospect of a company producing an effective cell therapy to combat cancer. And with the Cell Therapy Catapult established last year by the TSB, providing an £80 million fund to grow the UK cell therapy industry, more innovative companies should follow.