Wellcome Trust becomes a backer of startups

Bioscience brings development expertise to bear on discoveries with big potential benefits
We are widely recognised for the quality of our academic output in the UK, but stories abound about the inflexibility and lack of commercial under-standing of Technology Transfer Offices. The Wellcome Trust recently launched a vehicle for investing in spin-outs and start-ups for developing promising discoveries. Should the TSB build on its approach in the hope of making productive use of important IP that might otherwise languish for failure to find effective developers?
Most Accelerators open their doors to teams with ideas for quick-wins – an approach which inevitably misses developments that may be of strategic or technical importance. The Wellcome Trust has begun to operate at the other end of this spectrum, by identifying important discoveries and funding their development.
In 2012, the Wellcome Trust launched a fund designed to take an active role in identifying, supporting and developing technologies with potential to significantly impact the healthcare market of the future. Syncona Partners, an independent subsidiary of the Wellcome Trust with a capital of £200mn, is able to take the long view and to concentrate investment into opportunities as their underlying technology is validated. It provides financial resources to individuals and companies, including spin-outs and start-ups.
Syncona has just announced a £12mn investment in NightstaRX Ltd, a spin-out from Isis at Oxford University, a start-up which will focus on the development and commercialisation of therapies for retinal dystrophies.
The company will need to form and build teams and motivate them to work together so as to test assumptions – about developability, therapeutic value, scaleability, cost etc; and to carry through their development, dealing with tests and assessments, regulations, approvals etc, in order to demonstrate that they have an investable future (from NICE or elsewhere). Syncona’s start-up will bring commercial and organisational experience to Oxford’s discoveries and expects to enable them to be developed for the benefit of sufferers.
Its recently appointed CEO (a very experienced former Director of R&D in the industry) comments that breaking new ground and tackling new modalities of medicine requires great attention to individuals as well as to team work, and she adds that this is especially challenging with a virtual model. It will involve recruiting operating staff of the highest calibre – management and financial, and technical staff – medical and scientific, so as to develop, test and assess solutions that can be documented to the authorities or to commercial backers. And this involves melding the expertise of management, science and regulatory or commercial organisations in a single purposeful unit, and building up that organisation as work progresses.
For all of this, the Wellcome Trust relies entirely on the expertise and experience of the CEO whom it has put in place. While many developments of this kind take place in stages (eg the mobile phone), Syncona cannot marshal or manage the necessary development expertise to act in that way: so it has no option but to place big bets!
Should the TSB be working with Research Councils or Catapults to involve and ally its expertise in developing businesses with their expertise in developing technology, and fund and launch spin-outs and start-ups to work on promising strategic or technical initiatives – as has the Wellcome Trust?

John Whatmore
March 2014

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