I visit the first bioscience Accelerator in the UK

A high pressure late-stage Accelerator for young businesses in bioscience that have been carefully selected – for their progress and potential, built around meeting up with experienced advisers.

RebelBio is what it says on the can: a leading-edge bioscience Accelerator – at a moment when biology is more about discovery than it is about engineering. Located at the new Imperial College Incubator in West London is its new 90-day Accelerator for ten young businesses in bioscience, currently at the end of its fourth week.

It transferred from Cork because of the sheer quality of London’s eco-system. RebelBio’s three Bioscience Accelerators, the third in San Francisco, are one of a number of such ventures of SOSV, Sean O’Sullivan’s venture capital world. He is described as a ‘visionary entrepreneur and investor’ – since 1985, with a series of seminal new ventures in business, humanitarian and educational fields – in economic and social development; first in the US and also in Iraq, and in Ireland.

The key aspects of RebelBio are three: they trawl worldwide for young businesses in bioscience that have a solid scientific basis and are close to market; second, they provide an accelerator of very intensive pressure, heavily oriented to experienced advisers; and third, their generous offer of cash (though their recruits have to relocate to London for the programme).

Their offer is to provide to each business $100,000 of support in return for 8% of equity – $50,000 in cash and $50,000 in the form of participation in the accelerator, mentoring, legal support, lab space etc., an investment of a million dollars – in return for their 8% stake in each, and of course the opportunity for SOSV to make investments in the next round of their funding.

There were 350 applicants for this programme – from a number of countries, of whom 40 were subjected to analysis of their business based on information supplied, and then by three rounds of extensive telephone interviews, and where possible personal interviews, out of whom 10 were finally offered a place in the accelerator. Selection criteria had been based first on the team, next on the problem, then on their solution and finally on the market.

(RebelBio makes opportunities to present itself to universities all over the world in order to get itself and its programmes known, and thus encourage applicants.) Present at to-day’s pitching session (learning to pitch as an iterative process) were seven RebelBio staff with considerable experience of young businesses (upon which their business model depends)

By dint of hard grind and the pursuit of contacts, the programme has now mustered some twenty mentors – founders or leaders of successful startups, mostly in biology – willing to come in and help the participants. And RebelBio has been surprised (and delighted) at the number of funders interested in the programme.

The week’s programme starts with mentor visits (whose initial focus is the market and marketing; and will move on to funding); in mid-week, there are one-to-one meetings with staff to talk through progress, problems and plans, and a mini ‘board meeting’; all day Thursday is pitching practice; and Friday is general meetup day.

All of the participants have received previous funding, usually of several rounds. All of them presented with the help of excellent graphics; all of them have existing teams of officers and non-execs; and all showed clear time lines to full commercialisation.

One whom I met, had before joining this programme won the BioStars Prize in Oxford (presented by an anonymous donor) which consisted of £30k plus a year at the Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst (which is located beside GSK’s research laboratories). Her product was a contact lens for helping with animal cataracts, which would sell to veterinary markets.

Another whom I met had come over from an Indian company. He had synthesized a sweetener that mimicked a rare fruit found only in a small area in West Africa, which had none of the damaging qualities of sugar. He was looking for international food brands (like Danone) that would want to make use of it. He told me that the mentors came and made a presentation; and you select those to whom you want talk. In the four weeks of the accelerator so far, he had met seven.

While I watched the presentations, I invented a game: how much could you tell about the product from the way its presenter felt, dressed, spoke etc. This was prompted by a lady who had a scientific button for getting you ‘into the flow’, which I had guessed was more like a cosmetic. Maybe it was!

The director of the programme likened it all to a kindergdarten – painful for the startups, he said, but diamonds are made by pressure.

John Whatmore, February 2018


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