Annual Review 2021

Highlighting the activities of spinouts, startups, and social enterprises from Oxford University Innovation

Quite often when people consider the process of invention, the image that springs to mind is the romantic idea of a lone innovator. They imagine a Nikola Tesla-type of character, spurned by society for the disruptive nature of their ideas, toiling away at all hours alone in an underground laboratory until that magical eureka moment appears which transforms society overnight.

While this concept has its innate charm, the actual process is somewhat more collaborative. The time between an Oxford academic publishing a paper to the research having impact in the world can stretch to years, and require hundreds if not thousands of people with all manner of backgrounds and disciplines.

So how does research become reality?

Let’s take a modern-day Tesla and drop him into Oxford University. This hypothetic Tesla-of-Tomorrow cares less for electricity, and more for new therapeutics. To begin with, his laboratory would be much less glamorous. Gone are the tesla coils and stylish Victorian attire, replaced with a chaotic mash of pipettes, plastic boxes and sterile white machines. It would also likely be staffed not only by Tesla, but other professors, postdocs and DPhil students as well. He wouldn’t be reliant on rich benefactors, but would receive funding largely from the state and also perhaps corporates and charities focused on research.

When our modern-day Tesla develops a therapeutic, it would not be presented at a World’s Fair, but instead would come to Oxford University Innovation. Here at OUI we would protect his idea and work with him to identify the best way to take it forward. If he opted to go down the spinout route, we’d assist the founders to set up the company, identifying talent and investors to work with early on, build out a plan, and arrange any consulting into the spinout that they require.

At this point, Tesla’s idea may already be several years from its original publication date, and would have drawn on academic colleagues, support from his department, licensing and ventures managers, OUI operations staff, Research Services, investors, lawyers, patent attorneys, mentors, business professionals and more.

A new therapeutic patented today could require several billion dollars in support to get it through development before it becomes a product that can be sold. In order to accelerate this process, it’s absolutely essential that a life sciences company establishes firm foundations in terms of early-stage funding and a team who can get the job done.

This has been the primary focus of Theolytics, a company using viruses to battle cancer, since its formation at the end of 2017. After leaving OUI the company built up a team (currently standing at 28) while in stealth mode, emerging in 2019 with £2.5m in seed funding. It used the money to set up in the University’s life sciences incubator, the Bioescalator, and to create its library of viral variants. It has since raised a further £5m in Series A funding, which will be used to progress its candidates towards clinical trials.

Beyond this point, our spinouts enter scale-up mode. In order to progress a company from the proof-of-concept and seed stage through clinical trials, backers with deeper pockets are required. OUI, Oxford Science Enterprises and other partners around Oxford will try to facilitate this by attracting pharma, corporates and more mature venture capitalists to the Oxfordshire region and introducing them to our growing companies.

Two companies at this stage come from the real-life version of our fictional modern-day Tesla, Professor Matthew Wood, Deputy Head of the Medical Sciences Division at Oxford University and a serial academic entrepreneur. The first, PepGen, is using enhanced delivery cell-penetrating peptide technology to develop treatments for Duchenne Muscle Dystrophy and related conditions. The company recently attracted £45m at Series A – one of the largest rounds at this stage on our books – to accelerate their development. Meanwhile Evox Therapeutics, a company working on using exosomes to develop a new class of therapeutics, closed its Series C at £69.2m, to further develop its DeliverEX platform and significantly boost its intellectual property portfolio and R&D capabilities. It has also signed partnership deals with Eli Lilly and Takeda to accelerate its progress.

Other academic entrepreneurs, such as Dame Carol Robinson, founder of the rapidly growing structural mass spectrometry spinout OMass Therapeutics, and Professor Kylie Vincent and Dr Holly Reeve, co-founders of recent spinout HydRegen, are following in Wood’s footsteps.

Once a company achieves several milestones and progresses through trials, the next logical step is often to consider an exit strategy. This could be through a sale of the company to a bigger firm, typically one of the pharmaceutical firms it partnered with earlier in its journey, or an initial public offering (IPO). At this stage, it could well be employing several hundred people and have a well-established operating base, as well as proven technologies in its portfolio.

Immunocore, a spinout using immunotherapy to tackle cancer, recently opted for the IPO route. Holding its flotation in the US, the company raised $297m to continue its advancement of T cell receptor (TCR) therapeutics. Alongside its main product Tebentafusp, which is  demonstrating good results in Phase III trials and receiving Breakthrough Therapy (BT) designation from the US FDA, it is also launching new candidates into trials. The cash raised through the IPO will ensure Immunocore has the financial firepower to continue its growth and bring its cancer-targeting therapeutics to market in the near-future.

This is the path innovation takes – not one set of hands working overnight, but many hundreds over a period of a decade or more.

In order to progress a company from the proof-of-concept and seed stage through clinical trials requires backers with deeper pockets. OUI, OSI and other partners around Oxford will facilitate this by attracting pharma, corporates and more mature venture capitalists to the Oxfordshire region and introducing them to our growing companies.