One London university is turning the traditional model for exploiting discoveries made at the lab bench on its head.
Instead of spinning out a new company from an institution with the hope of commercialising their research, a group at University College London has spun the commercial know-how needed to build a successful life sciences business into the walls of its institution.
Magnus Life Science, as the company is known, is developing a series of therapies that centre on a better understanding of blood flow in the body. In doing so it hopes to find new treatments for diseases.
It is the brainchild of John Martin, professor of cardiovascular medicine at UCL, who owns the intellectual property to the suite of innovations that the company hopes to commercialise.
“The key idea was to reverse the relationship between university and industry,” said Professor Martin at the company’s launch event on 29 January. “For too long we have asked industry what can we do for them, as contractors.”
With Magnus, Professor Martin hopes to “drive the agenda towards industry” and take the innovations right through to the stage of being tested for efficacy using the National Health Service before handing them over to pharmaceutical companies.
Products include a biomagnetic and biodegradable stent, a therapy to tackle diabetes-linked cardiovascular problems and a treatment for placental insufficiency in pregnancy.
One of the products involves “antagonising the interaction between two very big proteins” in a “chemical problem that is too big for big pharma”, he said.
“We believe because we are in the university that we can out-think the problem in a way that big pharma could not do,” he added.
“There has been a failure of big pharma and we need a new approach. You cannot put a thousand people in a glass tower and say ‘discover something’; discovery occurs in the university,” said Professor Martin.
The venture has managed to secure £15.5 million in private equity funding, as well as €11.5 million (£8.6 million) from the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Programme. It expects to begin clinical tests on one product later this year.
Professor Martin acknowledges that it is an “incredibly fast pace of movement”, and said it is down to the project’s management, which is led by chief executive David Campbell and includes specialists with backgrounds in finance, regulation and the life sciences industry. They are based at UCL so they can work “hand in hand” with the academics, said Dr Campbell.
The fact that Magnus is “embedded” in the university is “key to the model”, explained Professor Martin. Scientists from UCL work on each of the five therapeutic areas that the company focuses on, and have an equity share in the company.
Dr Campbell said keeping the innovations inside the university added value to the science.
“We do not want to take the baby away from mum too early because we absolutely believe that you are taking the innovation away from that nurturing environment where it can thrive,” he said.
If it followed the traditional route, Magnus would be “deposited” in a biotechnology park in Cambridge or Norwich and left to spend an “awful lot of money” on capital equipment and expensive management, he added.
“What we have been able to do is spend money on the things that are important to us, which is the science,” said Dr Campbell.
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