For Founders month, we’re featuring an interview from ADLIB’s series ‘People | Product | Potential.’ The idea behind the series is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with great potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. Today we present you ADLIB in conversation with CytoSeek – you can check out all of the previous interviews here!
Zoe Davies, Senior Recruiter Pharmaceutical & Life Sciences, at ADLIB caught up with Carolyn Porter, CEO at CytoSeek – the startup enabling the next generation of cell therapies through its artificial membrane-binding protein technology.
Hi Carolyn, great to meet you! Please can you kick us off with an introduction to yourself and CytoSeek?
Hi my name is Carolyn Porter; I am CEO of CytoSeek. I joined the company in January 2020 but prior to that have gained over 20 years’ experience working in various roles in the pharmaceutical, biotech, financial and University sectors.
CytoSeek spun out of the University of Bristol and in Q4 2019 closed a seed round of just over £1M to apply its technology to the field of immuno-oncology. We are a pre-clinical stage company looking to develop the next generation of cell therapy and to address one of the biggest challenges in the oncology field, which is to design an effective cell therapy for solid tumours.
- You may like: CytoSeek raises £3.5m led by Science Creates Ventures
We are working with a particular therapy called CAR-T Therapy where we take a patients’ T cells and engineer them to attack the tumour cells. That has so far been effective in cancers associated with liquid tumours but has not been effective in the treatment of cancer derived from solid tumours (which cause 85% of deaths from Cancer worldwide annually). Our artificial membrane binding protein technology can be rapidly and easily applied to cell therapies to add functionality to overcome the current issues preventing these therapies from working effectively on solid tumours.
Since our seed round, we have been developing our company and the technology and are now preparing for our next raise to extend the platform to other immune cell therapies.
Can you share the story behind the origin of CytoSeek?
CytoSeek spun out from the University of Bristol by Professor Adam Perriman who is a synthetic biologist. Adam originally developed the technology in the context of regenerative medicine where he was seeking to overcome issues with targeting stem cells to cardiac tissues for treatment of cardiovascular disease. The technology had lots of applications in different diseases but the Company decided to focus first on immuno-oncology due to the scale of activity in this field currently.
Can you share some challenges you have faced when looking for people to join?
One of the biggest challenges has been COVID, as our main focus is laboratory R&D work.
When we hit lockdown, the Bristol University labs closed, so we had to find an alternative lab at Unit Dx in a short space of time. We could not have done this without the support of the Unit Dx team and resident companies who enabled us to sublet space from them.
Now we are just starting our next fundraise and have plans to expand our team as part of the fundraiser, so the next set of challenges will be growing out a team during the time when COVID continues to impact the UK while also trying to attract talented individuals with experience in cell therapy often residing in the golden triangle. Our role is to convey the scale of the opportunity for CytoSeek and attract those who are as excited about what we do as we are!
How have you been able to understand and implement the market fit for the service you are offering?
In the biotech sector, product development cycles are very long, even though in the cell therapy space these can be shorter (as you are often working with a patient’s own cells that you modify and then reintroduce); you are still in it for the long haul. Assessing the market fit requires being on top of developments now and what is still in the development pipeline and will be on the market when your technology reaches the market.
For us, what has been important, is talking to key opinion leaders in the field to understand the unmet clinical needs, what the challenges are that our technology can address and what is being developed by competitors so we remain focused and differentiated. We do our own internal market analysis and research to identify market fit but you can’t do this in a vacuum, so discussions with external KOLs and also potential partners for our technology is a key part of our strategy to identify market fit.
What challenges have you had to overcome to create CytoSeek?
COVID will be an ongoing challenge for both our internal teams but also external collaborators e.g. where we collaborate with Universities whose facilities are still subject to the impact of social distancing restrictions. Apart from COVID, dealing with technical challenges is part of everyday life in a biotech company and our success will be based on our ability to progress our technology and address those and move forward. We are in a high-risk area, but also in an area of high reward. There are few other industries where your daily motivation is ultimately the potential to save patients’ lives.
Investment can often be a challenge for start-ups & scale-ups. Do you have any piece of wisdom you could share around best approach?
There are a number of things, build your own network and choose Board members who complement and enhance your network of investors and partners. A great peer network can also give you the opportunity to test your strategy and refine it before airing to investors and peers can also provide introductions. Selecting advisors with relevant experience and their own network can also add value. Be persistent and resilient as you go out to raise; as you often need to speak to multiple investors to close your round.