The startup bug has hit the world of biotechnology, and the latest victim is a business that is building a “super glue,” coincidentally, for bug-combating vaccines. SpyBiotech — a startup spun out of Oxford University that has developed a way to bond antigens to viruses and other particles to make vaccines — has announced £4 million ($5 million) in funding from GV, the Alphabet/Google-backed VC, and Oxford Sciences Innovation, Oxford’s own venture fund, which also counts GV as a significant backer of its own £580 million fund.
This is GV’s thirteenth investment in Europe since first opening for business in June 2014. London-based partner Tom Hulme said that about half of its investments to date in Europe are in biotechnology and life sciences: for GV overall, life sciences account for around one-third of all investments.
This is a seed round, and SpyBiotech co-founder Sumi Biswas said in an interview that it will be used to trial SpyBiotech’s bonding technology. Further developments, which could include licensing the technology to other vaccine makers, as well as SpyBiotech developing its own vaccines, will need further rounds of funding in the future, she added.
In addition to co-founding SpyBiotech, Biswas is an assistant professor at Oxford’s Jenner Institute, which specializes in researching and developing vaccines (it’s named after Edward Jenner, the British scientist who developed the world’s first vaccine, for smallpox).
The bond that forms the core of what SpyBiotech is aiming to productize was initially discovered at the Jenner Institute.
In the case of SpyBiotech, the “Spy” in its name comes not from any creepy insinuations about privacy-busting, but from the bacterial behind strep throat, impetigo and other infections, Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria, which is often shortened to Spy.
Biswas and three other colleagues — Mark Howarth, Professor of Protein Nanotechnology; Simon Draper, Professor of Vaccinology; and Dr. Jing Jin — had noticed that when Spy is divided into a peptide and protein partner (SpyTag and SpyCatcher, respectively), they are naturally attracted to each other. Isolating what attracts them forms the core of SpyBiotech’s “glue” that can in turn be used to bond other vaccines together.
It plans to use this glue first to bond antigens not to actual pathogens, but to virus-like particles, replacing other techniques that have in the past been deemed too imprecise and ineffective.
The way that Oxford has tapped into a development at one of its research institutes and is now aiming to turn it into a business is a sign of how things are changing in the U.K. academic world — and how VCs like GV (and others like Sequoia, which co-invested with GV in another biotech startup, Cambridge Epigenetix) are helping to fuel that change.
Scientists no longer see the published scientific paper as a certain endpoint for their research, and instead of connecting with large pharmaceutical businesses to pick up the ball and continue running with it, they can now see an opportunity for themselves.
Tapping into other kinds of technologies like big data analytics and machine learning, and the funding provided by their university’s venture arms and other VCs keen to find the next big growth area in the world of technology, they can now, in effect, build out their own commercial laboratories as startups.
“We see the Spy technology as the missing link in rapid and robust VLP vaccine design and see GV as a natural co-investment partner to take this forward,” said Lachlan MacKinnon, principal at OSI. “We are privileged to be working with four founders who bring such an impressive combination of academic prowess and clinical-stage experience to the company.”
Biswas comes from India, and originally had planned to study to be a doctor before deciding to come to Oxford to pursue research. “When I came to Oxford, I knew I wanted to go further than academia, and that’s what we’re now doing,” Biswas told me today.
SpyBiotech not acting in isolation. Oxford Sciences says that the annual rate of companies that are being spun out from university research has doubled to 21 from 10, with seed funding up five times in the last year, to £52.6 million from £9.5 million.
GV doesn’t have a fixed-size for its fund, and has been in something of a trial-and-error mode since first opening for business in Europe nearly three years ago. Starting out with four partners and one on loan from the U.S., GV now has two based in London, Hulme and Avid Larizadeh Duggan. Other businesses and entities that are backed by GV in Europe include Secret Escapes, Resolution, LostMyName, Yieldify, Carrick Therapeutics, Currencycloud, Genomics Medicine Ireland, Lemonade and Weaveworks.
“SpyBiotech has established a novel approach using platform VLP vaccine technology that shows promise in a number of addressable markets,” Hulme said. “We’re looking forward to working with a team of world-class scientists with extensive experience in vaccine development — spanning from vaccine design through to Phase II clinical trials — to develop more effective vaccines for a wide range of global diseases.”