AI, genomics and frozen peas: Oxford’s thriving life sciences innovation scene

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11th October 2023

From supermarket peas to multi million-dollar deals: Oxford's biotech startups are rewriting the playbook on chronic inflammation, genomic mysteries, and the AI in medicine. Witness how audacious ideas, nurtured in humble settings, mature into world-changing medical innovations in an ecosystem where science, business, and global impact entwine.

Bicester, 2014: Working round the clock at a single rented lab bench, and using supermarket frozen peas in their experiments (the budget won’t stretch to lab-grade ice), two postdoctoral researchers from Oxford University’s Jenner Institute make a low-key start to life as biomedical founders. Their nascent technology, they hope, will one day produce a new generation of antibody-based therapies for some of the most intractable chronic inflammatory diseases.

Oxford, 2022: Eight years of hard graft later, DJS Antibodies – now employing nine people and occupying 2,000 square feet of lab space – is acquired by the US pharmaceutical giant AbbVie for an up-front payment of $255 million.

“2022 was a strong year for life sciences innovation in Oxford,” says Dr Katya Smirnyagina, Senior Partner at Oxford Science Enterprises (OSE), an early investor in DJS Antibodies. “We saw two major acquisitions from our portfolio – DJS and MiroBio – with PepGen listing on the Nasdaq and lots of additional momentum.”

David Llewellyn and Joe Illingworth, the founders who grew DJS Antibodies from its humble beginnings in north Oxfordshire, have understandably become poster children for biotech in the region. Their success, argues Katya, is both emblematic and inspirational. “Stories like this show the strength of the Oxford ecosystem,” she says. “They also provide great encouragement and motivation to other academic entrepreneurs, and they help attract global attention and investment to Oxford. People want to be part of it.”

Something beginning with ‘I’

Chronic inflammation is – thanks to its significant impact on people’s health worldwide – a growing area of interest for researchers, founders and investors. It’s often grouped with two related I-words: immunity and infection.

“From the human health perspective, those three topics have huge crossover and pose some of our biggest challenges,” says Dr Simon Warner, Head of Licensing and Ventures (Life Sciences) at Oxford University Innovation (OUI), the University’s technology transfer arm. “They’ve also been a fruitful area for commercialisation here in Oxford. We can take the example of RQ Bio, which licensed its antibodies against COVID-19 to AstraZeneca for $157 million, or MiroBio, another spinout targeting inflammatory disease, which was acquired by Gilead for $405 million.”

The case of RQ Bio is particularly notable for the speed at which both the science and the deal were developed. “Getting something that looks promising in the lab to large-scale clinical trials and a major licensing agreement within two years is basically unprecedented and shows what can be achieved,” adds Simon. “We were very pleased that the press release announcing the deal mentioned OUI’s creativity and efficiency on the IP and licensing side of things. We’ve worked hard on that: one of the things we’ve introduced recently is a licensing agreement template designed to speed up spinout formation and be more attractive to founders.”

Inflammation, immunity and infection: add the intelligence in AI and you have a handy mnemonic – ‘the four Is’ – for some of the hottest topics in the life sciences. There are few in Oxford with a better understanding of AI’s place in the landscape than Frank Cheng, CEO of Caristo Diagnostics. “I love working with truly novel technologies – especially those that are about to make it big,” says Frank. “In my view we’re in the third wave of the AI revolution in medtech. The first wave was robotic surgery – robots supporting or even replacing surgeons – which is now at a mature stage. The second wave is at an earlier stage and involves AI carrying out basic tasks that will no longer require doctors, such as using autonomous AI to diagnose retinal damage in patients with diabetes. The third wave, which Caristo is part of, will see AI doing things that human physicians simply can’t do.”

In Caristo’s case, that involves using state-of-the-art AI to spot the subtle early signs of heart disease in routine CT scans – potentially saving millions of lives around the world through prevented heart attacks. The company, founded by professors from Oxford University’s Radcliffe Department of Medicine, is aiming to gain UK NICE approval and then US FDA approval, as well as branching out into stroke and diabetes.

The dark side of the genome

Another revolution is taking place in the field of functional genomics. Dr Danuta Jeziorska is CEO and founder of Nucleome Therapeutics, spun out from Oxford University’s MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine to shine a light on the ‘dark matter’ of the human genome.

“Genetic evidence doubles the probability of regulatory approval and yet the majority of drug discovery in genetics is limited to the 2% of our DNA that encodes for proteins,” says Danuta. “At Nucleome, we have the unique ability to decode the genetics located in the remaining 98% of the genome, called the dark genome, that is still largely uncharted. This has the potential to fundamentally shift the way we discover and develop precision medicines and lead to the identification of high-value differentiated drug targets.”

Last year, Nucleome raised a Series A financing round that attracted £37.5 million in new funding – including, unusually for an early-stage technology, three corporate investors associated with big pharma. “Attracting such a high-calibre global group of life sciences investors is a validation of Nucleome’s technology, team and strategy,” adds Danuta. “With their support, we are on the way to building a portfolio of first-in-class drug discovery programmes for autoimmune diseases to bring transformative medicine to patients.”

An Oxford boom

The companies mentioned above are merely a handful among dozens that could have been referenced here. The trends are just a few of many. That points to one thing: business in Oxford must be good. 

“Oxfordshire as an innovation hub is booming,” says Danuta. “We have the combination of a vibrant entrepreneurial and translational ecosystem, growing infrastructure and support, and a leading university with world-class research providing a constant flow of transformative technologies, new insights into the fundamental principles of biology, and translational medicine.”

One person who agrees is Professor Matthew Wood, a neuroscientist who leads on innovation activities for the University’s thriving Medical Sciences Division. A veteran of the Oxford commercialisation scene, Matthew has founded two major spinouts – EvOx Therapeutics and the aforementioned PepGen – and has recently become involved with two more. PepGen develops gene-based therapies for severe neuromuscular disorders, while EvOx ensures these genetic drugs can be delivered to the right parts of the body.

Matthew says: “I’ve been in Oxford since the late 1990s, and things are unrecognisable now. The process for spinning out and licensing technologies is much quicker, the levels of support and knowledge for founders are much improved, and there’s a far bigger range of potential investors. EvOx and PepGen both attracted US investors, and there seems to be more of a perception now that Oxford is open for business.”

Another who has noticed this increased interest from overseas is Frank Cheng, who has moved back and forth across the Atlantic during his career in healthtech. “The Oxford ecosystem has a global reach and credibility in 2023 that it didn’t have when I first worked here 15 years ago,” he says. “Just the sheer number of companies has mushroomed, too. There’s a campus-wide spirit of innovation now – and that has created momentum.”

“In my opinion,” says Simon Warner, “the University has become attractive in this field because of its strong Medical Sciences Division, its proven track record of commercial success, and the investment OSE has put into the companies and the ecosystem itself. The increase in numbers has been matched by an increase in quality and in the level of success. We’ve also benefited from the profile of our activities during the pandemic – not least the Oxford-AZ vaccine.”

The future’s dark blue

For every opportunity, there must also be a challenge. “Oxford has the potential to be really competitive with places like Boston and San Francisco,” says Matthew Wood. “Our raw materials are as good as anywhere else – we can certainly be that ambitious. But there are three things we need to address to help us get there: money, space and people.”

Life sciences companies, as Katya Smirnyagina points out, consume a lot of capital. “Our young spinouts definitely need to attract more funding from investors,” she says. “That need is why we syndicate in the early stages rather than trying to do it on our own. But one of the things we can do at OSE is help a company survive as well as thrive, providing additional strategic and operational support, and access to talent, infrastructure and networks. It can be a long road to success, especially as investors are shopping worldwide and trends ebb and flow.”

“I’d like to see more diversity in the funding coming into Oxford companies – particularly from international sources,” adds Danuta Jeziorska. “Some of this is already happening and will continue to expand as the ecosystem develops.”

Space is a perennial talking point in Oxford. The city and its environs, says Matthew, need more of it – both incubator space for younger companies and the larger science park-type premises required as they grow. Efforts to address that issue are already in motion: a joint venture between the University and Legal & General will expand the science park at Begbroke to the north of the city as part of a broader development of the area, while OSE has announced plans to add 30,000 square feet of high-tech lab space in Oxford city centre.

Training and attracting the types of people who can run the growing number of commercial outputs from the University is another thing being actively worked on behind the scenes. “Ecosystem growth will be closely linked to talent training,” says Danuta. “And one of the great things we’re seeing in Oxford is experienced people from established companies like Immunocore and Adaptimmune going to work in smaller companies and helping them grow.”

“EvOx employs around 130 people in the local area and has even recruited people from my lab at the University,” adds Matthew. “That exchange of ideas and expertise between academia and industry, between different sizes of company and between ecosystems is vital to make sure we can learn from each other.” Frank Cheng agrees: based on his own experience during a varied career, this cross-fertilisation of talent – between, for example, the UK and the US – can only be of benefit.

“I’m really positive about the future,” says Simon Warner. “I get a lot of calls now from US venture capital and US private equity asking how they can get involved; how they can work with us and partner with us. The message is that we’re very open to that and there are lots of opportunities here. I think we’re going to see an increase in funding and inward investment – and that will accelerate the whole engine of innovation in Oxford.”

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