Biopharma innovators gain accelerator successes

30 January 2015

Two innovative University of Auckland medical research graduates are semi-finalists in an international business start-up competition with their new biopharma company.

Last year they won their section of the U.S. hosted, global business plan contest, the Breast Cancer Start-up Challenge with their newly created biopharma company, Mesopharm Therapeutics.  This year they are among an elite group of semi-finalists in another global healthcare accelerator contest.

Mesopharm CEO, Dr Graeme Fielder was a researcher and doctoral student based in the University’s Liggins Institute and a former Chief Executive of SPARK, the University’s annual $100,000 entrepreneurship challenge.  He is now completing an MBA at Stanford University in California on a Fulbright scholarship.

The company’s Chief Scientific Officer, Dr Francis Hunter, is also a SPARK alumnus and was a top University of Auckland graduate winning many awards and scholarships. Dr Hunter is now an oncology researcher and holder of the John Gavin Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University-based Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre.

In February, Mesopharm’s founders are about to take part in a bootcamp as part of the competition to win ‘Onestart 2015’, the largest global biotech accelerator competition.  This contest aims to catalyse innovation in health care by supporting young bio-entrepreneurs.  Onestart 2015 has received a record 638 applications representing 50 countries.

The two Kiwi entrepreneurs will meet up in San Francisco at the two-day American division of Onestart for the bootcamp in Silicon Valley (February 20-21) to prepare and present business plans and company pitches to potential investors, industry partners and fellow entrepreneurs.

This is a feature of the 6-week mentoring programme to compete for the $US150,000 prize to be invested in the winning business, and also an opportunity to attract other investment.  Onestart 2015 is run by a bio-venture company, SR One and the Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable.

At the bootcamp competing teams have access to top industry mentors for help with their presentations and are judged by a panel of industry experts who give feedback on their plans.  In March they have more time with their mentor before submitting a final business plan and pitch to the Onestart 2015 judges.

“One of the most valuable aspects of Onestart is the extensive mentorship from a top biopharma industry expert for us and all the semi-finalists,” says Dr Hunter. “The Onestart competition is more advanced than the Breast Cancer Challenge, in that entrants must have  an existing incorporated company with proprietary technology.”

The biotech company created by Fielder and Hunter, Mesopharm, is co-developing and commercialising an antibody-drug conjugate that they have licensed as a therapeutic treatment for cancer.  The other company involved, an undisclosed U.S. biotech firm, is developing complimentary aspects of the technology.

“That is the proposal we put in for the Onestart competition, and on the basis of that, we were chosen as one of the semi-finalists,” says Dr Hunter.  “Our plans include developing the conjugate and then filing joint IP based on therapeutic applications of that molecule.”

“To enter clinical trials we need to demonstrate therapeutic utility in tumour models, so we have that development work ahead of us.”

“The catalyst for Mesopharm was the combination of the technical training we received at the University of Auckland with Graeme at the Liggins Institute and myself at the Cancer Research Centre - having doctorates in cancer research and drug development and knowing the science well – and having also gone through the University’s SPARK entrepreneurship programme.” says Dr Hunter.

“It is having both those skill sets that has enabled us to compete on the world stage in these biotech accelerator competitions,” he says.

One of the recent trends with big pharmaceutical companies is that they are reducing the scale of their own internal early research and development sections, and out-sourcing innovation to academia and to early biotech companies.

“It is now the external innovation and venture divisions of these companies that are involved in healthcare accelerators as they are scouting for new technology and up-and-coming entrepreneurs to do business with in the future,” says Dr Hunter. “It is an area of increasing opportunity that plays well to our strengths in New Zealand for early drug discovery.”

“For that reason I am excited to fly the flag for New Zealand at Onestart in the U.S. Such accelerator programs are an increasingly important component of the innovation pipeline and I hope to see continued participation from our researchers and entrepreneurs.”

The Dean of Auckland’s Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, Professor John Fraser says, “the success of Graham and Francis in the extremely competitive international biotech world is an example of how combining the elements of a quality biomedical science education with enthusiasm, entrepreneurship, determination and quality mentoring can lead to international recognition and a potentially lucrative career path in biotech.”

Geoff Whitcher, Chair of the Spark Steering Committee, says that "Graeme  and Francis through their achievement have become wonderful role models for other New  Zealanders showing that a combination of deep scientific knowledge along with entrepreneurial training and flair can enable them to be highly successful on the world stage."

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