From London to Silicon Valley and back again: A scientific entrepreneur’s tale
Part 1 of our ‘Leaders in life sciences’ Series
by Thomas Vanderstichele, Managing Director
I visited Sixfold Biosciences in the Imperial College Innovation and Translation Hub to have a chat with their co-founder Anna Perdrix Rosell. Anna is an oncology PhD student at the Francis Crick Institute and made it onto the Forbes 30 under 30 list for European science and healthcare this year. With her co-founders, George Foot and Zuzanna Brzosko, they are developing Sixfold’s unique Programmable Oligonucleotide Delivery Devices (PODDs), which aim to deliver gene therapy molecules exclusively to diseased cells. Sixfold Bioscience went through Y Combinator (the top U.S. accelerator) at the beginning of 2018 and have since received seed funding from Silicon Valley investors. We discussed what it was like starting a company during her PhD, the key barriers facing young entrepreneurial scientists and what motivated her to work in biotech.
How did Sixfold start?
It was a very organic process. During the 2nd year of my PhD at the Francis Crick Institute I met my future co-founders George and Zuzanna at an event in Cambridge and got on really well with them. It started with identifying a problem: cancer drugs have too many side-effects. This was really brought home to us because one of my co-founders and I were personally affected by cancer in our families. The technology exists to have cancer treatments without side effects but we just cannot target it to the right place. This led us to focus on different technologies for drug delivery. We all have very different scientific backgrounds, which helped with tackling such a difficult problem. During my PhD, when I had an idea, I would then test it to find out whether it was true or not. But with Sixfold in the early days we had no lab or money to do anything. It became a bit of an obsession to test whether our ideas could be validated in the lab so we decided to start something, raise funds and put the idea into practice.
How did you approach fundraising?
In the UK it is tough to raise seed funding in the early stages of a life science company so we applied to Y combinator in the US and moved there for 3 months at the beginning of 2018. That was a real game changer. We received our first investment of $120K and in 3 months had to work fast to develop Sixfold’s delivery system and test it to have proof of concept data in animals. We managed to file a very strong patent and from there we raised a seed round that allowed us to have our own lab, grow the team and move forwards. We couldn’t really have done it as fast in the UK.
How was it doing your PhD alongside Sixfold?
Luckily, my supervisors were very understanding and there was not really a drop in the productivity of my research anyway. I know that this does not work for everyone but supportive supervisors in my case were really important and played a big role in allowing us to make progress. Running a company and doing a PhD at the same time can be overwhelming and is not something that is very common here in the UK but I do know a fair amount of people, mainly in Cambridge, who have done it.
What is holding back young, talented scientists in the UK from starting life science companies?
I think the problem lies in three places. Firstly, there is a perception that when you are young scientist you lack the experience both in the lab and in business to start a company. You have 25-30 years less experience than the average professor and often zero experience in business. This is not a problem as long as you are honest with yourself about the areas that you need advice in and go out to find people who can help. What you do have is a much stronger drive, more energy and you have a greater ability to be disruptive in a specific industry because your thinking will not be entrenched in the conventional wisdom of the field. Secondly, the investment environment in the UK does not generally help young founders in the life sciences. In the US, investors are much more willing to take risks and they do not associate young founders with startups that fail. They have seen young founders build massive companies mainly in tech but this culture spills over into life sciences. The UK VCs tend to invest in spin-outs started by professors who may have several decades of grant-funded data behind their company. When a group of young scientists try to raise money of course they cannot compete against what an entire research group may have done over 10 years but this is what the UK VCs are used to. In the US, having a PhD and personal drive is enough validation for an investor that you have the potential to succeed. Thirdly, in the US you can rent a bench cheaply to carry out key proof of concept experiments and find out whether it is worth raising further funds or not. In the UK these spaces are rare unless you do it in a university but then you can lose a large piece of your company to the tech transfer office. This is why tools such as Clustermarket can be really useful early on as you do not need to invest a lot of capital into equipment.
Why did you decide to come back then?
Well, the UK is competitive in terms of non-dilutive grant funding and also in R&D tax credits. The efficiency of R&D in the UK coupled with our strong connections to our investors and commercial expertise in Silicon Valley gives us the best of both worlds.
If you were to give advice to young scientists interested in starting companies what would you say?
I would say that the people you surround yourself with are critical to your success. With your co-founders and team you need to find people with a similar work ethic and drive. Mentors who are in areas close to you and already have experienced what you have to do are invaluable not only in science but also on the business side. Then, having other life science companies in the same space as you can be an excellent motivator.
What else motivates you?
The benefit that patients will receive if we succeed. The day-to-day work in a startup and in academia are very similar but the main difference is the objective. In academia you do research to publish a paper while in a startup you do research to have a real impact on patients and this is exactly why we decided to start Sixfold.
Where do you see Sixfold heading in the next couple of years?
In the next 2 years we really want to push to get all the efficacy and safety data on the technology and in 5 years we want to have strong collaborations with pharma companies so that we take the technology forward into clinical trials while developing our own pipeline in-house. I would love to see the technology reach a point where it is validated pre-clinically and is starting to be validated in the clinic. At the moment we are focused on cancer but we have a very versatile technology that has the potential to disrupt many other areas.
The Science Entrepreneur Club (SEC) is a non-profit organisation of curious minds that aims to explore and unite the life science ecosystem by educating, inspiring and connecting. We give scientific entrepreneurs a network and a platform to showcase their innovative technologies, find investors and accelerate their company.
Clustermarket is a London-based start-up building a world leading online equipment sharing and booking platform enabling and accelerating science. Clustermarket’s marketplace is giving scientists easy and affordable access to equipment and technical services. Research facilities/labs have the opportunity to promote their resources to external businesses, colleagues or even international collaboration partners. Clustermarket has also recently launched Bookkit, an integrated easy-to-use lab management system that helps to organise equipment and service bookings from students, researchers and technicians within the laboratory and university.