A participant in the Ignite programme at the Entrepreneurship Centre at Cambridge Judge Business School co-founded BiologIC, a venture that seeks to make the development of gene therapies more affordable.
Nick Rollings, an engineer whose previous career included designing a range of machinery, decided at the beginning of 2019 to quit his job at a Cambridge consultancy firm to figure out how to make his idea for a “biocomputer” become a reality. So he participated in the Ignite programme, a one-week intensive training programme at the Entrepreneurship Centre at Cambridge Judge Business School, and that proved a pivotal moment.
At Ignite, Nick met Richard Vellacott, a practitioner who mentors and delivers a session on Ignite, and Richard was so impressed by the biocomputer concept that he decided on the final day of Ignite to become one of the company’s co-founders. That company is BiologIC.
Using 3D printing to digitise biological processes
The premise that so impressed Richard was a biocomputer which at its heart is a plastic box the size of a Rubik’s cube made up of a maze of complex pipework. These “chips” are created by 3D printing and can be programmed digitally to process liquids and gases, producing biology products and data in real time.
“The real power of the idea is that the same way the chip revolutionised the world of information processing, over 70 years the same might be possible for the future of biology,” says Richard. “This kind of integrated chip might cause a revolution in the way we use biology to solve problems. Biology today is where computer gaming was 40 years ago, and we see how quickly that has changed from characters made up of basic polygons to photorealism.”
Richard, a biologist by background, worked for Deloitte for many years consulting with life science companies before becoming Chief Financial Officer at Horizon Discovery, a Cambridge-based world leader in gene-editing tools. The third co-founder of the company, Dr Colin Baker, also worked at Horizon Discovery.
How gene therapy used to treat cancer has led to demand for more sophisticated technology
The timing of the firm is auspicious, as biology becomes increasingly digitised. New techniques such as base editing are being used, which allows scientists to take healthy cells from a cancer patient and alter the molecular structure, changing the genetic instructions to create a living drug. This means there is a need to design and manufacture more sophisticated machinery to develop cutting-edge therapies in an affordable way.
“There are lots of businesses working on the biological aspect – about how you create new therapies and design them,” says Nick. “But fewer people are working on the underlying hardware and software that will make it happen. In the future, if someone comes up with an idea for a new type of therapy they could design it in a single system – one person, not a lab of 100 people. Eventually why not make your therapy at home if the technology is good enough, in the same way you can now put pods into an espresso machine.”
Startup driven by pioneering funding model
From the start, the team arrived at an unusual self-funding business model: rather than holding a big funding round, the company relied on money from small consulting projects based around their original idea. They printed concept plastic chips in areas as diverse as mRNA vaccine manufacturing, pathogen detection systems for aircraft, and products for cell therapy.
“By being out in the market and accessing all these different wallets and market verticals we’ve had to learn ways you can deliver all of those applications simultaneously off a common set of chips – that’s the essence of a ‘biocomputer,’” says Richard. “What’s clever is we now have a network of customers that have funded a minimum viable product which can be sold to users, and the revenue has also allowed us to remain in control of our strategy and development.”
Pushing technological frontiers led to sleepless nights
This method of funding has not been without its stresses, particularly as the technology involved is so new.
“We’ve had to teach ourselves everything. Commercially you’ve got to innovate to keep the business going for the next 3 months. When Richard and Colin would be high-fiving after selling something, I’d be thinking: ‘Now I’ve got to work out how to fulfil that project by building the technology,’” says Nick. “It has been painful at times and there’s certainly been sleepless nights, but you have to trust in your team and believe in your ability to get through it.”
Growing commercial interest and expanding their team to 13 to deal with demand means the founders have now moved away from this initial model. The firm has won 11 innovation grants, the largest one of £470,000 in a collaboration with Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), and CPI Enterprises has also invested an undisclosed sum in the firm.
“Having collaborated closely over an extended period, we are impressed at the speed of execution and commercial traction of BiologIC,” says Frank Miller, CEO of CPI. “We see strong advantages in BiologIC’s biocomputer system and the ability to increase bioprocess productivity relative to the competition.” The company also works with Oxford BioMedica and Asimov, amongst others.
How the Ignite programme develops both the idea and the entrepreneur
BiologIC is one of 300 business ventures that has been created by Ignite alumni. Nick credits the blend of practical teaching sessions, expert clinics, and mentoring sessions with turning him from an engineer to an entrepreneur.
“Ignite developed both the business idea but it also developed me as a person,” says Nick. “It gave me the commercial confidence to opt for the unique business model Richard was suggesting.” He also believes that for a science or engineering entrepreneur, the business and interpersonal skills taught on the course “helps you avoid the trap of being a tech co-founder who becomes increasingly sidelined as the company grows.” Richard continues to be involved in Ignite, utilising his experience of co-founding a startup to enrich his teaching and offer participants real-world experience of the highs and lows of entrepreneurship.