Friday, March 1, 2024

You spin me out out, baby, out out: the Northern Ireland tech firms expanding from our universities

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Some of the world’s biggest businesses have the brawn of university research behind them, starting life as a spin-out. Emma Deighan speaks to four of NI’s emerging spin-outs which are taking innovation to the next level in the life sciences and tech worlds

While the latter firms are internationally acclaimed and American-born, similar success stories are mounting locally, with academics in the fields of IT, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology making noise in their respective industries both here and afar.

Spin-outs, the commercialisation of tertiary education research, are creating disruptive technologies that deliver real impact to the world.

For many of these spin-outs, real commercial success prevails and Northern Ireland is rich in such stories.

Brian McCaul, is chief executive of QUBIS, the commercialisation arm of Queen’s University Belfast, said the ranking “underlines Queen’s continued ability to effectively and efficiently translate research innovations into commercial success”.

QUBIS was launched in 1984 and is behind some high-profile stock exchange listings, such as Kainos, Andor Technology and Fusion Antibodies and today its active spin-outs are exhibiting equally impressive triumphs.

CV6 Therapeutics (NI) Ltd, a drug development company focused on the discovery, development and commercialisation of novel therapies for the treatment of human diseases, is one of its active enterprises.

On the cusp of finalising a revolutionary treatment, CV6-168, which is due to undergo its first in-human clinical trial for the treatment of cancer in Belfast, the business is reaching one of its biggest milestones to date.

Robert D Ladner, founder and chief executive of the CV6 described the trial as “groundbreaking” telling Ulster Business that the process “is so important for the NI and UK biotech industry”.

“This is not just about us, it’s about the whole group,” Robert says.

“CV6-168 unlocks the potential of DNA uracilation as a promising new therapeutic approach to cancer treatment, with the opportunity to significantly improve outcomes for patients across multiple cancer types.”

CV6 received $9.6m (£8m) funding for the project, 80% of which was from FDI, says Robert.

Meanwhile, Ulster University (UU) has been behind some innovative entities that are also transforming sectors.

Mobile defibrillator maker Heartsine is one of its greatest spin-out success stories. Today it has 19 active spin-out companies, with a collective turnover in excess of £50m, employing over 700 staff.

Roger Johnston, chief executive of Axial3D founded his 3D medical imaging and AI spin-out at UU in 2015, with the 3D element of the business starting in 2018.

“Axial3D provides a service for hospitals, surgeons and medical device companies where we turn traditional MRI and CT scans into incredibly precise 3D, which fundamentally can change surgical planning of complex cases, as well as being the cornerstone for making patient-specific devices, such as joint replacements, the future of healthcare,” he says

“The 3D models can be 3D printed, or equally can be used electronically and viewed on a phone or tablet, or indeed in a virtual reality headset.”

Axial3D began commercialisation when it worked with a small number of NHS Trusts, but today its product and service are used in over 300 hospitals in 30 countries around the world.

Just recently Axial3D completed a $15m (£12.4m) fundraising exercise. The lead investor in that funding round is Stratasys, the world’s leading medical 3D printing company with bases in Israel and Minnesota.

The company’s main goal is to make 3D imaging and modelling “the new standard of care around the world”, Roger says.

“Whether the patient is in the first world or third world, ultimately replacing the use of 2D imaging such as MRI and CT scans.”

He credits the spin-out formulae. “Companies that spin out of a university typically continue to have access to research collaboration capabilities and resources, often for many years, which is a huge advantage compared to traditional independent startups. Also, some leading universities, such as Ulster University, can also provide financial/investment support, which can be crucial in the early formative years of startups.”

Amply Discovery is another QUB spin-out dating back to February 2021, actively disrupting the pharma drug sector.

It finds antimicrobial drugs which can cure drug-resistant diseases, its chief commercial officer, Dermot Tierney tells Ulster Business.

These discoveries are made in-house after which the business partners with large pharmaceutical firms, biotech businesses and ingredient companies – “those who have a novel specific breed of plant, insect of animal that they want to fully capitalise on”.

It also works with public health bodies and companies or institutions that want to better understand what is going in with different strains of an infectious disease.

“For example, with Covid-19 different strains are still coming up all the time – and with genome mapping and our bioinformatics expertise, we can help support through our bioinformatics service portal,” Dermot says.

Amply Discovery’s origins are as a PhD, with eight years of academic research, and two years of work in pre-accelerators within the university behind it, which have collectively shaped the robust business model. Then the funding came.

“We have raised £900,000 pre-seed from various local and UK-based investors and agencies,” Dermot says.

Discussing the benefits of that academic foundation he says: “The ecosystem of supports which QUB provides can really put you on its back. On day one we had a technology that took eight years and hundreds of thousands of pounds to build. So, a spin-out is not just a regular start-up with a hope and a dream that needs to raise capital to build, it has something tangible and often innovation that needs direction and focus.”

He says the business’ plans are to “develop multiple programmes discovering candidates across various indications”.

“Right now we are developing topical and inhaled delivery against infectious diseases – so for example MDR-TB and bovine mastitis – but also working strategically on new disease areas like oncology and different classes of the molecule. We plan on raising a full seed round (£1.8m+) in early 2024.” Dominic Holmes, chief executive of eXRt Intelligent Healthcare, is one of UU’s newest spin-outs. Launched in 2021, it “provides a fun virtual reality physiotherapy game platform to engage stroke survivors’ in their rehabilitation and rediscover their independence”.

“We provide physicians such as a physiotherapist remote monitoring capabilities to give better visibility of the patient 24/7. Our mission is to provide more accessible rehabilitation to stroke survivors and other neurological disabilities,” he says.

The product is now ready to launch thanks to a strong company mission and funding. A fresh round of finance will support its final stage of commercialisation he says as the firm is already “engaged with customers in the NHS, UAE and HSC”.

“We are currently seeking seed funding to help go to market, finish off our regulatory approval and develop important new features to continue our competitive advantage in the market,” Dominic says.

“Initially, we want to get our first few customers and then continue to scale in the UK and UAE markets.”

Expansion into the US is also on his radar. “We don’t see ourselves as a one-product company, the fact that our software is hardware agnostic provides scalability but also the ability to expand into new health conditions such as cancer rehab, and long Covid. This opens up an even bigger market although our current market is huge already.”

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