With more than 250 companies and a growth rate of 8% per annum over the last decade, the dynamic medtech sector in Scotland continues to grow. In our latest blog post- Why Scotland’s Medical Future is in Great Health, we elaborated on the supportive and collaborative environment provided by Scotland for medical companies to flourish. An industry-led support system, infrastructure for the best labs and research facilities, collaboration opportunities with fellow researchers etc are some of the few things that Scotland has to offer to young medtech companies looking to grow.
As a result, many companies from different parts of the world are setting up base in Scotland. One such young and innovative company that aims to bring a revolution in the field of in vitro diagnostics is BioClavis- a spin-out from the US based molecular profiling company BioSpyder. Supported by a £4.5m Seek & Solve research and development grant from Scottish Enterprise, BioClavis is based at the University of Glasgow’s Clinical Innovation Zone at Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth University Hospital.
To get some more insight into what the company does, their motivations behind moving to Scotland and their experience so far, we chatted to Harper VanSteenhouse, General Manager at BioClavis who is the leader of the Glasgow based team.
What is the idea behind BioClavis and what is the company all about?
We know that people are different on a molecular basis and we know that because the period of last 20 to 30 years has seen a genomics revolution culminating in the now routine sequencing of human genomes and the technologies used to explore genetic underpinnings of health and disease. Today there are so many methods to identify and analyse the genomic variation among people, associate them with diseases, determine treatment and response to different medicines etc. But the pressing issue is that the whole process still remains more expensive than we’d like for it to be fully integrated into healthcare.
At BioSpyder Technologies we strove to create an inexpensive solution that was fast and would side step some of the hurdles involved in large-scale inexpensive testing of human and other samples. This was the main motivation behind inventing and developing a novel product for targeted sequencing called TempO-Seq which is a gene expression profiling tool designed to efficiently profile hundreds to thousands of genes at once. . Since the assay platform has the flexibility to work with many different biological sample types, TempO-Seq is broadly applicable in many fields. One area which has been attracting a lot of interest lately is toxicology, especially in vitro models reducing the need for animal testing, for instance looking for representative biological signatures that come from contact with environmental agents, chemicals and compounds that are in plastic bottles, food, cigarettes etc.
BioClavis has been set up to take a similar approach to human diagnostics. We have a number of clinical R&D projects running here at BioClavis which focus on discovering and measuring molecular signatures from samples in order to help determine the most effective and safest treatment for a particular patient. This information along with all the other clinical characteristics that the physician brings to the table will help to make better long term decisions for patients, for example, only prescribing expensive targeted cancer therapies to people who will benefit from receiving it and minimizing potential for negative side effects.
There are growing repertories of increasingly targeted therapies available which are often very expensive and thus, we need to do a better job at figuring out who is going to benefit from them and who won’t. We are tackling a number of different diseases in collaboration with the NHS and the researchers at the university to help utilise our technology in addressing these needs.
What does BioClavis aim to achieve?
Our main aim is to stratify patients for different disease diagnoses and treatments, making the process fast and inexpensive. At the moment we are focusing on a number of different cancers and immune related diseases because these typically have expensive treatments. Therefore the information provided by our technology can prove to be very valuable. But this does not mean that we are limited to any particular types of cancer or diseases, rather we are trying to find areas where clinicians are unable to get the answers they need in a practical manner.
Why did you choose to move to Scotland?
We were looking for a few different things and Scotland offered them all;
First, we needed an environment where we could align our approach and strategy with the functionality of the healthcare system. Since the NHS is a centralised system, the same entity which controls the patient treatment decisions, and pays for the activities resulting from those decisions, also controls the samples that we need in order to build our tests. However, in the US the alternative is that we would have to go to each clinical center separately, get samples from each one and convince the various insurance companies who would pay for the test that we make—no one entity is assured to fully benefit from their own contributions. Working in partnership with the NHS in Scotland gives us easy access to essential patient samples because of the benefits accrued to NHS in terms of making treatment decisions and treating patients. This centralisation is key to what we really needed, making Scotland the obvious choice.
Second, Scotland’s location and proximity to European markets brought us closer to our customers in Europe.
Third, the nature of our testing system and business strategy is such that it was imperative for us to be in a place where we could have a number of collaborations with researchers in order to run a large number of samples. The efficiency of our technology allows us to run more samples than we have ideas and expertise all on our own. Scotland, with its extensive network of researchers and infrastructure allowed us to do that and more.
As someone who has worked with young businesses in the US and Scotland, have you noticed any differences in networking and networking opportunities between the two countries?
The obvious difference is that there are fewer people in Scotland but that allows everyone who is doing interesting science (and there are A LOT of innovative things happening in that area in Scotland) to find each other easily. The biggest difference I have noticed is that people in Scotland are very helpful and willing to share information as compared to California, where people tend to be a bit more competitive and secretive.
In your opinion why should young businesses set up base in Scotland?
Young businesses can benefit greatly from the strong support systems in Scotland just as we have. It is a small tight knit community who are always willing to help and we at BioClavis have always felt supported in a lot of different ways. We benefited greatly from the support provided by Scottish Enterprise which includes the funding but more broadly, they made setting up the business so much easier in countless intangible ways. They have connected us to all the business services, answered numerous questions about doing business in Scotland and through them I have made tonnes of connections. We were supported extensively by other government groups for things around HR and legal compliances. In addition to the support system, the talent pool in Scotland is enriched with skills and experience which means that young businesses have access to fantastic talent. For us it has always been easier to attract top scientists here as compared to California because of the limited competition. In our experience, there is no shortage of highly talented people in Scotland, especially in the life sciences sector as there are a number of recent graduates of all different levels who are interested in pursuing a career in medtech.
How has your experience at the Clinical Innovation Zone been so far?
The Clinical Innovation Zone have made our first year in business a great experience. The University and the NHS have helped us tremendously in setting up our facility and operation. We worked with the University and the Innovation Managers to design our lab space from scratch and they made great efforts to help us getting up and running very fast. Being based at the Clinical Innovation Zone gives us the added advantage of being just a few hundred metres away from one of the biggest pathology departments in Europe and network of biorepositories. This gives us critical access to expertise and samples which is key to our testing and what we are trying to achieve. We also feel that being a small company but having an established address at the Clinical Innovation Zone and being based at the hospital’s campus gives us a little bit of extra credibility and leaves a good impression, especially when our clients come to visit us.
Where do you see BioClavis in the next five years?
In the next few years we will have a number of diagnostic tests on the market serving not only NHS patients but the rest of the world as well. The vision is also to support pre-clinical drug development research on the same analytical platform, so we can do a much better job not only at diagnosing patients but making the next generation of targeted treatments that match the specific molecular make up of any given person and their disease; continuing the advancement of the full promise of so-called precision medicine.