MicroSynbiotiX, an early-stage biotech company based in Ireland, is developing oral vaccines to prevent infectious diseases in farmed fish. We spoke with CEO and co-founder, Simon Porphy, about his transgenic microalgae technology and his startup journey.
What does MicroSynbiotiX do?
We are a synthetic biology company. We genetically modify microalgae to produce vaccines and therapeutic proteins of interest. We are first targeting the aquaculture industry and creating products to treat and prevent deadly viral and bacterial diseases in fish and shrimp. Our long-term goal is to replace antibiotics. There is currently no oral delivery technology for fish or shrimp. Therefore, the industry relies on hand-held injection of each fish or the use of automated robots to inject vaccines. This is time consuming and expensive and so only works for high value fish stocks like salmon that are grown in wealthy countries. There is nothing available for most countries in Asia. It is a huge market. Asia and Indian Ocean countries contribute 80% of global farmed seafood. Nevertheless, there are no vaccines or therapeutic proteins available for fish or shrimp grown in these regions.
How does your technology work?
We are using microalgae as a platform to express recombinant therapeutic proteins and deliver them to fish. We make our own DNA constructs of therapeutic proteins then transform these into the microalgae’s DNA. The DNA sequence for the therapeutic protein is integrated into the microalgae’s DNA and it can then produce that protein.
Unlike most bacteria, microalgae can also be used to deliver the therapeutic protein orally. When bacteria are modified to produce a therapeutic protein, they will often excrete the protein into the media in which they grow and the protein must be purified from the media. That is an expensive downstream process. In our case, the protein can be safely locked inside the microalgal biomass and there’s no need to purify it, which drastically reduces cost.
We lyophilize and freeze dry our algae to turn it into powder to feed the fish. Therefore, the algae are dead and will not replicate but they have the antigen confined inside their biomass and still elicit the immune response. We are trialing our oral vaccines in fish now to demonstrate efficacy. The vaccines need to survive the acidic environment of the fish stomach and be absorbed in the hind gut to cause an immune response and lasting immunity. Most oral vaccines on the market today are ineffective because they are destroyed in the stomach. This is one key milestone for us. We just completed a seed funding round of US$1 million to do these challenge trials.
How did you come up with the idea?
I’m a biochemical engineer and a scientist. I’ve been working in the industry for 5.5 years. My expertise is fermentation and process scale up – I’ve worked with a number of platform technologies including modified bacteria, yeast and microalgae that were used to produce enzymes, biofuels and functional foods.
I realized a new platform tech was required especially for oral delivery. I was scouting possibilities for new techs and I found that microalgae have unique potential and fitted my background experience. After doing thorough market research, competitive analysis, intellectual property and technology due diligence, I clearly saw the gap in the market.
I had a chance to meet Antonio Lamb who was an expert in genetic engineering in plants. I proposed the idea to him and soon both of us were excited. We ran a pilot study in the BioCurious community lab in San Francisco, did contract research in New York and raised funds through the crowdfunding site www.experiment.com. After much hard work we completed our Proof-of-Concept and received endorsements from several experts. Therefore, with confidence we applied to the IndieBio EU (now called RebelBio) accelerator program and were accepted.
How will your platform affect the aquaculture industry?
From a sustainable point of view, it’s not practical to vaccinate fish by taking them from the water, especially if you want to develop vaccines for the larger fish market in Asia and the Middle East. In countries like China, India and Malaysia, most farmers grow fish species of low value so the vaccines need to be affordable. It’s a huge untapped market. There are almost no vaccines available for warm water fish species.
Farmers around the world lose US$1 billion a year of shrimp stocks due to one viral infection called White Spot. That doesn’t even take into account the effects of any other infectious diseases in any other fish species. You can’t hand inject shrimp. There needs to be an oral vaccine. This will help increase farm productivity and protect farmers’ livelihoods. Now if an infectious disease goes through a fish stock, many farmers are forced to close their farm.
Who invented your technology?
Our core team of me, co-founder and COO Antonio Lamb and our CSO Dr Kwang-Chul Kwon have all been instrumental in building our technology and getting it to work.
Did you have to patent or out- or in-licence any technology? If so, how did you navigate that process?
We have a patent for our own delivery platform. We licensed the antigen sequence for the White Spot vaccine from the Center for Aquaculture Technologies in San Diego. Their sequence is very effective against White Spot and they found our platform very promising so we licensed it.
You were part of the RebelBio accelerator program (which used to be called IndieBio EU). How did you get in and how has RebelBio helped you?
The most important thing was exposure to the business world. I was a scientist and had a lot of problems pitching to investors. The RebelBio program was instrumental in preparing us to talk to investors and they put us in touch with relevant investors and mentors.
It’s a 90-day program. Every day one mentor would come and give a speech on one aspect of business development – marketing, sales, IP protection etc. We met mentors with a variety of expertise. That gave us a lot of exposure into what goes into running a business. It helps you to validate your ideas and self-assess and see whether you are ready for the journey. It’s a sort of testing ground.
You also won the Blue Economy Challenge – can you tell us about that?
The Australian foreign ministry has a budget of AU$3 million to support neighboring countries. Aquaculture is a big part of the economy in nearby Indian Ocean countries like Indonesia. They wanted to find nine different interesting ideas that would benefit Indian Ocean countries. They were really interested in what we were doing. They had many domain experts who questioned us and evaluated our knowledge, our business plan and business model. They wanted to get a firm view of whether we, as founders, were realistic and pragmatic and whether we had done enough due diligence on our IP. They felt that we had huge potential and huge risk but the rewards if we were successful would be very big. They felt that we were worthy of funding of AU$200,000.
How did you secure your seed round of funding?
It was a big challenge. We incorporated in May 2016 after being accepted into RebelBio. Since then it has been tough. In July 2016 we secured a grant of €15,000 from the local enterprize office here in Ireland. They funded us to develop our prototype. That allowed us to make some technical progress.
We followed that by entering into several business competitions. We didn’t win but we reached the finals.
Winning the Blue Economy Challenge in September was a big turning point. We then had further angel investment of €75,000 that allowed us to make more technical progress. We got lab space in San Diego and some funding from the Center for Aquaculture Technologies and were accepted into the FAST Advisory Program at the California Life Sciences Institute. That covers legal and IP consulting expenses.
In February 2017, we also won the Nutreco Feed Tech Challenge which gave us €50,000 worth of challenge trials. This is very valuable because funding a challenge trial can be expensive. Also, Nutreco could be a big partner for us in terms of route to market.
Then we got a term sheet from a German angel syndicate group interested in aquaculture. They became our lead investor in the seed round and we had follow up investments from SOSV (who backs RebelBio and IndieBio) and Enterprise Ireland.
Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs looking for funding?
Entrepreneurs need to focus on building traction. We entered into business competitions very aggressively. This helps to validate your business. People do due diligence on you and see whether you are investment-worthy. If you already have a grant or have been accepted into an accelerator or won a business competition, that makes private investors feel more comfortable. All that attracts private investment.
Have a website. Most entrepreneurs forget to have a website. You need an international and a social presence through a website, social media and winning competitions. If you can’t win competitions, the feedback will help you correct your business model and plan.
Investors want to know that your science is real science. Founders can get very emotional about their idea. But you need to be pragmatic and be realistic about goals and objectives and articulate that well to the investors. Show evidence that you can reach the market and bring positive cash flow within year four or five or earlier. Show that you have the capability to execute the idea. Demonstrate how you will execute it – have a timeline and a detailed operational work plan with financial data sheets. That gives more confidence to investors to make an investment.
How many people work at MicroSynbiotiX?
It is me, co-founder Antonio, CSO Dr Kwon, a non-executive director and a research technician.
Are you looking to expand your team?
We will soon be hiring two more senior scientists and one more technician. This will happen through our website or we put ads in universities or on websites like indeed.com and irishjobs.ie.
We look for candidates who are passionate We are a small company – the company will only survive if we can achieve our milestones. We look for team players. You’ll have to work under a time-bound schedule and challenge yourself. This is not an academic project with three years to complete. Each task is time bound so you have to be a team player to meet your milestones.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
Human resources. Getting the kind of scientists we want. We’re lucky we have Dr Kwon, he is an expert in manipulating plants to express vaccines and therapeutics. Microalgae share similar genetics. We need to find people with key technical skills who also have an appetite for risk and that is quite difficult.
Fundraising is also hard.
What do you think makes someone a good CEO?
Someone who can improvise in any situation and can manage the upside and the downside of the business, especially when you are running low on resources. A CEO should be able to bootstrap the business and manage his or her own fears. As a founder, we are always anxious at times about whether we will survive – there’s so much uncertainty and it is a non-linear pathway.
You need to be able to think well ahead in terms of planning. Take the worst-case scenario and use that to plan your business. We do that in every aspect of the business. We would like to over deliver and not give any false hopes. If we set a milestone to achieve in 12 months, we should be able to achieve it in 10 months.
Do you have any other advice for startup entrepreneurs – particularly those coming from research?
Not all of the projects in the lab are commercially feasible so before you get excited about an idea, make sure it is commercially scalable.
Take technology transfer and scale up into account – many startups don’t think about this. It is important that the founder has scale up experience or brings in a founder with expertise in manufacturing so that one of the founders understands scale up issues and challenges. A lot of companies do well in prototype development but they cannot meet yield and productivity targets and compete in the market. If you don’t have this expertise, get consulting from manufacturing experts.
Develop a prototype that has a very good product-market fit.
Have a detailed financial budget and a well-planned operational work plan and IP protection plan. IP is of paramount importance for a biotech company to get any private investment and most entrepreneurs are very naïve about IP. You need to be very thorough in your knowledge or hire an IP consultant or invite an IP expert to become a founder. You must have a proper IP strategy in place before fundraising. Claims should be defensible. You need to do a Freedom to Operate assessment.
I also have some advice for investors interested in biotech. They need to understand there is a huge technology gap between universities and the real world and should have realistic expectations when investing in a biotech company.
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