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P | P | P – our chat with Aptamer Group

Our chat with Dr Arron Tolley, CEO at Aptamer Group. Aptamer Group utilises high-throughput, in-vitro techniques to select aptamers that are engineered to bind with high selectivity to a variety of targets.

The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with great potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real-talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.

Zoe @ADLIB: Hi Arron, great to meet you! Please, can you kick us off with an introduction to yourself and Aptamer Group?

Arron: Hi, my name is Dr Arron Tolley; I am the CEO of Aptamer Group. We are best described as a pre-clinical stage life sciences company operating across three different life science areas: The first area is developing aptamers as alternatives to antibodies and this business unit predominately functions as a contract research organisation (CRO); The second area is focused on and the integration of aptamers into diagnostic devices and assays such as the pregnancy test kit format and biosensors for healthcare and environmental monitoring; The third business unit focuses on the applications of aptamers in a therapeutic context. For therapeutics, we are focused on using aptamers as vehicles to deliver highly potent chemotherapeutic drugs and gene therapies or as niche biologic-like molecules. The advantage of using aptamer technology over antibody technology is myriad, including speed of development, high affinity and selectivity, with complete security of supply. In a therapeutic context, it is the simplicity of aptamer discovery and the ease and consistency with which we can chemically modify the molecules, allowing these modified aptamers to carry drugs to specific cell types, which gives them the advantage over equivalent protein/antibody platforms.

With regards to funding, we’ve been funded since 2012 on a mixture of Angel investment and commercial revenue which has grown year on year for the past 5 years. In addition, we have development contracts / collaborations with many of the top ten global pharma companies and research institutions, such as AstraZeneca and Cancer Research UK.

Zoe @ADLIB: Can you share the story behind the origin of Aptamer Group?

Arron: I met the Co-Founder, Dr David Bunka, whilst doing my PhD at Leeds University. At the time, David was the Head Of Automated Aptamer Selection at Leeds University. We both realised that there could be a potential commercial use for aptamers, as we were aware of the high failure rate of antibody technology and the increasing interest by big pharma in aptamers.

We decided in 2008 to set up Aptamer Group together and outside of a University environment. We did almost 4 years of planning and market evaluation, building a business plan and eventually raised funding through friends and family. This enabled us to attract professional Angel investors who backed a three-year collaborative grant with SHARP Electronics and allowed us to start our journey to where we are today. This model has worked well and allowed us to organically grow the business with David and I still owning ~50% of the business.

Zoe @ADLIB: Can you share some challenges you have faced when looking for people to join?

Arron: There have been some struggles in terms of recruitment as we are located in York and not in the ‘biotech golden triangle’ around the London/Cambridge/Oxford area. That said, we have managed to build a team of incredibly talented scientists within the business.

Due to the niche nature of our platform, we offer a lot of in-house training and support, so are looking to bring people on with the right attitude and train them up in-house. There is a big transition from the university environment to commercial scientific research and we fully support our staff in making that transition.

Zoe @ADLIB: How have you been able to understand and implement the market fit for the service you are offering?

Arron: We set up our company as we noticed a market gap and wanted to produce a product that succeeded where antibodies are known to underperform. If you look at many of the recent research reports, large research organisations and big pharma often quote reproducibility issues, stating that ~50% of antibodies fail to be generated to specific targets or to meet the requirements necessary. So, there is an inherent issue with antibodies, with many reported problems surrounding the generation of functional reagents and the reproducibility of data sets generated by poorly performing antibodies. Articles have been published in ‘Nature’ and other prominent scientific journals, discussing the reproducibility crisis at length. These issues can be largely overcome with the adoption of aptamer technology. Once you have an aptamer, you have a functional molecule. Every time you produce it, you get the same – so no batch-to-batch variation – no reproducibility issues.

Zoe @ADLIB: What challenges have you had to overcome to create the Aptamer Group?

Arron: Some of the biggest challenges have been around fully automating the science. Our platform is centered around high-throughput, liquid-handling robotics, which once optimised enable you to perform the science in a rapid, controllable way. The conversion of traditional benchtop molecular biology assay to reliable and reproducible liquid handling platforms was challenging.

Zoe @ADLIB: Investment can often be a challenge for start-ups & scale-ups. Do you have any piece of wisdom you could share around the best approach?

Arron: That depends on what your objective is. If you are looking to run and grow a business as quickly as possible, then you should be raising as much capital as is needed from the start. However, this comes with downsides such as equity dilution, higher risk and eventually loss of control. However, my approach was to maintain ownership and control the business and grow organically, adding value at each stage of investment. In that connection, I opted to take money in incremental ‘multiple rounds’, each time adding solid value to the business and protecting founder investor/shareholder position. It is important to note that neither one is the wrong path, and it really depends on personal appetite, whether you are a Founder who wants to learn to grow your business or a Founder that is looking to eventually hand it over to a professional management team. It is a long journey to build a business like this, and requires a lot of mental fortitude personal sacrifice, blood sweat and tears. The journey is not for everyone, so asking the question as to what type of journey you personally want to take is something I would advise thinking long and hard about at the start. The upside is the monumental reward of seeing your efforts and perseverance grow into a business, creating jobs, opportunities and most of all contributing to the scientific field making complex science accessible.

Thank you so much for your time.