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P | P | P – our chat with Leaf Expression Systems

We interviewed Simon Saxby, CEO at Leaf Expression Systems. Leaf Expression Systems is an innovative contract development and manufacturing organisation specialising in the expression and production of proteins, vaccines, metabolites and complex natural products in plants for research and bio-medical applications using its proprietary, transient expression technology, Hypertrans®.

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 Simon, great to meet you! Please can you kick us off with an introduction to yourself and Leaf Expression Systems?

Simon: Hi my name is Simon Saxby; I am CEO of Leaf Expression Systems and I have been at the company for 2 ½ years. The company itself is about 5 years old which includes the initial of fundraising and became commercially operational in 2018, by offering contract development and manufacturing services expressing customers’ proteins. We are also involved in developing new and improved expression technologies and have produced a number of products for the research market that exemplify our technology and which we sell through our website.

Leaf Expression Systems is a spin-out from the John Innes Centre (JIC)using technology developed by Prof. George Lomonossoff and Dr Frank Sainsbury. The technology called ‘Hypertrans’ enables us to express proteins including monoclonal antibodies, complex biomolecules, and vaccines at a very high level in the leaves of plants. These products are purified from the plants using conventional downstream technologies.

Zoe @ADLIB: Can you share the story behind the origin of Leaf Expression Systems?

Simon: The technology was developed several years ago by Prof. George Lomonosoff and his team at the JIC. It was initially licenced by Plant Biosciences Ltd, also located on the Norwich Research Park, for vaccine production before Leaf was granted an exclusive licence by PBL to further commercialise Hypertrans by offering CDMO services to the global life sciences industry. Leaf’s CDMO service offering would make the technology more widely available to the industry to help move the expression of biologics in plants into mainstream biotech. Plants are eukaryotic, so they can express very complex proteins that cannot be expressed in more conventional mammalian cell, bacterial or insect cell expression systems. We are moving to the next stage of Leaf’s growth and working on establishing GMP manufacturing capability.

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

Simon: Growing a business is always a balance of when you recruit people, how you recruit people and what roles you recruit for within the organisation. We are based on the Norwich Research Park, which is not yet one of the more established biotech hubs such as Oxford or Cambridge, but it is a great place for us to be as there are over 100 companies on the Research Park, and of course, the JIC which is one of the World’s foremost plant science research organisations. Norwich itself is also a fantastic place to live in terms of environment and culture.

Other challenges include finding people who want to join a young biotech company and also ensuring that we hire at the right time so that we are employing people who are able to add value to the business as quickly as possible.

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

Simon: The market is constantly changing. What we are selling as a service is disruptive, as it is not mainstream yet, so there are many challenges that go along with this. We must demonstrate to potential customers why they should try something that is different. In the past, events that also hosted partnering meetings were a great way to approach potential customers about the services we are offering, but in the past 10 years or so big pharma companies, who are more product-focused and have been trying to fill their pipelines, have explicitly avoided engaging with service providers at these events, so we have had to become more resourceful in reaching the right people within these organisations. Skype, Teams and Zoom have actually been a benefit as far as this is concerned and we have managed to secure new clients using these platforms, even during the COVID restrictions.

Zoe @ADLIB: What challenges have you had to overcome to create Leaf Expression Systems?

Simon: As I said previously one of our biggest challenges is that our technology is disruptive and we, therefore, need to demonstrate to our customers that they are able to go from R&D to commercial supply using our plant-based expression technology. We are currently working with partners who have the scale-up GMP capability, but the goal is to have our own GMP facility. We are currently working towards this with our investors and Anglia Innovation Partnership and the Norwich Research Park. We hope to have our own GMP facility, which will be unique in Europe, operational within the next 2-3 years.

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

Simon: The first thing is that you need to have a clear vision, a realistic plan and timeline for what you want to do with your company. You need to identify the risks as well as the potential upside for investors and how you intend to mitigate the risks. It is also important to understand that investors invest in people and that if investors do not believe that you and your team can deliver on the business plan, they will not invest, no matter how good your business idea or technology is. You also need to be clear about how much money you need to raise and how much of your company you are prepared to sell for that amount of money.

Thank you so much for your time.