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We caught up with Dave Llewellyn, CEO of DJS Antibodies, as part of ‘Product | People | Potential’. DJS Antibodies has developed HEPTAD, a novel platform for antibody discovery which was built to overcome the challenges associated with discovering therapeutic quality antibodies to intractable G-protein coupled receptor (GPCR) 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.
Dave: I am Dave LIewellyn, the CEO of DJS Antibodies. We are discovering brand new therapeutics to treat the world’s most critical inflammatory diseases. We’re excited about this because many of the key biological drivers of inflammatory diseases are really hard to drug and thus have not been successfully targeted by anyone else. For us however, this is exactly the science we like to do – going after very challenging drug targets. To do this, we utilise our core antibody discovery technology that we call HEPTAD. Using HEPTAD over the last couple of years, we have discovered antibodies against targets that have never before been successfully drugged and we are now developing those antibodies towards the clinic.
Dave: I met Joe, who is the co-founder of DJS Antibodies, when we worked in the same lab. We used to sit around talking about science, coming up with crazy ideas. Most of the time it was nerdy scientists having conversations for the love of it rather than anything else. We’d said to each other it would be fun to start a company one day, but never really thought we’d do it.
The ball started rolling when I got an email for a business plan competition which had a £100,000 prize, so Joe and I had a chat and we decided to put something forward hoping that we could learn how a business was run and how it all works. We drafted our plan which was to use some interesting immunology to generate therapeutic antibodies against some of the most intractable drug targets. We were lucky enough to make it to the finals of that competition, and while we didn’t come out as the winners, we felt we’d learnt a huge amount. Luckily for us however, directly after the competition, Joe started having an interesting Scientific conversation with a guy in the pub next to the competition venue. The person he was speaking to happened to work with Johnson and Johnson Innovation. Leading on from this conversation, we got to meet and speak to the Johnson & Johnson team, to develop our plan further, and ultimately they funded us to found DJS Antibodies.
Dave: At the end of the day a business is the people who work in it, so the biggest challenge is finding and attracting the best people. We are true to our values and have a great place to work and have a lot of opportunities to grow, develop and learn as a professional. And we all love science! We hope that all of these things attract great people to DJS Antibodies.
Dave: We have a lot of conversations with people in the space and from all different areas, which means talking to potential partners and getting an idea on what they are looking for and working with technical experts to get the science that we do right, talking to development leaders to refine the therapeutic product but also the R&D plan. We also have a lot of internal conversations with the team throwing around ideas.
Dave: The first thing that a small company needs is something different and better than what anyone else has. However, knowing exactly how you compare to others isn’t that straight forward as companies will always have their in-house secrets protecting the process and protocols that they use. For us, showing that DJS was as good, if not better, than other companies making therapeutic antibodies was a real challenge. To do this, we ultimately chose a whole list of drug targets that we knew no one else had been able to generate antibodies against and we applied our HEPTAD technology to those. It was only when we got successful results from this work that we were able to be confident that we could actually do something that no one had been able to do before.
Dave: The key is persistence, hard work and a large dose of luck. One thing that is important is to not spam every person with a cheque book. The temptation is to ask everyone who has even the slightest possibility of being able to give you investment. It is good, however, to think about who’d be a good partner for you as they are not only funding you, but also working with you. This involves careful planning but will save a large amount of time in the long run and increases chances of success.
Thank you so much for your time.