Biotechnology & PharmaceuticalsView profile
We caught up we caught up with Jenny Bailey, Chief Executive Officer at Ferryx, working on the development of innovative bacterial treatments for gastrointestinal inflammatory disease.
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.
Jenny: Ferryx is a spin-out of the University of Bristol which we incorporated in September 2019. Ferryx develops live bacterial products for the treatment and prevention of gut inflammation. Our product is a probiotic, and there are many other probiotics on the market used for gut inflammation, but the problem with these is that there is no probiotic currently available that can function during active inflammation. Patients that have Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), which is a relapsing/remitting condition, can sometimes be quite well but during periods of relapse with active inflammation there is no probiotic that can help. The drugs used during these relapses have negative side-effect profiles so we have developed a probiotic which has anti-inflammatory properties, a great safety profile and, most importantly, can function during active inflammation.
This allows people another option, to avoid using the medications which might cause negative side-effects.
Either patients can take the probiotic daily, to prolong periods of remission, or it can be taken proactively in the early stages of a flare up to stop progression of the inflammation.
And although we are human focused here this works for animals, within veterinary and agriculture, as well. The same properties that make this work while the gut is actively inflamed also make our probiotic work during periods of stress, when again, conventional probiotics are not effective. We have a trial going on currently with broiler chickens, where many birds cohabit a small space which causes stress for the birds and leaves them more susceptible to bacterial infection. These infections, like Salmonella or Campylobacter, can then leak from the gut into the muscle of the bird, which then becomes a public health issue. Our trial, with a global animal healthcare company, AB Agri, is a feasibility study to see if they want to take it to market in the next year. I view this as improving animal welfare, whilst the farmers prioritise increased productivity, our product covers both of these concerns.
And a little about me; I’m an immunologist, my PhD was in mucosal immunology. I then worked in IBD in people, so I have a longstanding interest in gut conditions. I noticed quite early in my career that the treatment options for people with IBD are pretty poor. Although I have been mostly working on IBD in people I have been based at the Vet School in Bristol, so talking with my veterinary colleagues I have been involved in a lot of animal projects too. I like to say that I work on guts, and that I am pretty much species agnostic. My focus is mostly on humans, but 40-50% of my time has previously been spent on animal projects.
Jenny: We started talking about this in about 2009, and it came about because of a chance conversation in a corridor between myself and Tristan Cogan, who is now the Co-Founder of Ferryx. While I am an immunologist, looking at the human/animal perspective, Tristan is a microbiologist interested in the interaction between bacteria in the gut. We began discussing why probiotics don’t work during active inflammation, and we came up with the hypothesis that it is due to iron. To explain, when there is active inflammation, or stress, the iron levels in the gut are quite high and the majority of gut bacteria can use this iron as a growth factor. But the bacterial species conventionally used as probiotics, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, are quite unusual organisms in that they cannot use iron as a growth factor. So under high iron conditions conventional probiotic bacteria are outcompeted so don’t have a beneficial effect.
We then thought that it would be great to come up with a probiotic that had anti-inflammatory properties and could use iron as a growth factor, so it could survive during inflammation and stress. Tristan is a microbiologist and is an avid collector of bugs, he has freezers full of bacteria. My post-doc contract was coming to an end at that point, so Tristan employed me on a 6 week contract, and 10 years later we set up a spin-out. For a long time we didn’t have an proper funding, so the project was more of a ‘side-Hustle’, with both Tristan and I working on other projects and consultancy things so that we could keep working on the Ferryx project.
Jenny: There are now three of us on the Ferryx team. About three years ago I did the ICURe programme through SETsquared, which helps businesses from innovation to commercialisation. Through this we got partnered with a Business mentor, John Fox, who has 30 years’ experience in the pharmaceutical industry directing drug development. As well as being extremely knowledgeable he is great to work with, so we knew very early on that we needed to hang on to him in the business – he is now Chair of our Board. But, that does mean that we are a team of three scientists, so there are some significant gaps. We are a start-up, running on a shoe-string budget so we don’t have a huge amount of funding to put into recruiting someone.
Currently we don’t need a COO or a CFO, we are managing needs by buying peoples time and expertise when we need it, so outsourcing things – accountancy, legal, manufacturing etc.
We are also part of SETsquared and rent space at FutureSpace Bristol, which have great support programmes, so the tip from me is to take advantage of all the free advice you can get until you really need to hire someone to do something.
Jenny: The key for us really has been talking to the end users. We have spoken to a lot of patients with gut inflammation about what they need, hearing their opinions on thigs such as formulation (we are providing the probiotic in capsule form as a lot of patients told us that they do not want a liquid preparation/yoghurt probiotic). As scientists who don’t suffer from IBD it would be rather arrogant of us to believe that we know what patients need without having spoken to them.
In animals the focus is different, having spoken to farmers it is clear that they will prioritise ease of use rather than effectiveness. For this reason, we are looking at getting our product incorporated into chicken feed so that the farmers don’t need to do anything.
Jenny: Thinking back to the early days, Tristan and I established a blueprint of what we would like to see in a probiotic, then we went out and screened bacteria for those properties. We screened about 200 different isolates of bacteria trying to find the one with the right properties and although 200 sounds like a lot we were actually very lucky to happen across this one bacterium that ticks all the boxes. When we started we didn’t know if this was even possible, so we have been very fortunate.
The next challenge was getting this patented, which can be tricky when working with a naturally occurring live bacteria. Thankfully, we have a fantastic patent attorney who navigated that process for us.
Jenny: I think the best piece of advice that I heard, and I have certainly used, it to talk to anybody who will listen. Have your elevator pitch in your head and talk to everyone, because you never know who might be able to open a door for you. Don’t be shy!
We had our first revenue in January this year from AB Agri, and we are fundraising at the moment looking for equity investment of £270k to accelerate our growth into the human pharmaceutical market.