Biotechnology & PharmaceuticalsView profile
We caught up with Jenny Barnett, CEO at Monument Therapeutics where they use digital biomarkers to improve neuroscience drug development.
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.
Jazz @ ADLIB: Can you please introduce yourself, what Monument Therapeutics does, what stage you are at currently and what makes your business and offering unique?
Jenny: I’m Jenny Barnett, CEO of Monument Therapeutics, we are a brand-new start-up – just 3 months old – spun out from Cambridge Cognition. I’m a cognitive neuroscientist by training, having done a psychology undergraduate and PhD in the department of psychiatry, and for the last 12 years I have been working in industry. I previously worked at Cambridge Cognition, which is a neuroscience technology company building and marketing computerised cognitive tests (called digital biomarkers) that measure specific networks of brain function. Cambridge Cognition uses these biomarkers, with pharmaceutical companies, to develop drugs to improve brain function (for example in Alzheimer’s, ADHD and depression) or to ensure that other non-neuro targeted drugs do not accidentally affect brain function.
Monument Therapeutics was established because most neuroscience drugs don’t actually succeed and make it to market. We think that one of the reasons for this is that the patients who are enrolled onto these clinical trials are assigned categories such as ‘depression’ or ‘anxiety’, but these titles are not good descriptors of the underlying biology. These diagnoses are given according to questions asked by health care professionals and patients’ self-report of somewhat subjective experiences, which makes it hard to target drugs at these rather nebulous clouds of symptoms. The idea of Monument was to use very specific biomarkers, that measure very specific aspects of brain function, to identify patients who all have something in common, biologically, and then use drugs that we know act on that biological system to improve treatment. We tie together the biomarkers which identify the biological system (target), with the drug that we know acts on that system, and we take those two together through a development program.
We have two drug development programmes going on currently, one is to treat cognitive impairment in schizophrenia, and the other is in neuroinflammation, which we think is present in lots of areas such a depression, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke etc.
Jazz @ ADLIB: Can you share the story behind the origin of Monument Therapeutics?
Jenny: The idea of using these biomarkers as a predictor, rather than as a measure, had been discussed as a research project at Cambridge Cognition (CC) but CC is a publicly listed company and of course these drug development projects are risky and expensive so this project would take away from company profitability. It was clear that this project wasn’t the right fit for CC. It did take us quite a long time to spin it out, doing all the fundraising during COVID lockdown, but the impetus to get the company going was that this project needed investment of its own.
Jazz @ ADLIB: Speaking of People, can you share some challenges you have faced, are facing or are anticipating around scaling and growing your team? Do you have any top tips you could share with those businesses faced with the same issues?
Jenny: We are four people at the moment, so we haven’t had too much of an issue thus far. I think the interesting thing for us is that three out of the four of us came from CC where were worked closely together, so we had a very close-knit relationship anyway. We are a virtual and remote team, and we were always going to be, but I think that presents a challenge ahead as we bring new people into a very established team. We are hoping to use frequent team events, or retreats/residentials, to help build that team relationship. I think that as well as we have all coped with virtual working, the benefits of everyone sitting together, preferably with a glass of wine, and thinking about the bigger picture is something we just can’t do in scheduled virtual meetings.
The thing with working in a place like Cambridge is that although there is a big pool of talent we are competing with the likes of Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft etc. and for a start up it is incredibly hard to compete with companies like these on a salary and benefits level, as well as on a prestige level.
A remote working model allows us to find the right fit for the company regardless of where candidates are based.
Jazz @ ADLIB: Moving to Product, what has been your approach to understanding and implementing product market fit or sales cycles?
Jenny: It is an established business model for us; big pharmaceutical companies are brilliant at doing late-stage clinical trials, taking drugs to market and selling them. Late-stage clinical trials typically involve hundreds or thousands of patients incurring large costs and being logistically challenging. What big Pharma is not so great at is doing things in a quick, smart, and agile way early on, which is where a lot of biotech companies (even companies with only 4 people) thrive. Our product is going to be a treatment that has been taken through animal and human safety trials to either proof of mechanism or proof of concept – this is a common stage to sell, or license. For us this is a clear pathway in a very regulated industry.
In contrast to a lot of start ups I think the product market fit piece for Monument Therapeutics is pretty easy as we follow a regulated a well-trodden path.
The tricky part about our path comes at the final stage, if not enough data is collected, or if something goes wrong, or the data isn’t convincing there is no other possible income stream – so there is risk! This highlights the importance of investors who have deep pockets and believe in you to ensure that there is enough funding to support you through to the stage where a licensing deal or sale is possible.
Jazz @ ADLIB: And then Potential, can you share some challenges or barriers you had to overcome to create an offering with potential?
Jenny: As we discussed, it is a well-worn path and a regulated industry, so there are lots of areas in which you can’t be innovative because there are expectations to meet certain criteria and to meet certain milestones expected by potential buyers. We had to think about what 4 people could do in a way that was better than 40, or 400, or 4000 people – so the potential was found within ideas from our team, which consists of people who have done this many times before, and therefore know what need to be done, and people who haven’t done this before, and therefore don’t know what can’t be done.
Our potential comes from trying to find ways to innovate enough within a regulated environment so that we can do things smarter, or faster, or cheaper compared with the bigger companies that are out there.
The bet you are making as a start-up is that you have a cleverer way of doing something than the people who are already out there!
Jazz @ 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?
Jenny: From my point of view this has been a steep learning curve about raising investment and handling investment in a way that will make us sustainable through the next two or three years until there is an opportunity to get some income. It started working for me when I found a good mentor who had time to hold my hand through the first steps. There is not a lot of magic to fundraising, but it is definitely helpful to have guidance from someone who has done it a lot before, who is interested in the business and who has contacts. The difference between pitching to someone who knows nothing about you, versus pitching to someone who respects the person who introduced you is huge. Having a mentor, and a network, really helped me gain that initial interest.