Biotechnology & PharmaceuticalsView profile
We caught up with Pedro Correa de Sampaio, Co-Founder and CEO at Neobe Therapeutics, an early stage biotech start-up engineering live biotherapeutics to disrupt the tumour microenvironment and enable immunotherapeutic success in non-responding cancer patients.
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.
Pedro: I’m Pedro, CEO and Co-Founder, my background is in Cancer Biology, specifically studying the tumour microenvironment, which is where the idea behind Neobe came about. I am interested in solid tumours; how different components of a tumour interact with one another, and how different tumours progress. After my PhD at Cambridge I spent a bit of time in Texas doing a postdoc before returning to the UK to start my own venture project in the oncology space – Neobe Therapeutics.
At Neobe (the name came about as a combination of neo and microbe) we genetically engineer new forms of recombinant bacteria – we take bacteria which are innately prone to colonise solid tumours and engineer them to remodel the physical properties of tumours. We do this to address a subset of tumour patients with tumours so dense and fibrotic that immune cells can’t physically penetrate the tumour. Currently only about 10-15% of patients with solid tumours respond to immunotherapy. In a significant amount of cases that is due to inability of immune cells to penetrate the tumour – creating what is known as immune excluded tumours. We aim to as much as double the number of patients who respond by targeting patients with these immune-excluded tumours. Our engineered bacteria are being developed to enter these tumours and remove physical barriers to infiltration, enabling immune cell entry so that the immune system can be activated to recognise and kill the cancer cells.
Immune Excluded tumours are those that cause an immune reaction, but the immune cells are unable to get into the tumour, we believe that though our strategy we can get these patients to respond to immunotherapies.
We are implementing a step-by-step approach initially focusing on a subset of colorectal cancer patients then hopefully moving on to pancreatic cancer and triple negative breast cancer. Just within these groups, in the UK alone, we are looking at being able to improve therapeutic outcomes for 20,000 to 30,000 patients per year.
Pedro: As I was finishing my postdoc I came across a company called Deep Science Ventures (DSV). DSV focuses on creating high-impact tech-based ventures to address significant problems in different areas of society, from health to the climate. To do this, they recruits founder-type scientists who have a strong background in areas that want to address, and help support the creation of an innovative venture within that specialism. They were specifically interested in developing new companies within the tumour microenvironment space. We serendipitously met at a conference, got chatting, and found ourselves to be in the ‘right place at the right time with the right people’. We started working together and I built the skeleton of what became Neobe during the first COVID lockdown from my childhood bedroom back in Portugal, under the umbrella of DSV. Slowly but surely the idea took shape, I moved to London and immediately found my Co-Founder Annelise Soulier, we then incorporated in 2021 supported by DSV who provided an initial investment.
Pedro: The people aspect has been an essential part of how we build the company. Both DSV and Cancer Research UK, who were the original backers of the company, provided us not just with the capital but also support in how to grow the company and the team – we obviously had not done this before. I consider these investors an essential part of the team, but really the most essential part is my Co-founder who before founding Neobe with me had been engineering bacteria for therapeutic applications for several years at Prokarium. I am an expert in the tumour microenvironment but really, I have no idea how to engineer bacteria, I thought it was a good idea, but I needed someone to confirm this was possible and who was able to actually do it – and that is why I found Annelise. The process of finding my Co-Founder took a little while, but once I found Annelise I knew she was the perfect fit in every way. I wouldn’t have been able to start the company without her – I found her via my network in the end, someone I know introduced us. The power of Networks, they are so important. Our network, particularly through CRUK has also helped us find academic collaborators to help with the lab side of things.
Pedro: It has been an interesting journey through to viewing this as a product rather than just an academic research project. We have assessed our commercial strategy, which is to combine these bacteria with therapeutic immunotherapy drugs that are already on the market, our plan is the extend their efficacy to previously unresponsive patients. We must have a really clear understanding on how we are going to take these bacteria and create partnerships within Pharma to develop the right combination strategies.
The other significant part of the commercialisation is broadening our focus from just one product for one solution, to developing a platform which we can use to build bacteria that can target different aspects of the tumour microenvironment in different types of tumours so our platform will produce several products. We will therefore be able to enable therapeutic efficacy in several subsets of patients.
We are a little different from most other start-ups, most start-ups have a product that came out of an academic project which they spin out into company, then fit it into the market, whereas our project was almost the exact opposite way round. Our project identified the problem (market need), then developed a product to address this.
Pedro: To reiterate the challenge I mentioned for ‘People’ – building the correct team was very time consuming. Also a large challenge was that we had a lab site in Shepherds Bush, London, which unfortunately shut down so we had to relocate the lab to Cambridge. When you are a start-up founder, you expect to have to put out fires all the time, however moving the lab was a fire of a dimension that you don’t expect to deal with in the first six months. We got quite lucky at that point as we were one of five companies winning a spot in the Accelerate@Babraham Start-Up competition, which, amongst other things, provided us with free lab space for 5 months in the Babraham Research Campus at Cambridge.
Then on top of that, similar to the challenges faced by all start-ups within the therapeutics space recently, we needed a research team, with protocols in place in the middle of a pandemic. Most people were working from home so it was not easy to build a team.
Pedro: Getting the funding we need has been a challenge, but what we very quickly understood was that when building a company in the therapeutic space it is easy to become stuck in a vicious cycle – a chicken and egg problem. Investing is obviously a risky proposition at this stage, and a long-term proposition, so we need investors who come in knowing that this is going to be a significant financial commitment, but for this they want significant ‘de-risking’ to show that our strategy is going to work. However, in order to produce this data we need the funding to be able to run the experiments (particularly in a company like ours where we need to do a lot of animal experiments). So we were stuck: to get the funds we need to run the experiments, but to run experiments we need the funds. What enabled us to break out of this was getting an Innovate UK Biomedical Catalyst grant to finance our experiments.
And for the advice: collaborate! Don’t be afraid to share the control and use your network, obviously don’t throw information away, but find the right partners to help you build your products. Our partnership with advisors at Queen Mary’s and Imperial allowed us to gain visibility very quickly but also to have confirmation of feasibility. And secondly, don’t be afraid to speak with everyone who will meet with you – everyone has connection that may be able to open a door for you and your company