Biotechnology & PharmaceuticalsView profile
We caught up with Deborah O’Neil, Chief Executive Officer, and Scientific Officer at NovaBiotics, a biotechnology company developing immune-based therapies for medically unmet, life-threatening, and life-limiting diseases.
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.
Deborah: I’m Deborah O’Neil, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of NovaBiotics, we are a drug discovery and development company focused on immunotherapies, novel treatments for life threatening and life limiting conditions in the respiratory, inflammatory, and infectious disease space. We have product candidates ranging from the preclinical stage, all the way through to Phase 3. For example, we have NM002, a Phase 3 immunomodulator-antimicrobial candidate for community acquired pneumonia, and a registration study ready compound for Cystic Fibrosis (CF), NM001. These assets are both in the inflammatory and respiratory area, but we also have other therapy candidates focused on patients with compromised immunity. For example, there is a significant unmet need for treatments for individuals at risk of fungal infection and we have developed novel technology to address that.
Linking all our areas of interest is a core specialism of immunotherapies to address unmet medical need and significant markets. Community Acquired Pneumonia (CAP) is a huge issue, responsible for around 3 million global deaths per year. Interventions such as NM002 that target inflammation as well as the infectious cause of CAP potentially offer a much-needed new approach to treatment. The prevalence of CAP, resulting from viruses including COVID as well as influenza in addition to bacterial pathogens, and the global market size for therapeutics for this indication is increasing.
Deborah: I was an academic, initially with with no intention of starting a business, but the idea that eventually became NovaBiotics stemmed from doing my first post-doc on innate mucosal immunity and host-pathogen interactions in health and disease. The seed was sewn then I suppose re the potential of re-engineering innate immune factors as therapeutic molecules, but I continued with my academic career and really enjoyed completing postdocs in the US and Belgium before moving to
Aberdeen. At Aberdeen, I received grant funding which enabled me to explore the ideas that are now the backbone of NovaBiotics. The opportunity was too big to just be a side project in my academic work, so I made the decision to spin the company out in 2004. We now have offices based in Aberdeen, Boston, and Ireland.
Deborah: For us it is always fascinating how the skills required evolve as a biotechnology company grows and develops. Being based here in Aberdeen we have a fantastic life science cluster in the Northeast of Scotland with a wealth of technical talent, so we can take on some phenomenally talented science graduates and bioentrepreneurs of the future. As we’ve grown and evolved into a more mature biotech company, the skillsets required have progressed into other areas, such as regulatory, CMC, clinical trials management and even commercialization and late-stage development. This results in staff changes and development as well as changes in the Board. Businesses within the Northeast of Scotland cluster sometimes must look further afield for this talent but where possible its always great to train our existing teams and upskill them to meet changing company needs. We recognise that the cluster, as well as the companies within it, require this talent development in order to grow.
Aberdeen is known as ‘The Energy Capital of Europe’ but we are starting to see talent move across into biotech from the energy sector, bringing a range of transferrable skills into the Life Science sector. Scotland is a very successful life science ‘super cluster’ in its own right that outperforms the rest of the UK in a number of measures. Within Scotland we have a number of complementary local clusters, each with their own strengths. For example, Aberdeen is known for its strengths in biologics and late-stage drug development, Dundee arguably focused more on small molecules traditionally and in the central belt we have some great service providers.
Deborah: For us it is about understanding the market, the clinical need and what else is already in use and in development for the indications we are targeting. We have always been acutely aware of and track the markets that our products will exist in. It is never just about the great science; it is about considering if there is a genuine market need for the product candidates being developed. Our product candidates must be approved, used, and reimbursed as well as meeting patient needs.
Considering the pandemic, NovaBiotics NM002 technology offering is very attractive and topical but all our product candidates address significant unmet clinical need and are highly differentiated from any existing ‘standard of care’ (if it exists) in terms of their mechanism and potential clinical utility. Each has a route mapped to commercialisation in significant markets.
Deborah: This links back to funding. I am incredibly proud of how much we have achieved, which we have done by innovating as much in the business model as we have in our science. In additional to the investment we’ve raised, we have secured significant grants and partnerships (e.g., the NIHR for our NM002 phase 3 clinical trial) to fund and progress our research through to advanced stages. Raising funds and ironically the relatively small amounts of funding we have required is challenging, but we’ve nonetheless succeeded in doing that even in the most difficult of financial climates.
Deborah: I would advise to never be disheartened. Persevere. There will be somebody who ‘gets it’. If there’s a genuine unmet clinical need and a compelling market proposition for what you have and, of course, the science is solid, you will get there. Use your network and have as many conversations and as many meetings and pitches as you need to have! Look at all and any grants that are available and appropriate.
I would also recommend practicing and refining your proposition and pitch with ‘friendly targets’; investors or other industry professionals from your network who can give you honest feedback