P | P | P feat. Orbit Discovery

We caught up with Neil Butt, CEO of Orbit Discovery, as part of ‘Product | People | Potential’. Orbit Discovery develop and apply innovative drug discovery platforms defined by a unique peptide display engine that deliver novel, functional, biologically relevant peptide therapeutic leads.

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.

Zoe @ADLIB: Hi Neil, great to meet you! Please can you kick us off with an introduction to yourself and Orbit Discovery.

Neil: Hi, I am Neil Butt and was appointed CEO of Orbit Discovery in June 2021. Orbit was spun out of the University of Oxford by Professor Terry Rabbitts and Professor Graham Ogg in 2015 but in 2021 this was divided into T-Cyper Bio and Orbit Discovery. Orbit Discovery’s focus is to identify therapeutic peptides using its unique peptide display platform and aims to become a leading service provider in identifying targeting and functional peptide. Orbit Discovery have also developed an extensive capability in identifying agonists and antagonists to GPCRs.

Zoe @ADLIB: Can you share the story behind the origin of Orbit Discovery?

Neil: As mentioned previously Orbit Discovery was set up using technology developed by Professor Graham Ogg and further advanced as a screening to by Professor Terry Rabbitts. The initial philosophy was to look at immune cell receptors such as major histocompatibility complex (MHC) binding peptides, and this is now where T-Cyper Bio now focuses its attention on. Orbit Discovery was set up to offer services where we can identify peptides using high through-put screening, screening vast libraries of both binding and function. The technology itself uses bead technologies where a single species of DNA conferring a single peptide is attached to a bead. This DNA can be amplified to produce multiple copies, and subsequently used (by in vitro transcription translation) to produce peptide on bead. These beads can then be sued in a screening process to identify potential peptide hits against a target of interest.

This technology allows rapid identification of peptides directly against cell-based targets, which is a significant improvement on other competing technologies.

Zoe @ADLIB: Can you share some challenges you have faced when looking for people to join?

Neil: There are always issues when taking a new platform technology to market and I seen similar barriers from my experience at IONTAS and Antitope. One of the primary issues concerns gaining a track record. Increasingly companies operate in world of stealth and although projects may be running in-house, this experience is invisible to the outside world. Following on from this is the need to gain PR around the work we are doing, in the early stages, this can be summarised as gaining credibility. Once up and running, many of the near-term issues involve scaling up, from experience, these can be managed with good planning and management. One dilemma all service companies need to address is the balance of R&D investment with servicing clients as a functional priority of the business. I strongly believe in maintaining innovation within service based organisation, this facilitates growth and also tends to recruit scientific resources with a more flexible mindset.

Zoe @ADLIB: What has been your approach to understanding and implementing product market fit?

Neil: Orbit Discovery are solution providers so nothing we do can be summarised in a single process. “Market fit” is dictated by our Clients requirements. Our core strategy is to have an underlying technology platform that can flex and breath with the needs of these Clients. Our job is to think widely and broadly to overcome our Clients problems. The process of discovering peptides starts with having good quality target material, in all projects, this is assessed by our Target Development team. The output from this team helps us understand the targets and gives us educated insight into how we might design peptide libraries for use in subsequent screening. We also have a team that focuses on developing cell lines and functional assays so we can move quickly from identifying peptide “hits” from the peptide libraries to functional variants that are of interest to our Clients.

Zoe @ADLIB: What challenges have you had to overcome to create Orbit Discovery?

Neil: With any start-up there are always objectives you need to keep in mind, including strong validation of the platform and starting the process of generating revenues. When you are small there is often an external perception that you are too small to do solve a potential Clients problem. However, in my view, there is a lot of flexibility in start-ups and this offers productivity relationships in many Client based projects. One challenge for any company as it grows is to avoid being too constrained by process. Process should not be undervalued, it is critical for service delivery, but once the process starts to drive innovation in a research setting, that innovation starts to slow down.

Zoe @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?

Neil: There are three pieces of advice I would give. The first is to stay focused on your objectives and don’t get distracted. The second is to trust your staff and listen to them. The third is don’t be afraid to say no.

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Zoe Davies