Head of Science & Engineering
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We caught up with Zuzanna Brzosko, CEO of Sixfold Bioscience as part of ‘Product | People | Potential’. Sixfold Bioscience develops safe and effective drug delivery systems for gene therapeutics.
The purpose of this series of articles is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with grand 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.
Zuzanna: My name is Zuzanna Brzosko, and I’m the CEO of Sixfold Bioscience. Sixfold is a preclinical biotechnology company focused on developing drug delivery systems for gene therapeutics.
Over the last couple of years, there have been significant clinical advancements and first commercial successes in the space of gene therapeutics – so far mostly for relatively limited patient populations. One of the largest bottlenecks in the field is the lack of effective, targeted systems for delivery of gene therapeutics to specific cells in deep organs in the body. That is the current challenge that we are trying to address with our lead technology.
We leverage nucleic acid nanotechnology to develop our highly specific in vivo delivery platform. It is a very differentiated approach compared to rival delivery systems, which are mostly focused on using modalities such as viral vectors and lipid nanoparticles.
Zuzanna: I met my co-founders at Cambridge University back in 2016 when I was working as a postdoctoral researcher in Physiology, Development and Neuroscience and President of Cambridge University Entrepreneurs. We were brought together by the mission to unlock the full potential of gene therapeutics. Sixfold Bioscience really got off the ground when we received first investment from Y Combinator in Silicon Valley, which is a venture capital company, and one of the world’s best-known accelerators. Y Combinator was the first investor in companies such as Airbnb, Stripe and Dropbox. With their investment and their brand behind us, we were able to complete our first venture capital financing round, establish our labs, grow our team and intensify our research.
Zuzanna: One of the main challenges that we face stems from the fact that what we do, our product and research, require highly specialised knowledge and skills. We also operate in the emerging – but fast-growing – field within the wider biopharmaceutical/biotechnology industry. We like to work with people who are skilled, ambitious, hard-working, and innovative thinkers. The talent pool is relatively scarce and is distributed across the globe. Therefore, the competition for top talent in our market is fierce.
Attracting the best researchers to join a biotechnology startup is not always easy. We compete with larger, more established biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies but also academic and research institutes.
We often have to emphasise the benefits of working within the innovative startup company compared to pursuing purely academic research. I think what we have to offer to our researchers is the ability to work on cutting-edge science but also faster pace of very multi-disciplinary research, self-development and career progression, as well as unique culture.
We adopt a very proactive approach to recruitment. My colleague, George, in charge of our HR has been doing a brilliant job in searching for excellent new talent. We often directly approach the candidates who have the right skills and who we believe could flourish within the company. Our interview process – aimed at assessing the knowledge, skills but also the cultural fit, has been tailored to our company’s needs. But I envisage this process to continue evolving slightly as the company grows and changes.
A separate, significant challenge is making sure that we retain our people by recognising their achievements and providing them with the right tools to help them self-develop and achieve their personal goals while fulfilling the company objectives.
Zuzanna: From the purely technical side, developing and optimising our product involves executing on a rational and iterative R&D plan. We rely on the feedback loop from our internal experiments. It is also about staying close to the wealth of scientific research via publications, conferences etc. Something that we like to do a lot is adopting a collaborative approach to our research, where we take the very best of the multidisciplinary expertise of our sub-teams and our collaborators to accelerate our product and make it better. We collaborate with several top academic labs from research institutes in the UK, Europe, and the US such as Imperial College London and Uppsala University.
From the more commercial perspective, our R&D process is informed by competitive analyses that we perform internally, as well as feedback from prospective customers.
Zuzanna: The biotechnology industry, in general, has relatively high barriers for entry. It is a heavily regulated, capital-intensive industry where skills and knowledge are very specialised.
We’ve already encountered a multitude of challenges, the first being access to sufficient capital. For biotechnology start-ups, these initial capital requirements may often be larger than for start-ups in other industries. For us, Y Combinator in Silicon Valley proved to be a very good first investor.
I’ve already talked about some of the challenges that recruiting the right team presents.
In terms of technical challenges, these are very specific to our product and we deal with them as they arise. The opportunity to solve these technology problems is what makes our research exciting.
Zuzanna: I think what I would say is that resilience is very important during the fundraising process. For most start-ups the journey to securing significant investment will involve hearing a lot of “no”s or “please come back later when your product is more developed”. It’s important to keep learning from these individual experiences but also not to become discouraged by the initial rejections. Going back to investors who previously said no can work in your favour if you can show better- or faster-than-expected progress. Working on developing longer-term relationships with investors and keeping them up to date on your progress is important.
Thanks for your time!