Biotechnology & PharmaceuticalsView profile
We caught up with Isaac Johnson CEO at Verinnogen, where they are designing tools for measuring the properties of 3D surfaces for use in oncology research.
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.
Isaac: I’m Isaac Johnson, CEO and Co-Founder of Verinnogen, we are a life science technology company based in Cambridge. Broadly speaking, our goal is to provide tools for academic and industry researchers to expedite their research by reducing the variability of key measurements. Currently our focus is on pre-clinical oncology – so a hand-held tumour measuring device for pre-clinical cancer studies. This will reduce the need to use manual callipers, which have a high variability rate, and therefore increase reliability of data.
The way we are approaching this problem, and the technology we have developed in our prototype, has never been done before.
We are an early-stage company, pre-revenue and pre-investment having incorporated in March 2021. We have been focused on building the prototype which is showing promising early data. The composition of the team is what excites me a lot in terms of the business potential, we have a great spread of expertise. My Co-Founder is an expert in medical device development while I have an extensive cancer research background. The combination of our two skillsets means that we can approach things from both angles – we can understand the problems faced by cancer researchers and understand how to present a product to address these problems. Our approach to the engineering and the technology behind our product promises the development of something really quite exciting.
We were asked whether the reduction in the use of animal models in cancer trials would impact our potential business and the truth is that while animal models aren’t always great at recapitulating cancer models in humans they still give us a level of confidence before human testing is initiated. A lot of key breakthroughs in the past 10 years have been within the field of immunotherapy and currently it is just not possible to reconstitute an immune system without using animal models. Our product will ultimately reduce the number of animals required; the increased reliability, due to less measurement variability, will reduce the number of animals required to reach statistical significance. Even reducing these by 10-20% will decrease animal use across the country (and the world) significantly.
Isaac: The initial idea for this device came during my post-doc when I was speaking to an old colleague of mine (a biostatistician) and he commented that he could notice, from the variability in these tumour measurements, when people were on holiday or absent. Essentially this is because inter-operator variability of measurement using callipers can be so high that there is a notable difference in the data. From a statistical point of view, he is unable to account for that variability.
That was the point at which I thought something should be done, we are in the 21st century and we are still using a measurement technique that is 60 years old. From recognising the initial problem, I then researched the extent of this issue and it became clear that this is a global problem. It is estimated that there are 36 million tumour measurements made every year just in the US, EU and UK, and when you couple this with variability of up to 27% between calliper operators it is crazy.
So I started thinking about some possible solutions and after submitting an idea to a Post-Doc business plan competition run by Cambridge Enterprise I was assigned a mentor, Dr Mike Irvine. Mike ended up becoming my Co-Founder in the very early stages and although we didn’t win the enterprise competition, we were provided with feedback from which to build from. From then (2019) we have been steadily working on that prototype, generating data, and demonstrating that we are meeting our goals.
Isaac: My initial thought here went to putting myself on board and going into this full time because that was a massive commitment for me to make. I was in a steady position in a Biotech company, so making the decision to leave was challenging. I tried to approach this in a similar way to building a scientific proposal, exploring the groundwork and the implications along with potential pitfalls and my personal and financial responsibilities. The personal support I got from family, friends and colleagues was amazing, which helped a lot. I matched these factors against what I anticipated would be the outcomes, and eventually, after thinking about it for about three months I handed in my notice.
Obviously whenever anyone goes into business there is a risk associated and there is no guarantee of success but just weighing up the positive versus negative attributes really helped me feel confident taking the leap.
At this stage we have no external investment, so we are relying on the accessibility and power of the story behind the business. We are recognising the work people do put in with potential equity, and that is very complex as equity is the major bargaining chip down the road with investment so it’s something you need to get right. But at the moment we haven’t hired anyone, we are benefitting from some really amazing people offering their free time and skills temporarily. When we do come to recruit, from what I understand the thing that can kill start-ups are the hires that don’t work out, so the Co-Founders that leave or BD managers that don’t fit, so we are trying to spend time on getting that right.
Isaac: What has been really fantastic for us on this topic is that essentially our first product is something that I wish I had during my research career. Of course, just that one viewpoint isn’t sufficient to fully understand market fit but it did mean that we had a good initial grasp of the problem and what the pain points are. It also meant that we had the personal contacts within our network to gain more understanding of that market and explore how different areas of the market might experience different pain points.
For example, after these initial discussions we felt that one of the main reasons that callipers have remained the standard method in the field is that they are low cost and really easy to use. This has guided our prototype design.
Isaac: The potential of anything is not just based on the novelty of the idea but rather whether it actually solves the problem it was created for. The challenge at the beginning is that you are trying to navigate a completely untested route and there are many different possibilities, so I think it is important to distil it down to the simplest concept possible based on the problem and then pressure testing it.
There have been other technologies which have previously tried to replace callipers mainly based on imaging methods, things like ultrasound and MRI, but these are very expensive and have a much lower throughput than callipers. There have also been developments in the area of handheld tumour imagers but, again, these are quite significantly more expensive than callipers and have other limitations such as needing to shave the mouse to accurately image the tumour.
So to develop a product with potential we explored all the other available technologies and decided where within that space Verinnogen would lie. We have tried to address these barriers to entry that other companies have experienced into the business and our own product development.
Isaac: We have only just started actively looking to fundraise but from what I have learnt risk management is essential. It is my job to demonstrate how we have mitigated the risk sufficiently so that we are able to specify exactly what we need and how are going to use it. Money that has been offered to us by friends and family has been welcomed, but initially only as a pledge –we started using this money only when we knew exactly how we were going to use it. And this is the blueprint we will use with investment, there are more specifics involved, but essentially, we will differentiate ourselves and our need for their money then demonstrate exactly how that money would be translated into value later down the line.