Building on the online-only format developed over the past two years, the Babraham Investor Conference 2022 (BIC) returned to a full-scale, hybrid event last week after the pandemic transformed how the event is delivered, writes Linzee Kottman.
The BIC, an event for investors focusing on early-stage and scale-up life science and med-tech companies, was held at the Babraham Research Campus for the first time in two years since Covid-19 forced the event online.
After the two-year pandemic hiatus, more than 100 in-person and online guests joined the annual event which is now in its 16th successful year.
Derek Jones, Chief Executive of the Babraham Research Campus, opened the event by thanking the more than 70 people who made it to the Campus despite the additional challenge of rail disruption on the day, and welcomed the 40+ people taking part online. He says he aims to continue accessibility for those unable to attend in-person, maintaining the wider reach achieved online last year through live streaming as well as providing the opportunity to network in-person.
The must-attend event for investors featured an afternoon of rich presentations from a selection of guest speakers and start-up and scale-up companies. It began with a keynote from Sir Harpal Kumar, President of GRAIL Europe, in conversation with Dr Andy Richards.
GRAIL is a healthcare company focused on saving lives and improving health by pioneering new technologies for early cancer detection. With a multi-disciplinary team of scientists, engineers, and physicians, they are using the power of next-generation sequencing, population-scale clinical studies, and state-of-the-art computer science and data science to overcome one of medicine’s greatest challenges.
Sir Harpal, former Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK and Head of Innovation for Johnson & Johnson, has had an extraordinary career and was knighted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for services to cancer research in 2016.
He outlined Galleri™, GRAIL’s simple blood test that can detect over 50 types of cancer, even those at a very early stage, through a single blood draw.
Sharing how the proprietary technology works, potentially before symptoms are present, he said that tumours shed cell-free nucleic acids into the blood, carrying signals specific to cancer. When detected, these signals provide insight into where the cancer is located in the body (for example, the lung or ovary).
He went on to explain how the company is working with the NHS on the largest study of multi-cancer early detection to help the UK meet its goal of diagnosing three-quarters of all cancers at an early stage by 2028. The randomised controlled trial involves 140,000 asymptomatic participants aged 50-77 living across England and, if successful, NHS England will roll it out to a further one million people in 2024 and 2025.
Sir Harpal said: “You will all have had some experience of cancer. Unfortunately, there are common stories of the short timescale from diagnosis to death, weeks in some cases. While we have a cancer screening programme in the UK for breast, bowel, prostate and cervical cancers, we do not have screening programmes for the cancer types which result in four out of five cancer deaths in the UK. Wouldn’t it be great to screen individuals for cancer rather than screen for individual cancers? Many cancers are found too late, as symptoms present, often when they are more advanced and difficult to treat. If we can detect cancer pre-symptomatically, patients might be able to receive effective therapy and we can increase cancer survival rates for more people and improve quality of life.”
There followed a host of questions from the audience about the science and other applications for the technology. Sir Harpal expressed GRAIL’s commitment to changing the status quo of the current approach for screening and diagnosing cancer and that they are starting to “plan for a new world which has a ground-breaking, large-scale, population screening programme that has the potential to fundamentally transform early cancer detection and save lives”.
Sir Harpal concluded by saying: “We need to change healthcare. We need to change the way care is delivered. We need to change cancer. It’s not that far away, it’s on the horizon.”
The inspirational opening session was followed by equally inspiring presentations from companies such as Kalium Health, Somaserve, Phaim Pharma and PharmEnable, which included details of their scientific progress, future goals and investment opportunities.
From commercialisation and licencing strategies, to strategic team hires and seed funding round announcements, the level of growth and innovation of these scale-up companies was palpable.
Theodora Harold, CEO of Crescendo Biologics, a clinical stage immuno-oncology company, then took to the stage to talk about the journey from a Babraham Institute spin-out. Crescendo now has platform validation from major partnerships to the tune of $2 billion dollars in potential milestones and royalties, as well as a proprietary pipeline of conditionally-activated, T cell enhancing bispecifics.
Theo said: “We have been supported by the Babraham Institute and the Babraham Research Campus in so many ways; a PHD research agreement, the great shared facilities, biotech-friendly leases for labs, and our Head of Discovery came from the Institute. We are building a world-class biotech company and are grateful to Babraham for supporting us throughout our journey.”
The latest cohort of life science start-ups to complete the 2021/22 cycle of Accelerate at Babraham, the Babraham Research Campus’ bio-incubator, then had the opportunity to share their successes, new partnerships, and pitch for funding.
CamRegen, Creasalis, Medusa Pharma and Neobe Therapeutics, confidently presented their work and spoke of the support they had received from the Campus, external mentors, and companies based on site.
Derek said: “They may have had the added pressure of a pandemic throughout the five-month programme but all made great strides to develop their business propositions, which in turn promises to change patient outcomes.”
"all made great strides"
The conference ended with an uplifting virtual appearance from Dr Anne Dobrée, Director of Programming at Cambridge Enterprise, who launched a new programme called ‘Cambridge Unlocked’ which allows students access and experience within the Cambridge Cluster who wouldn’t otherwise get it.
Anne said: “Cambridge is one of the most unequal cities in the UK, and there are many students who don’t have connections or opportunities and we would like to help them to access these.
“Through Form the Future, schools will nominate specific individuals, who, because of their life circumstances, don’t have links within the Cambridge Cluster. We’ll introduce them to portfolio companies for work experience.
“We hope that a week’s work experience will inspire students and let them see what goes on in the wider cluster, giving them that first vital connection in the Cluster so, in the future, they will have someone to go to for advice and next steps. If this pilot goes well, we’ll be running further weeks throughout the year. It would be great to have everyone involved.”
Cambridge Unlocked is actively recruiting companies to host a sixth-former for a week’s paid work experience at the start of the summer holidays. The companies will pay £500 to support the student.
If you would like host a sixth-form student at your company, email firstname.lastname@example.org
BIC is generously supported by sponsors, Handelsbanken and Taylor Vinters.