Start-up Stories | 19/07/2021

Spinouts, scientific synergies and old friends

Spinout company Stroma Biosciences, co-founded by Cambridge Stem Cell Institute and Department of Haematology PI Dr Ingo Ringshausen and post-doc Dr Eugene Park, was one of four start-up companies taking part in the 2020/21 Accelerate@Babraham initiative.

Above: The event took place in The Cambridge Building at the Babraham Research Campus.

Stroma Biosciences secured five-months’ access to Accelerate@Babraham’s bio-incubator programme, including use of communal equipped laboratory space and flexible workspaces. The company also received £10,000 of funding and personal mentoring.

As this year’s programme comes to an end, we caught up with Eugene and Ingo and their personal mentor Neil Torbett from PhoreMost to discuss the tangible value of mentoring and their serendipitous partnership.

If you're going to San Francisco

“I first met Ingo almost 20 years ago in San Francisco when we were both at the cancer centre there as post docs, so we’ve known each other for a long time and there’s a connection in our work,” says PhoreMost Chief Operating Officer, Neil Torbett.

“I’m a cancer biologist by training, so when I was introduced to the work that Ingo and Eugene are doing with Stroma, I felt a natural synergy between their expertise and my background, and potentially to the work at PhoreMost.”

Dr Ingo Ringshausen says his background is “a bit different”: “I’m a medic and I had my first real science experience in San Francisco when I met Neil. But I like collaborations and, particularly if you can do it with a friend, you are so much stronger if you combine things rather than trying to invent everything by yourself. I’m an oncologist and a very optimistic person, and I like to think that if we all work together then it’s almost certain that something will come out of this”.

He continues: “From my academic perspective, Cambridge is a great place. San Francisco and Munich are very good places too but Cambridge is incredible and has amazing people; there is so much knowledge and eagerness. And that’s the spirit of Accelerate@Babraham, getting you plugged into that network”.

A whole new paradigm of doing drug discovery

Stroma Biosciences is based on research from the Ringshausen Lab looking at the tumour micro-environment and the development of therapeutics targeting stroma-intrinsic mechanisms responsible for environment-mediated drug resistance and immune modulation in cancer and autoimmune disorders.

Neil says: “Therapeutic targets is a specialism that I have worked in for quite some time and this is what Stroma is engaging with. They are working on multiple targets that could be used in lymphoma and, within that, they have a deep interest in one particular target class - the protein kinases. It’s a very fascinating and complex area. The target validation data that they have with this particular target could be really transformative for the therapeutic indication if they come up with the right therapeutic strategy.

“Eugene and I discussed the idea that you could even think about the emerging modalities that PhoreMost is working on, and this is a whole new paradigm of doing drug discovery. I certainly see that as an area we could potentially collaborate on in the future.”

Neil adds that he will remain available to Stroma in an informal, advisory capacity: “I’m always here to continue on the conversation. The whole point of Accelerate@Babraham is that it starts off as a burst of interaction but it doesn’t stop when the programme stops”.

Hot off the press

Dr Eugene Park says he’s very grateful to have Neil as a mentor: “Neil has been generous with his time, helping us think through all the models we should be considering and prioritising our key milestones to get to the next stage. So, it’s all been part of the growing process for us, and we are very thankful. It’s been especially useful to work with Neil because of the serendipitous links with Ingo, and his experience coming from academia and moving on to successful start-ups.

Right: Stroma are finalising terms with Start Codon, and all being well will start with lab space there.

“We’ve had wide-ranging discussions with Neil about how we can take Stroma forward, in conjunction with his past experience with a protein that we‘ve considered targeting. He’s improved our understanding of the nuances of previous programmes attempting to inhibit this target, where potential pitfalls may be and how we could try to mitigate against those.”

Stroma’s very latest news is that they are finalising terms with Start Codon, and all being well will start with lab space there for the next uptake of cohort companies. “We are really looking forward to settling in and progressing our business plan,” says Eugene, “we’ll then be able to make some material progress and begin reaching out to potential collaborators to further work on this unique aspect of biology and develop solutions that can progress to the clinic. This would never have happened as fast if we had not been part of Accelerate@Babraham”.

He adds: “We can’t thank everyone enough. We really appreciate the entirety of what Accelerate@Babraham is and all the effort involved – thank you to anyone who has played even just a small part. You have paved the way and smoothed the path for us to follow”.

Bridging the gap between academia and commercial biotech

Neil feels that Accelerate@Babraham brings fresh ideas and new entrepreneurial drive: “The initiative builds on the excitement within the Cambridge Cluster. Biotech in Cambridge is almost like a world in itself, and the Babraham Research Campus is, in a sense, one of the centres of those worlds. It’s great because all of the small, thriving companies here sit alongside the Babraham Institute, with its academic links. Sometimes fledgling companies don’t have the in-roads into the academic or biotech community, and that’s what the accelerator provides, that bridge.”

He adds that PhoreMost takes prides in being part of that network: “We are outwardly collaborative; last year we even incubated one of the Accelerate@Babraham companies, ShiftBio, in our own labs for a short time.”

Eugene agrees: “It’s really unique in Cambridge because it’s highly specialised and world-leading in a lot of aspects of biotechnology and yet it’s still somewhat like a global village - you can just dart across the town to meet, or have a quick Zoom call, because everybody is really open to chat. Neil embodies this in really wanting to share his time and in speaking with a variety of young enterprises like those taking part in Accelerate@Babraham. That is somewhat unique to Cambridge.”

“Cambridge is like a global village"

Ingo adds that the challenge is in finding the right people: “Most people are really nice and want to collaborate and help, but the trick is to identify people. Accelerate@Babraham is perfect for that because Karolina (Zapadka) can identify who to talk to and they are happy to speak with us and offer their experience and really give back.”