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ACES alumni show entrepreneurial savvy

In the five years since it was established, 60 start-ups have made the final of the Science|Business Academic Enterprise Awards. The progress of these alumni throws a spotlight on the effort and dedication needed to make a commercial success of a university spin-out

Victor Henning, Mendeley
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A year can be a long time in the life of a technology start-up. The growing pool of ACES finalists made progress over the past 12 months, driving their products toward the market despite tight capital and challenging economic conditions – with some major announcements along the way. 

Most notably, Mendeley, winner of the ACES Microsoft Award for ICT in 2012, was sold for around £45 million. In another trade sale, Psynova Neurotech, a winner in 2011, became a part of the US genomics company, Myriad Genetics.

A number of ACES winners and finalists began the vital transition from development to manufacturing and market testing. Clariton, the Hungarian start-up whose CEO and founder, Tamas Haidegger won the 2012 ACES award for young entrepreneurs, began manufacturing design work on its hand washing system, which is intended to limit the spread of infections in hospitals. 

On a larger scale, GridON, winner of the GE Smart Grid Award in 2011, installed and commissioned a new fault current limiter, a safety switch for electricity grids, at the UK Power Networks in Newhaven.

Bringing ideas to the market needs a different approach in the medical sector, where clinical trials are an essential part of the innovation process. Stem cell specialist Cell2B, an ACES finalist from 2012, spent the year preparing for the ground for a clinical study of its novel treatment for immune and inflammatory diseases.

See the brand live and grow

The biggest advance by any ACES alumnus - in financial terms at least - was Reed Elsevier’s £45 million acquisition of Mendeley. The sale came four years after Paul Föckler, Victor Henning and Jan Reichelt from the Bauhaus-University of Weimar set up Mendeley, offering a platform for individual scientists to manage the mountains of journal papers that are every researcher’s lifeblood. As a leading publisher of scientific journals, its new owner is the source of many of the papers that Mendeley set out to organise.

Henning told Science|Business that all three founders are staying on at Mendeley. “Our goal is to use Elsevier’s global reach, content, data, and platforms to take Mendeley to the next level. Our vision is still the same – to make research more open and collaborative,” he said, adding that all three founders are still passionate about their idea. “When you’ve spent five years building a vibrant community and well-respected brand like Mendeley, you want to see it live on and grow. It's a fantastic challenge.”

Another ACES company to receive the validation of being absorbed into a larger business was Psynova Neurotech, a Cambridge University spinout that set out to improve the diagnosis of psychiatric illnesses. In 2012, it launched the first product VeriPsych, the first blood test for diagnosing schizophrenia. The company was acquired by its US partner Rules-Based Medicine, which itself was acquired by Myriad Genetics in April 2011. 

Moving from concept to product

Start-ups sometimes stumble when they move from the concept to product, especially when they have to come up with a design that can be manufactured at scale. Clariton spent the year gearing up to manufacture the hardware for Hand-in-Scan, a portable ultraviolet scanner that combines ‘tagged’ soap with digital image processing to highlight disinfected versus unclean areas after regular hand washing. 

The aim is to reduce the transmission so called ‘Healthcare-Associated Infections’ which cause around 250,000 deaths every year. The system takes just a few seconds, without interfering with a clinician’s routine, providing real-time feedback and teaching staff how to wash their hands more effectively. 

Hand-in-Scan had to be designed for a hectic hospital environment, and be robust enough to withstand treatment such as people putting their coffee mugs on it, Haidegger explains. When it comes to manufacturing, it is important to ensure the product remains effective in its intended setting – and that goes beyond looks, says Haidegger. 

Spreading the word

Broadening awareness of the potential of their products and technologies is a key task for all ACES winners. In May 2013, Clariton teamed up with the National University Hospital in Singapore to carry out their hand hygiene education and assessment exercise, organised in conjunction with WHO’s World Hand Hygiene Day. 

Another ACES finalist, Cell2B CEO and co-founder Daniela Couto, spoke frequently on TV about the company and the potential of cell therapies, over the past year. Set up at the beginning of 2011 as a spinout from the Technical University of Lisbon in Portugal, Cell2B is working on treatments to prevent and treat organ rejection in patients undergoing organ or tissue transplants, and is seeking to raise €7 million for the first phase of clinical trials. 

“The publicity has helped us attract investment in Europe,” said Couto. Because of the cost of conducting clinical trials for new medical therapies, Cell2B has to raise more money than business in other sectors to get products to the market. 

Last year the company also secured Advanced Therapy Medicinal Product (ATMP) status for its lead product ImmuneSafe, from the Committee for Advanced Therapies at the European Medicines Agency. This step along the regulatory route came after an earlier decision to classify ImmuneSafe as an Orphan Drug, a designation which provides special incentives to medicines intended for use against rare conditions. 

These moves are also important in the company’s fund raising. “We not only clarified the pathway for regulatory approval, but also reduced the perceived risk in developing ImmuneSafe,” says Couto. “ATMP classification clarifies the pathway for approval. Orphan designation brings advantages such as 10 years of market exclusivity in the European market, tax incentives, and reduction of the regulatory fees and expenses during clinical development.” If all goes to plan, Cell2B could receive regulatory approval in 2017.

Persuading customers

GridON has been running trials of a different kind, to convince large electricity companies that its fault-current limiter (FCL) will work in a high-voltage electricity transmission and distribution grid. This is one of the company’s main achievements over the past year. “It was tested extensively and in extreme conditions by an external high power test lab before delivering onsite,” Yoram Valent, GridON’s founder and CEO, told Science|Business. 

GridON’s FCL is based on research in the physics of electro-magnetism at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. In essence, it is a large switch that stops electricity networks shutting down when a power surge hits the system. It can keep the electricity flowing after lightning strikes, if a pylon falls over, or something else sends an electric shock through the system. 

The technology could be an important element in the move to generate more electricity from alternative energy sources such as wind or solar energy, since the variable power output from these sources makes surges more likely.

GridON made the news this year when, with its business partner, the Wilson Transformer Company of Australia, it installed an FCL in Newhaven in the UK. This is GridON’s first commercial product, with the UK Energy Technologies Institute putting in £5 million to fund the development and demonstration project. 

“The UK installation is strong proof of our product’s viability,” says Valent. “It shows the value of our FCL in a typical substation and proves the maturity of our product and its commercial readiness.  As a young start-up, we couldn’t ask for a better setting for our first product.”

Following on from this, in June 2013 GridON won the UK Energy Innovation Award for Best Energy Network Improvement. It is all good publicity as the business gears up its marketing activities. “We are currently focused on new customer opportunities,” Valent says. The company is also working on new concepts and technological improvements. “We submitted 10 patents so far, and a few have already been granted.”

Report: Inside the Mind of European Academic Entrepreneurs: Perceptions of ACES finalists about the process of science entrepreneurship

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