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Investing in innovation: why UCB Ventures backs cutting-edge science

Picture of Erica Whittaker, UCB Ventures
Posted by
Erica Whittaker, UCB Ventures
 The pace of innovation in biopharma is accelerating dramatically. Over the past few years, there have been big leaps forward in areas such as gene and cell therapy, where decades of science are beginning to translate into new medicines. There is more to come – offering fresh hope for innovative therapies that will improve the lives of patients.

These innovations begin with a bright idea, often in a university lab or in the offices of a biopharma start-up. For UCB, supporting an ecosystem in which some of these sparks of ingenuity can become the therapies of tomorrow is important. It is also vital that, as a company focused on small molecules and antibodies, we remain plugged into innovation and disruptive technologies.

That is why UCB Ventures was launched in 2017. Our task is to explore some of the most exciting advances in science and technology, and to offer investment and expertise to those we believe show the most promise.


                                                                 The UCB Ventures' team

For early stage companies, venture capital is essential to validating their scientific ideas and developing their commercial potential. Without this support, the fruit of scientific endeavour would wither on the vine.

In return for backing start-ups at a time of high risk and uncertainty, venture funds typically receive equity in a company and can take a role on the company’s Board of Directors. In practice, this means that venture funds bring more than investment, they bring experience – a vital ingredient for science-based companies where commercial knowhow may be limited.

There are two key factors we look for when deciding whether to offer support. First, it’s about the quality of the science. It’s important that the company has validated their ideas in some way – perhaps in cells or animal models – and that it has real novelty. We want to see concrete evidence that their work has the potential to make a significant impact for patients in an area of unmet need.

Secondly, it’s about people. When UCB Ventures makes an investment, it marks the beginning of a long-term commitment. A close relationship between our team and the young company is essential for its chances of success. Young companies are typically driven by people passionate about getting their technology to patients. When this is matched with a willingness to take advice from experienced professionals, there is real potential to forge a partnership.

Partnership is essential too in our work with other venture funds. When we decide to support a company, it is usually in the context of an investment syndicate – a group of like-minded investors keen to roll up their sleeves and help a start-up achieve its goals.

These syndicates not only help to spread the risk, their diversity can bring real value to the table. For example, some venture funds have deep expertise in drug development, while others come with vast commercial experience or knowledge of technologies from beyond the health sphere. 

To date, we have invested in three companies – all in areas considered the most disruptive in biopharma. In StrideBio, we are working with a biotech company at the leading edge of next generation gene therapy. They are trying to figure out a way to improve tissue specificity, while evading the immune system, making gene therapy more effective and accessible.

At end of last month we announced our investment in  Rinri Therapeutics, a company spun out of Sheffield University. Their innovative stem cell research seeks to reverse neuropathic sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL). This form of hearing loss affects millions of people around the world, often having a negative impact on their quality of life. It results from damage to hair cells or auditory neurons in the inner ear, both of which are currently irreversible.

In May we also announced investment in Locana, a US-based start up working on RNA editing technologies that could offer new therapeutic options for people with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or motor neurone disease) – an area of considerable unmet need.

In all three cases, we are helping to catalyse innovation that has real potential. While we offer funding and expertise, we also bring a degree of patience to the equation. UCB has, in its 90-year history, a strong pedigree in investing for the future and looking beyond short-term gains. This has served the company – and patients – well, and we are pleased that UCB Ventures offers a new way for us to back a new generation of innovations.

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Posted by Gene Petrella, 19 June 2019

Nice piece, Erica. Glad to see the UCB Ventures Group is off to a good start. Gene Yeo's RNA editing (Locana) is exciting. The hope is that, like CRISPR and other gene editing technologies, they will get over the delivery hurdle. Best, Gene