LONDON – Illumina Inc. has named the first three U.K. genomics startups to be backed by its accelerator program, after expanding the scheme from the San Francisco Bay Area to its European headquarters in Cambridge, U.K.
In addition to seed investment, Illumina will house the three companies on its campus in Cambridge, where they will have access to sequencing machines and can tap into both the business and genomics expertise of 500 staff on the site.
Companies will be resident for six months, by which time they will have strengthened their applications and technology platforms, and should be able to attract growth capital.
Since Illumina began the accelerator program in the U.S. in 2014, the 45 startups it has nurtured have gone on to raise over $400 million in venture capital, after flying the Illumina nest.
“That shows credibility for the program,” said Paula Dowdy, Illumina’s senior vice president and general manager, EMEA. “And it often gives credibility to startups that they’re associated with us,” she told BioWorld.
Illumina puts in around €200,000 (US$225.6 million) of seed funding per company, but does not follow on in later rounds. “For us, it’s predominantly about building a genomics ecosystem,” Dowdy said. “We are never picking something close to our core. They tend to be in therapeutics, or software, and are driving applications that leverage our equipment.”
In addition to being a good way to keep an eye on new markets and products that are based on sequencing data, the process of soliciting startups is a conduit into emerging science and applications of genomics.
The plan to expand the scheme was announced in July 2019. “We put out the word we were looking for startups. Anyone can apply. We’re really thrilled by the quality we got for the first round for Cambridge,” said Dowdy.
The companies joining the accelerator are Alchemab Therapeutics Ltd., which has a novel way of discovering self-protective antibodies; Neurolytic Healthcare Ltd., which is developing genomics-based diagnostics that form the basis of personalized treatments for neurological conditions; and Tailor Bio Ltd., a spin out from the medical charity Cancer Research UK, which is developing a technology platform for identifying tumor DNA to predict responses to cancer drugs.
At the same time, the four new companies will be taking up residence in the Illumina Accelerator in San Francisco.
For Jane Osbourn, chief technology officer of Alchemab, what is “really attractive” about being in the accelerator is having access to Illumina sequencing machines. “That is allowing us to generate a high quantity and high quality of sequence data,” she told BioWorld.
The company is identifying novel targets and therapeutics by finding protective antibody responses in clinical samples from what it calls “resilient patients.”
“These are people who are resilient to disease in an unusual way, for example, long term cancer survivors, or patients who are known to have an inherited disease that does not develop until late in life,” Osbourn said.
Alchemab uses deep learning to interrogate sequence data, looking for patterns of convergent antibodies that are seen in multiple patients who do well. These naturally occurring antibodies could be therapies in their own right, or could be de novo drug targets.
In addition to oncology and neurodegeneration, Alchemab is intending to work in infectious diseases, and as it happens, COVID-19 has turned into an opportunity to test its approach.
After sequencing samples from patients who recovered after being hospitalized with the infection, Alchemab has started to build profiles of their antibody response. From this it has identified five antibodies that are being expressed for testing.
The concept of using DNA sequencing to look across different patient samples to find self-antibodies they have in common was devised by biotech veteran Alex Leech, CEO of Alchemab, who set up the company last November.
Focusing on group, rather than individual antibody response provides a higher likelihood of functional validation from the outset. The partnership with Illumina enables sequencing to a greater sample depth, meaning there is a greater chance of identifying less abundant convergent antibodies.
“We are really reliant on generating large amounts of antibody sequences, so we were talking to Illumina right from the start,” Osbourn said.
Until the end of 2019, Osbourn was chair of the UK BioIndustry Association, and she remains a board member. The accelerator is significant in the context of commercializing genomics research, she said. “I applaud Illumina for bringing the accelerator model to the U.K. and putting it in Cambridge, where there is a nurturing environment for biotech,” said Osbourn.
Dowdy said there are several reasons for choosing to locate the accelerator in Cambridge, but a leading factor is that Illumina has 500 employees there, working in research and bioinformatics, but also commercial, finance and human resources functions.
“You always think about the science value-add, but business functions are also important [to start-ups],” said Dowdy.