Igniting biotech at KAUST

Speakers discuss biotech startup issues during the University's first bio-entrepreneurship ideation workshop, held recently on campus. File photo.

Martin Ibarra and Michael Margineanu are two KAUST Ph.D. students with a deep interest in the translational opportunities of bioscience research. Working with KAUST Innovation and Economic Development (I&ED), the pair designed Ignite Bio, the University's first bio-entrepreneurship ideation workshop for Biological and Environmental Science and Engineering (BESE) students and postdoctoral fellows, held on campus on April 28.

For Margineanu, a Ph.D. student in the field of neurobiology, the objective was to help young researchers take a step away from the lab bench and start thinking about what impact their research could have in the world.

"We wanted to ignite their interest in founding a biotech startup and provide them with strategies to identify real-world problems that they could solve with their scientific knowledge," Margineanu said.

KAUST Ph.D. students Martin Ibarra (left) and Michael Margineanu designed Ignite Bio, the University’s first bio-entrepreneurship ideation workshop, held on April 28 on campus. File photo.

The biotech startup journey

The journey from bioscience research to a biotech startup can be a long one. Commercializing university research generally starts with years in the lab, air-tight intellectual property and then a long spin-out into the world of venture capital and investment. To understand this journey, speakers from Noor Diagnostics and Discovery (Noor Dx), Cellestia BioTech, Kyanos Biotechnology and SaudiVax shared their experiences about the different stages of the startup journey.

Dr. Rajwinder Lehal, a cancer researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne (EPFL), successfully co-founded Cellestia BioTech, a bio-pharmaceutical company with a focus on anti-cancer drugs. Currently in clinical trials and finalizing a series A funding round, Lehal had some words of advice and encouragement to researchers looking down the entrepreneurship path.

"I wanted to make a difference and go beyond laboratory research to do something on my own and become an entrepreneur," he said.

Cancer researcher Dr. Rajwinder Lehal speaks on KAUST campus. File photo.

Highlighting the journey in the Kingdom were three Saudi-based startups with very different stories. Central to all three was a clearly identified need specific to the Kingdom.

For NoorDx and SaudiVax, there is a critical need and clear business opportunity to provide services and products not currently available in the country. NoorDx will offer the first advanced genetic diagnostic testing laboratory, with an aim to provide precision medicine capabilities for the Middle East. SaudiVax is scaling-up to open a facility at KAUST that will produce vaccines and other halal-based pharmaceutical products. For Kyanos BioTechnology, the idea was born out of the region itself, with the Red Sea providing the key ingredient, micro algae. Kyanos BioTechnology intend to leverage this unique ingredient in the production of commercial anti-ageing skincare biomass.

Unlocking big ideas

Bringing ideation to life and providing students and postdoctoral fellows with the tools to unlock their biotech ideas was at the heart of the workshop. In a sprint ideation session, participants were divided into groups focused on agricultural biotech, biomaterials, precision medicine, biologicals and microbial technologies, with the goal of identifying a clear problem and solution.

Cancer researcher Dr. Rajwinder Lehal discusses ideas with a group of KAUST students during Ignite Bio, the recent on campus bio-entrepreneurship ideation workshop. File photo.

For Ibarra, a Ph.D. student in metagenomics, the ideation sessions were essential to helping researchers come up with ideas for projects that go beyond the lab.

"The ideation session gives researchers a taste of the innovative thinking process for a startup. This is very different from the research that we are doing. When setting up a startup, you need to find out the real-world problems and how the scientific knowledge that you already have can solve those issues," Ibarra noted.

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