Valorization in person
Molecular cell biologist and Principal Investigator Madelon Maurice not only leads her own research group at the UMC but following a breakthrough discovery in her lab she decided to create her own company as well. What issues are encountered when setting up your own start up as a scientist? And what are ways to navigate these? Madelon Maurice shares her views with Oncode.
Oncode Investigator - UMC Utrecht
The creation of Laigo Bio
You founded Laigo Bio following a breakthrough lab discovery. What did this discovery entail?
“Tumours are caused by problematic cell growth or cell division. This is also the case for the type of cancer my team and I study: colorectal cancer. Changes in communication pathways between cells play an important role in this. Cells ‘talk’ to each other by sending protein ‘messages’ that are in turn received by other proteins – also known as receptors that are located at the cell surface. Upon binding these messages, these receptors will become activated and then start to transmit signals to the interior of the cell, for instance to promote cell growth or to import nutrients. In the case of normal cells, these processes are tightly regulated. Cancer cells misuse these communication routes, however, by inappropriate activation of receptors to drive their own growth. A key strategy of current cancer medicine is therefore to treat patients with drugs that block the activity of such problematic receptors at the surface of cancer cells. Despite major successes, not all cancer patients respond to these treatments or develop resistance to these.”
“Our discovery has led to a different approach: we found a way to induce removal of such faulty receptors from the surface of cancer cells. This was made possible by an earlier discovery we did; the detection of a group of enzymatic proteins that can remove a specific set of receptors from the cell surface altogether and induce their disposal.”
So how did the plan to turn your lab discovery into a medicine come about?
“As we learned more about the underlying mechanisms, I started to wonder whether we could perhaps use such enzymes to remove other, faulty proteins from the surface of cancer cells, to stem tumor growth. To our excitement, this strategy worked. Moreover, as these enzymes belong to a larger family of proteins, each member of this family can potentially be used in our approach, which greatly expands possibilities to target tumour cells.”
“Soon after Oncode’s foundation in 2018, I shared my idea with my Oncode business developers Emil Pot and Amber Liu. They showed great enthusiasm for my idea and our discussions encouraged me to generate the first set of results. We filed for patents and started thinking about the best way to generate proof-of-concept; to show in a systematic manner that we could direct the activity of this family of enzymes to degrading other harmful proteins.”
“Also, we started to talk to investors. Through Oncode’s network I got in touch with ArgoBio Studio, a company that invests in promising lab inventions. We partnered and jointly founded biotech Laigo Bio in February this year. All in all, Oncode’s guidance and support has been invaluable along the way, without their help Laigo Bio wouldn’t exist, really. Besides, Oncode’s funding support has been equally crucial to get to this stage.”
“As we learned more about the underlying mechanisms, I started to wonder whether we could perhaps use such enzymes to remove other, faulty proteins from the surface of cancer cells, to stem tumor growth"
Can you explain this a bit more?
“When you have an innovative idea, it can be hard to obtain the necessary funding to pursue it without having experimental evidence. Oncode’s base funding is specifically aimed at such ‘high risk, high gain’ research that is intended for pioneering new directions that are risky but, at the same time, may have a huge impact. With Oncode base funding, I could expand my team and generate the first evidence that supported our idea. Thanks to additional support of Oncode’s Technology Development Fund we further validated the idea, by investing in relevant model systems and materials in the lab. By 2019, we could demonstrate that our idea worked. Currently, we are talking to potential venture capital partners and hope to start a first round of clinical studies in the next few years.”
“Besides these entrepreneurial activities, I benefit from being part of the Oncode network in many other ways. What drives me in my work is to find and pursue novel ideas and work together with other groups to make discoveries. Oncode provides plenty of opportunity to do so, by offering you the chance to meet with equally driven scientists from adjacent fields. For instance, thanks to an encounter at an Oncode meeting, my team and I started to collaborate with molecular biologist and Oncode Investigator Michiel Vermeulen and his team to research the mode of action of a novel anti-cancer drug.”
It can be challenging to be a first timer in the business world. What are some of the issues you currently face?
“It can at times be challenging to navigate between different types of interests of all parties involved. Because everything is so new and lots of activities are started at the same time, it can be hard to gauge the future impact of certain decisions, in terms of what it could mean for yourself and your team. It has been very helpful to talk to people who are already more experienced in such dealings. This is another reason why Oncode’s Business Development Unit can make such a difference to starting scientific entrepreneurs.”
“Another challenge lies in the near future. Right now, I am still very much involved in all aspects of the company, as we need to further develop the science part first. Over time, my part will likely be less prominent, and I will have to delegate more and more. Having been so intensively involved in the process from the start, it may prove difficult to let go of the reins.”
What advice would you give to fellow scientists who aspire to setting up their own start up following a ground-breaking lab discovery, but worry this might be too difficult?
“Creating your own start up can be time consuming and challenging. But these challenges pale next to the prospect that your discovery could one day help cancer patients in a significant way. Moreover, I greatly enjoy the energy and excitement coming from doing something really new. So, if your gut feeling tells you that your discovery could make an important contribution to cancer medicine, and this is something you really would like to contribute to, it is worthwhile to explore the idea.”
“Also, entering the world of business does not need to conflict with the pursuit of your overall scientific goals. For instance, our early-stage discussions with investors challenge us on the science behind our discovery, which adds to the quality of our work and our contribution to the field. More generally, my interactions with third parties like investors or other companies have been quite inspirational, leading to new perspectives and ideas. As such, the activities around my company didn’t so much intervene with, but actually strengthened my scientific profile.”