Tell us about Iceni Diagnostics
We’re a platform based on carbohydrate chemistry in the broadest sense. Most of our focus now is in diagnostics, but we have activities relating to carbohydrate-based vaccines to use as an alternative to antibiotics, for instance. We originally spun out from the John Innes Centre and University of East Anglia in 2014 and I also run an academic group at University of Manchester, so that connects us with both blue skies discovery and a more pragmatic route to market activities.
How did the pandemic change your direction?
Our initial gambit was influenza detection, but for a very small company just starting out this market is a big, established and brutal place. So we looked at avian flu for a niche, but opportunities are limited as UK government policy is to slaughter any birds near a single positive test.
So we then looked at equine influenza for the horse racing industry as there are huge amounts of money to be made in both racing and studding if your horses are fit. But when COVID-19 swept through we realised quickly that SARS-CoV-2 is in fact a sugar binder – like influenza – so we’ve pivoted our work and followed on busily while looking for investment.
Everyone is aware of the challenges of diagnosis of COVID, whether you’re waiting around for a PCR test result to come back or whether you’re concerned about the reliability of the lateral flow tests, and so we jumped into that market and achieved significant investment, which has allowed us to focus on that activity.
We’ve had initial devices manufactured – several thousand – to allow us to start to do proper testing with clinical samples, so that’s where we are at the moment.
What were the challenges of pivoting your focus?
As with any noxious viral infection, accessing samples in a form where you can do routine R&D is tough. It’s only in the last three or four months that we’ve started to get access to the COVID-19 samples needed for detailed studies to get sensitivity and specificity data. Stakeholder management in identifying what assay format works for whom has also been a challenge.
We’re now at the late stages of development and will be looking at analytical and clinical validation over the course of the coming few months, so that we’re in a position to go out to market. Coronavirus has been an interesting one. It’s come from nowhere and the scale of it is astronomical – an SME working on equine influenza might have been looking at a few hundred thousand devices a year, and it is now half a million devices a week. The big challenge here is the supply chains – it forces us to go way beyond what an academic spin out is comfortable with into real commerce.
What else have you learned from this experience?
How resilient and committed our team are. This has all gone on against the backdrop of operating labs and offices with social distancing etc. It’s forced us as a company to have a hard look at who is where when they are working, and what works for whom. Not everybody needs to be in the same place at the same time which has been an opportunity, because we can occupy less space which has a profound impact on the economics of the business.
Also having worked in an area where everyone in the public is keeping an eye on it there is a lot more attention from the media. They always want you to say things that project you are further along than where you are for the good news story. Social media has also changed our business and our recruitment – we’ve had to look at the age profile of our business and bring in people who are more savvy about it. Marketing for a small company is absolutely critical.
Do you have any advice for other businesses changing focus?
Networking and the connectivity is key. We are entering difficult times with Innovate UK for funding, and I think people will need to be more adaptable about where they get their resources from – whether that’s crowdfunding or investment from the US. Also in our area the whole One World Health approach is important as there is often no distinction between veterinary science and medicine when it comes to infectious diseases. Being able to play in both areas is so important.
Has RSC EnterprisePlus helped you?
We hope to take on apprentices as we go forward, when workloads become less intense, and we’ve also been involved through the RSC in pitches to the UK Business Angels Association, which has been invaluable connectivity. Just being able to interact with other small companies has taught us as much as the investors themselves.
It’s really important that academics and industry recognise the importance of the RSC when it comes to brokering relationships and translational science. Academia is too much about academic publications and I think you’re a seeker really helping find career paths for individuals – we should all focus on that as everybody needs a job at the end of the day.
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