Knook #44: Helico Bio
Biopharmaceuticals is a massive global industry. And while the primary focus tends to be on drug discovery and development, one Auckland company is on the cutting edge of the industry, looking to generate compounds that are useful for drug development by turning plants into factories.
Helico Bio co-founder and CEO Ilya Vensky says, “Soil and sunshine provide nutrients for plants, and plants store them for many purposes, in a process called bioaccumulation. This all happens naturally, but what we’re trying to do is program plants to do this on request - we call this ‘biopharming’.”
At present, most of the research devoted to synthetic biology is focused on drug discovery and development, and how human cells interact and react to synthetic compounds or drugs. The area Helico Bio is interested in is the processing of complex molecules. Through creating a factory within plant DNA, those complex molecules within a plant structure can be reprocessed into molecules that are useful for humans.
“Plants are a workhorse - they’re extremely efficient in the way they carry out their processes - but it’s extremely complex to tweak those processes. Process design takes a long time, even for well known compounds like insulin. The current insulin production process is inefficient, and we’re hoping to change that through being able to grow insulin.
“The process of finding the right structures and areas to focus on is extremely challenging, especially given the sheer volume of experiments you have to carry out to make progress. To help with this, we’ve developed machine learning and artificial intelligence technology to help us accelerate lab research, identify the most promising areas to work on and improve our odds of success.”
I asked Ilya how Helico Bio got started.
“It started with one of our co-founders, Wayman, who was still at university. We knew each other and were thinking about what research might be useful to commercialise. His first idea was looking at genetically modified worms that could live in our bodies and secrete compounds you’d ordinarily have to take by a pill. Given my marketing background, I knew what he was getting at, but it was a hard sell to customers that this was a good idea. And then he said ‘I’m thinking about doing something similar with plants’ and we decided that would be more practical both in terms of development and commercialisation, and so he decided that that’s where he would focus his PhD.
“This was a bit of a weekend hobby for me for about 2 years. Wayman chose a difficult molecule to start working on, one that is essential for hepatitis B and HIV treatment. He started running some field tests and got 60% commercial yield out of these plants he was working on - which is a really good result.
“And at this point, we thought pursuing this was worth a shot. We had an angel investor who gave us a blank cheque to start taking it a bit more seriously and working on it full time.
“We spent 6 months unpacking how it could be done, using computer verification to cut down on which experiments were worth focusing on. Wayman had built his own machine learning algorithms through third party platforms to model experiments, and then focus his lab time on the best results.
“Because they were third party platforms, we couldn’t use it as proprietary technology, but I started thinking the key tech we’re developing should be the machine learning tech, and expand the team to help focusing on that side of things.
“We met with two potential candidates to help us build the machine learning aspect of the business but we accidentally booked the interviews at the same time at the same place. All four of us ended up having a massive conversation and Wayman and I decided to bring both of the candidates on board as co-founders.
“And that’s how we got four co-founders. Over time our plan has evolved but the end goal is the same.
“We’re not planning to grow plants ourselves but provide the knowledge for production. We’re focused on the most needed off patent compound - insulin. Novel insulin has better resistance to heat, can be grown in a plant of choice and extracted easily - allowing a more efficient production of insulin. This has all sorts of implications for the future, especially as the prospect of regular space travel is coming closer.”
I asked Ilya what the key focuses were for Helico Bio in taking this product to market.
Says Ilya, “Our first focus is on drug manufacturers. There’s essentially four companies operating in this space in a sort of uber-monopoly.
“Pharmaceuticals are produced in factories around the world, and if Covid has shown us anything, it’s exposed the fragility of global supply chains. Some countries have pharmaceutical dominance - what happens if those countries decide to stop providing pharmaceuticals to global customers? Our technology will allow more efficient production of the drug we most need without needing to rely on a handful of big producers.
“Secondly, we want to support poorer economies where efficient supply of drugs is a challenge.
“And thirdly, we can help with small batch productions for drug discovery. Because we can use machine learning and AI modelling to cut down on the amount of research, it makes it easier to know where to work with new drug development. This brings down the cost, makes tests free to design and easier to scale - narrowing the areas that could work will help develop new drugs we need.”
I asked Ilya what advice he’d give to someone starting their own big idea.
“Something I’ve learnt across my various ventures is very often the idea and the business structure runs ahead of the product development. It’s easy to sell but hard to deliver. So while we’ve had 40 investors knock on our door, we’ve said no because we need to have our product ready to go before we bring on investors.
“You need the right type of investors onboard. With the success of SaaS (Software as a Service), some investors are after an immediate return. For deep technology, we look to at least a five year horizon before the return might be realised - so you need investors that aren’t just focused on a return.
“If you get that right, raising money stops being about cash flow and becomes about the skills and connections you can bring to your company.
“This is part of the great value of Outset Ventures. Firstly the network of businesses is amazing, to hear what people are working on, be inspired and share ideas. But secondly, access to an investment fund that understands deep technology, the time it takes to build a company in this space, and not expecting immediate returns is so valuable for the future of deep tech development in New Zealand.”
Finally I ask where to next for HelicoBio.
“We’re tackling the insulin monopoly! Our focus for now is getting our next set of patents after our first commercial yield, before turning our attention to driving growth through sales.
“But in the long term, the applications for this technology are far-reaching. When looking at things like space travel, it’s much easier to carry seeds programmed to grow things like insulin than it is to take enough pills to ensure ongoing supply of much needed compounds. And being part of that journey to help humanity progress is pretty exciting.”
For more info, visit: https://www.helico.bio/
This interview was published in partnership with Outset Ventures, New Zealand's home of deep technology, championing deep technology founders, providing investment, facilities, and support for technology on the forefront of new industries to thrive. outset.ventures