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Nominee Q&A - Newcells Biotech

Newcells Biotech is revolutionising the drug development process by using innovative stem cell technology to create realistic models of human organs and tissue. These allow for greater accuracy when predicting the behavior of new drugs during preliminary testing. Mike Nicholds, CEO of Newcells Biotech, speaks to UMi about the company’s journey from a two-man, start-up to an international pharmacology supplier.

Tell us a bit about your business? When and why was it established, what does it offer and to whom?

Newcells Biotech started in 2015 after the founders, a professor of stem cell biology and an executive who had worked in the life sciences field, developed the idea of using human stem cells to build better models to improve early-stage drug development. Between them, they recognised that by providing a scalable supply of human mini-tissues that better mimic organs of the body, they could help reduce the low success rate of new drugs when they are first tested in humans. The company now offers unique models of kidney, retina, liver and lung to pharmaceutical and biotech customers in the USA, UK, Europe and Japan.

How has the company developed?

From day one, we adopted a lean start-up model by renting space within the founders' university labs and using the high-end equipment and facilities already available for stem cell culture. This existing infrastructure early on enabled the company to provide services to our customers and gain initial market engagement. Based on customer feedback, we evolved the business strategy from offering simple cell types to complex 3-D models enabled us to move up the value chain and provide customers important pre-clinical data. Newcells Biotech has since grown to employ more than 25 people working in dedicated laboratories within The Biosphere in Newcastle. Over the next two years we plan to double our headcount and expand into the USA.

What is the ethos behind the company?

From the outset, we knew that the biotechnology industry has a low success rate translating drugs from the laboratory to the clinic. An average of only one in 10 drugs that enter first in human trials are launched. One of the key reasons for this is that the data used to predict how a drug will behave in humans comes from tests carried out in animals and cell lines. These are not always good models of human physiology. We set out with the idea of putting the ‘best biology’ into innovative assays and generating robust application data to show that they were truly predictive.

What’s the business’s USP?

Our combination of stem cell technology and building cell-based assays in 3D allows us to produce mini-tissues that can give better predictive data.

What investment have you sourced for the business and how has this helped you to go further?

With the completion of our £5.25m investment in January 2021, we have now secured over £10m in dilutive funding (where the funder received equity or ownership in the company) and non-dilutive funding (where the funder does receive equity or ownership) since we started in 2015. The non-dilutive funding came in the form of public development contracts to develop our retina and liver platforms and were sponsored by major pharmaceutical companies. These contracts were particularly important as they gave us access to end-user expertise that guided the development of our technology, ensuring they were market relevant. Private equity investment gave us the resources to scale the business and drive forward both the technological and commercial development.

What the most important thing to remember when applying for funding/investment?

Be clear on how you will generate sustainable value for your customers and investors and know what type of investor you want.

Can you give us an example of an impactful collaboration your business has been involved in? Why has it been a success?

We worked with the global pharmaceutical company Takeda to test the ability of our proprietary kidney assay (aProximate) to predict drug toxicity in the kidney. The data from this joint study was analysed by Takeda and was jointly published with Newcells Biotech to show that our assay had an unrivalled ability to accurately predict the nephrotoxicity of drugs. This study was important in raising the profile of our technology, particularly as it was independently peer-reviewed and so quickly gained the confidence of new customers.

Go Further celebrates organisations with the ‘foresight to inform and respond to the changing world around them. How does your organisation fulfil this?

Responding to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the great challenges for society and business. Newcells Biotech recognised that it could contribute to the global fight by leveraging its model of the lung. We quickly established a partnership with one of the UK’s leading infection disease centres, the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, to confirm that our model of the upper respiratory tract could be infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus and support replication.

What has been your company’s greatest achievement?

Building a young dynamic team that has repeatedly demonstrated that they can deliver quality data to our pharmaceutical and biotech customers to help them in bringing innovative drugs to market.

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