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report Life Sciences

“The first steps are slow and then suddenly things start rolling”

02.12.2019

After more than 25 years in the pharma business, Andreas Katopodis founded the biotech company Anaveon together with Professor Onur Boyman. In 2019, the startup raised 35 million CHF and will shortly complete the establishment of its new laboratory as the company progresses its products towards clinical development. With a lot of optimistic realism, Andreas takes stock.

BaselArea.swiss: Andreas, how is the startup going?

Andreas Katopodis: The labs finally look like labs, and if everything goes well, we should be conducting experiments by December.

You were director of the transplantation team at Novartis for a long time. Now you are CEO of a startup developing IL-2 complexes to treat cancer. How did that journey start?

I am a molecular biologist by training but have always been fascinated by immunology. When I started working, Cyclosporine had been in the market for some years, which enabled solid organ transplantation and significantly extended patient life expectancy. This was fantastic! At Novartis, I was responsible for identifying new targets for autoimmune diseases, while also working to achieve transplantation tolerance. Immunological tolerance makes it possible to receive and keep an organ without the need for continuous medication throughout a patient’s life. The opposite of tolerance is rejection. These types of biological pathways are relevant to rejecting a tumor. So we were thinking how we could use our expertise in transplantation tolerance to reject tumors instead. We got together with Onur Boyman from the University of Zurich whose research is focused on cytokines and their role in the regulation of immunity.

Please talk us through the science behind it.

The immune system has both effector and tolerance mechanisms. The effectors prime immunity against anything the body sees as foreign – be it viruses, bacteria or a kidney from another person. An acceptance mechanism on the other hand passivates the immune response. It is Yin and Yang: every action leads to an opposite reaction that keeps the system in balance. The research on IL-2 undertaken in Onur’s lab resulted in antibodies which could modulate effector mechanisms. We then used Novartis’ expertise to develop these antibodies into new drugs that would be amenable for cancer treatment. Unfortunately, for strategic reasons, in 2016 Novartis stopped the project.

What came after Novartis had stopped the project?

The short version: Onur and I were passionate about what we were doing and licensed it out of Novartis and the University of Zurich. We started a new company, Anaveon, and are focused on bringing the asset into clinical testing.

Anaveon is developing therapeutics based on the fusion of an antibody to IL-2. How complicated is that?

What we are doing at Anaveon is not exotic science – it's also not routine and we look to mitigate risk where we can. We know all the ingredients: IL-2, T-cells and NK cells but what we don’t know is exactly how they work in the treatment of cancer.

How hard was it to get a project out of Novartis?

It was straightforward, but it took a long time. Novartis has a clear and professional process for the licensing of later-stage assets discontinued due to strategic reasons but no such process exists for early stage assets and I think that’s why it took us a little longer.

Were you directly involved in negotiating the licensing deal with Novartis?

No. To make the process fair for everybody, Onur worked with the Novartis out-licensing team and I did the same with the team at the University of Zurich. In these negotiations one must have a clear focus, a lot of patience, and an attitude that only accepts success. In the end, we got the asset at terms that all parties were satisfied with.

Now, you are an entrepreneur. How conscious of a decision was that?

Life was great at Novartis because we always had project after interesting project and many resources to pursue them. But what drives most people in my business is actually seeing the result of your hypothesis translated into new treatments for patients. I worked in Transplantation Research for many years. There's nothing more incredible than seeing a person on dialysis getting a new kidney. Cancer is something that we are all too familiar with. Founding Anaveon for me was a bigger and more interesting calling. So, it was not so much entrepreneurship, but following this concept that I believe in and seeing what it does in the clinic.

How optimistic are you about the outcome?

As we all know, there is a high attrition rate in clinical development, but we have lived and breathed this science for a long time and believe in the potential of this project. The early progress went exceptionally fast and it would be an incredible waste not to test it in the clinic.

You got funding from the University of Zurich Life Sciences fund and BaseLaunch. In 2019, you successfully concluded a Series A financing round led by the British life sciences fund Syncona. The Novartis Venture Fund joined as well: You raised 35 million CHF. That is a great achievement.

I want to go back a little bit at this point… In the drug development process, there are so called compound decision points. You first need to establish that your target or the mode of action is relevant to the disease. It’s a proof of concept of your target. You must then decide, how you are going to pharmacologically interfere with that target. This second part is time and resource consuming because you are using different compounds, different antibodies, which can take years to develop and test. We were lucky that we had gotten to the compound decision point already, meaning that lead compounds were already shortlisted. We knew that one of them would work. When we founded Anaveon, we were ready to start the actual manufacturing and testing of the lead compounds.

Which factors further facilitated the funding process?

We initially received 1 million CHF from the University of Zurich Life Sciences fund, which allowed us to start the early manufacturing steps. Additionally, BaseLaunch supported us, first with a non-dilutive grant and then with a loan. Anja König, the Global Head of the Novartis Venture Fund, was pivotal in helping us attract financing. With her guidance, we didn't oversell, we didn’t knock on too many doors, and we were lucky to get term sheets within less than 6 months. I think it was a combination of being very realistic and showing a balanced view to the investors. The bottom line is: Can you show that you have a good concept? Do you believe in the concept? Can you make other people believe in that concept and in you and your team?

You work together with professional VC funds. What is your experience so far?

I personally prefer professional investors. They are able to judge the validity of your project and to challenge and guide you. They are often more expensive than private angel investors, but I believe that is the price you pay for experienced, professional help. My advice to startups is to try and engage early on with professional investors. Of course, they are more demanding. Usually they are like us scientists in the sense that they want their imagination to be caught about something exciting. The best ones want to get in and help build the company, and I think that's what Anaveon has got right now.

Often, startups struggle with defining the valuation, especially at such an early stage.

We also struggled with that issue. It is difficult to gauge what a good price is. I don't think building a successful company is about getting the highest valuation. Instead, you want to find the best partners. Some of these funds are very big, so a lot depends on the actual people that are involved. During the due diligence process, there is a lot of time to get to know all the people involved. In our case, we went ahead with the investors we felt most comfortable with. I try to do that in general in my life as well. That is how I put our team together.

How far will you get with 35 million CHF?

We will get a first answer in the clinic. With 35 million CHF we can do phase I studies, but we will need to raise additional funds as we progress though the clinic. At some point we might consider identifying one or more partners who will be able to push us through combination therapy studies and that decision will be something that we will work on as a team and with our investors. We have the vision of increasing our footprint into other areas of cytokines.

How is the competition?

The competition in the next generation IL-2 field is ahead of us. Yet, we are convinced that we have a best-in-class therapy. Physicians, patients and payors will use the drug that provides the best chance for survival or, potentially a cure, instead of going for the second best. Oncology is a big field and there's room for another player using the same mode of action as long as they can differentiate their drug. We are lucky because we have investors who will be able to help us move along fast. And it is like with most other things in life: The first steps are slow and then suddenly things start rolling.

What was the biggest challenge so far?

One challenge I had was finding labs and getting them organized. It’s the bricks and mortar of the biotechnology business. The major challenge was to put together an organization. Basel is excellent in terms of talent pool with pharma experience. Of course, it is different from US biotech hubs where you bump into another opportunity just as you step out the door of the last one. People here are less mobile. Meanwhile, more people are willing to take the gamble. The beauty about a small startup is that you can capture both the hearts and the minds of people, whereas in pharma they get people's minds but not so much their hearts. In our business with a small company, teams are very lean. Everybody is extremely important and critical. They also appreciate other advantages like making fast decisions.

What was crucial for you in forming your team?

Technical excellence is crucial, but not sufficient. The team members have to take the risk willingly, not just because they don't have anything else to do. I was looking for people that have a vision. We had openings advertised in various channels, but as it turns out we never hired any person through advertisements. Until now our hires have come to us via word of mouth.

You seem to enjoy every minute of this. Anything that scares you?

The scariest part so far was to conclude the series A. Now the scariest part is to be able to go into phase 1. Sometimes it feels like cruising on an avenue with many lanes and all of a sudden it becomes a very tight area and you need to squeeze by. An example would be finding the right formulation for our compound. There will be more of these bottlenecks in the future. I've seen it before: you make the best plans and suddenly all depends on an unexpected factor.

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Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area opens site in Jura

22.10.2019

Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area has opened its third location. The park is now represented in Jura alongside its locations in the Cantons of Basel-Landschaft and Basel-Stadt. This represents something of a milestone for the operators BaselArea.swiss.

Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area is now represented in all three supporting cantons of the operators BaselArea.swiss. Following on from locations in Basel and Allschwil BL, a third location was opened in Courroux. Domenico Scala, President of BaselArea.swiss, described this milestone: “We have now successfully closed the circle”.

The new location will focus on the field of medical technology, health technology, digital health and industrial transformation. A usable area of 1,200 square meters will be available for these pursuits. SMEs and start-ups will be able to use the office space to further develop their visions and secure success. In addition, BaselArea.swiss is offering relevant support programs to this end in the form of DayOne and i4Challenge. The first companies are already moving in to the Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area, for example the software development company NextDay.Vision, which is based in Jura. In November, the start-up Ersys, which is active in the field of system ergonomics, will follow NextDay.Vision’s suit. The Research and Development Center for Micro and Nanotechnology CSEM will be offering consultancy from November onwards at the new location. At the same time, a total of 1.6 million Swiss francs is being invested in the expansion of the two floors of the building, which will be of benefit to the Jura economy.

The Canton of Jura has also been supporting the creation of this new location right from the very beginning of the projects. Jacques Gerber, President of the Jura Cantonal Government and Minister of Economic Affairs and Healthcare, has indicated that the Jura economy can flourish on the back of the Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area by tapping into the innovation ecosystem. Moreover, Claude-Henri Schaller, Head of the Cantonal Office for Economics and Labor, commented: “We have poured all our energy into offering the best-possible framework conditions for the Jura economy. I think that we have managed to meet these requirements”.

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GRID boosts innovative power of Basel region

26.09.2019

Work on the construction of the GRID complex for innovation and commerce has begun on the BaseLink site in Allschwil BL. By mid-2022, the Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area will be operating from the new site as its anchor tenant.

With the GRID (Grand Réseau d’Innovation et de Développement) and the neighboring newbuild of the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, the ecosystem of the Basel region will be further expanded in the fields of life sciences, biotech, public health and medtech, it was reported in a press release from the Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area, its operator BaselArea.swiss and Senn Resources AG. The latter has been tasked with constructing the GRID building designed by Basel architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron.

In this building, the GRID Campus of Collaboration, space will be created on five floors and an area of around 50,000m2for “offices and laboratories for teaching, research, development and production of innovative products for the future”. To this end, 150 million Swiss francs is being invested. By mid-2020, the Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area will have given up its existing location in Allschwil and leased 6,000m2 at the GRID complex. Tenants are expected to have been found for the remaining space as well by this point. The goal is for the GRID to offer workplaces for 2,220 people.

The GRID will further enrich the area around the Bachgraben, which is already home to companies such as Actelion and Idorsia as well as institutions in the fields of life sciences, biotech, public health and medtech. A new building for the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute will also be constructed in this area. The GRID will contribute to “the Basel region further gaining significance as a first-class ecosystem for innovation”.

Allschwil is the largest of the three planned sites making up the Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area, with the second in Basel and plans to create a third in Delémont. The Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area is one of five locations in the network of Switzerland Innovation Park. It is backed by the two Basel cantons, Jura, the Handelskammer beider Basel and the University of Basel. 

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“The Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area and the Jura are a match made in heaven”

26.09.2019

The Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area will be opening its Jura site on 25 October. Claude-Henri Schaller, Director of the Office for the Economy and Labour and Vice President of Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area AG, is convinced that the Innovation Park can make a major contribution to the diversification of industry in the Jura and will create stronger ties between industry and research.

BaselArea.swiss: Is it fair to say that the Jura is a watchmaking canton?

Claude-Henri Schaller: I would go as far as to say that there is no such thing as a Swiss watch that isn’t at least partly made in the Jura. The watchmaking industry was the first sector to become established in the Jura – and it still defines the canton today. Currently, around 44 percent of jobs in the Jura are in the secondary sector, more than in any other canton. The international groups Swatch, Richemont, LVMH and Festina all have production sites in the Jura canton. Rolex also works with a lot of local suppliers. But our businesses are also applying their watchmaking expertise to other fields. The medtech sector is growing in importance here.

Is its strong focus on the precision engineering industry a strength or a weakness for the Jura canton?

The canton’s heavy reliance on the industry has pros and cons. On the one hand, export problems have a direct and marked effect on us. On the other hand, when the economy is booming we quickly feel the effects. The economic cycles in the Jura are shorter than in other regions. The unemployment rate can rapidly go up, but can quickly fall again. And we put our extensive expertise in precision engineering to good use in the medtech, mechanical engineering and aviation technology sectors. But our aim is to encourage further diversification in the businesses here.

Why is diversification so crucial to the Jura?

If the watchmaking industry is going through a bad patch, businesses need to have other options for growth and winning new markets. Diversification also creates other societal and economic opportunities: we are currently investing heavily in advanced skills training – we have one of the highest graduate qualification rates in the country. But this investment is not currently paying the dividends we would have liked. By fostering innovation in the Jura canton we are creating opportunities in the fields in which we excel. That enables our businesses to grow – and has positive repercussions for society as a whole. We want to ensure that our highly qualified workforce stays in the Jura or comes back to us.

So there’s room for improvement. Where does the canton intend to start?

In an SME, the boss does more or less everything themselves – carrying out research, generating sales, searching out innovation and new markets. Currently, companies are doing their research and development in house, usually behind closed doors. They are very secretive about it. Although we have the Haute Ecole Arc Neuchatel Berne Jura, we don’t have a research centre specifically for industry. That means that at the moment we’re not getting involved in research early enough or closely enough. But innovation is not about universities or businesses working alone any more. To come up with innovative solutions, industry and academia must work together more closely. The Jura site of the Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area is an important building block in this.

In what way?

The political authorities in the Jura canton are pursuing three goals. We want to encourage innovation, support the diversification of industry and foster collaboration between research centres and businesses. With the Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area now in the Jura, we have the opportunity to improve the research infrastructure and create closer ties between business, research, science and technology universities and the canton.

What role will the Innovation Park in the Jura play?

The Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area has sites in Basel, Allschwil and now in Courroux in the Jura canton. The site here has the potential to become an enabler, promoting and organising links and projects at supracantonal level. A Jura-based company is now perfectly able to start up a project with Basel University Hospital on the Allschwill site, while a Basel-Stadt project can also make use of the resources in the Jura. With its specialisation, the Jura is a valuable addition to the expertise available in the Basel region. That’s also promising when it comes to developing new products.

How will you convince businesses to collaborate more and to use the Innovation Park in the Jura?

To reach as many SMEs as possible, we are working closely with the Chamber of Commerce, and together with BaselArea.swiss we have formed an advisory board. It’s up to representatives from industry and research to engage with the process of mutual exchange. Of course, we also need to keep businesses informed, working hard to explain the options open to them. The Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area is of course all well and good as a political initiative, but the proof of the pudding lies in tangible projects and results. That’s why our job now is to identify, organise and see through suitable projects.

What sort of projects does the Jura site of the Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area have in mind?

The innovation park concept is eminently suited to the Jura and our economy. Our businesses are keen to discuss concrete projects, and by working with research institutes they can get them up and running. On the Jura site of the Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area, we are initially concentrating on the healthcare sector. We’re looking at how to improve the organisation of the healthcare sector in the surrounding regions. This may entail innovative processes or new solutions. One project is tackling the shortage of doctors. We are working with nursing staff to come up with innovative solutions for how nurses can take on a wider remit. I am convinced that the healthcare industry has enormous potential for the future. Other projects under the Industry 4.0 banner are set to follow.

What makes you think the Jura site of the Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area will be a success?

There’s been an awful lot of interest in creating an Innovation Park in the Jura, much of which has come from businesses. Our first tenant, the IT security firm NextDay.Vision, signed up even before we were open. And we have all the skills required to run an innovation park. In addition, BaselArea.swiss is firmly established in the canton. A network is already in place. I am confident that with the Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area we can get something good going here. What’s more, the Innovation Park’s remit is not just to help Jura-based businesses work together – we are open to the entire Basel region. I am very optimistic. The Jura already has a far-reaching reputation for its industrial know-how, and that’s something the Innovation Park can build on.

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