Cambridge team scoops cancer start-up prize

  • March 2, 2014
Cambridge team scoops cancer start-up prize

A team of Cambridge students, including Grecia Gonzalez, have won a prestigious international competition to commercialise innovative breast cancer research.

A team of University of Cambridge students, including a Gates Cambridge Scholar, have won a prestigious international competition to commercialise innovative breast cancer research.

The students, including Gates Cambridge Scholar Grecia Gonzalez, are among 10 winners of the first Breast Cancer Startup Challenge, run by US organisations The Center for Advancing Innovation (CAI), the Avon Foundation for Women, and National Cancer Institute (NCI), a part of the National Institutes of Health.

The competition is the first of its kind and was launched last September.

The team – made up of Grecia, Nikolaus Wenzl, Alasdair Thong, Hind Kraytem and Tim Xu – will receive a $5,000 award from the Avon Foundation for Women and CAI.

The money will allow them to take the business to the next phase with their start-up business. They will also be put in touch with venture capitalists and different funding bodies who can provide more seed funding. Another University of Cambridge team was also a winner.

The Challenge is aimed at teams of business, legal, medical/scientific, engineering, and computer science students, as well as seasoned entrepreneurs and gives them the opportunity to create strategic business plans and start new companies focused on developing and commercialising 10 inventions that the NIH deems to have high potential to benefit the treatment of breast cancer and potentially other diseases.

The Cambridge team chose to focus on early stage cancer as there is no current tool in medicine which specifically addresses the distinction between early stage cancer and invasive subtypes, which require more careful and aggressive treatment planning to resolve, potentially leading to unnecessary surgery and/or chemotherapy. These early stage cancers account for 20% of all breast cancer diagnoses, and 25-50% of these cases become invasive within 10 years.

There was also a personal reason for their choice. Grecia’s mother died from breast cancer last year after her initial symptoms were not regarded as serious by her doctor years before. “It was very early stages and it was hard, given the current technology, for the doctor to see whether they should do something about it,” says Grecia [2012], who is doing a PhD in Biochemistry. “Our platform technology can access the spatial positioning of genes within a cell. The genetic information in a cell is stored in exactly the same way in every person, but certain diseases, like cancer, can cause some genes to move. Our technology can track these early changes and more accurately assess what the cancer is doing way before other technologies currently being used can.”

The team did a lot of research on what was missing in terms of technology for treating or identifying breast cancer to build their business case. They spoke to a range of experts and oncologists and did a lot of reading. “Cambridge is the ideal place for this sort of project,” says Grecia, “because it is very amenable to enterprise.”

Business background

Many members of the team have a strong business background. Nikolaus Wenzl, Alasdair Thong, and Hind Kraytem are doing an MPhil in Bioscience Enterprise, which covers topics that parallel the competition. Tim Xu is doing an MPhil in Public Policy, Hind has a biomedical engineering background and has experience in working on start-ups from her involvement with Neuro360 .

Grecia was the science specialist on the team, but also has some start-up knowledge through working on SimPrints, a cloud-based identification management platform designed by Gates Cambridge Scholars to enable access to medical or financial records via fingerprint identification. She says: “I like the idea of applying science and when you have a good understanding of science it is not difficult to apply it in different ways. A lot of the fundamental techniques of the technology we were working with are things I understand very well. It was my job to explain them to the team and develop concrete applications for this technology.”

The team’s business plan extends over 10 years and provides a road map for developing their business, Radial Genomics Ltd. Since being alerted that they had won the competition they have been getting advice on how to build the corporate structure of their business and have already started looking for funding sources and finalising a licence agreement with the NIH.

Grecia says: “When my mother passed away, I was devastated. But this competition became an opportunity to channel that difficult experience into a project that will hopefully go on to have a positive impact on breast cancer treatment and peoples’ lives. I couldn’t be happier to be taking this forward with my team.”

Douglas Lowy, M.D., NCI deputy director, said: “NCI has always had a strong interest in fostering young investigators and the fact that this challenge pairs each student team with entrepreneur-mentors to assist in the development of the business plans is another example of how we can bring new ideas and energy to cancer research.”

Read Grecia’s blog on the competition.

Picture credit: dream designs and www.freedigitalphotos.net.

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