Tuesday 1 July 2014
After completing his Biomedical Physics bachelor’s degree in Poland, Michal Lipka decided he wanted to continue his research elsewhere. He completed his Masters in Biophysics in Barcelona, where Dr Alvaro Mata became his supervisor. When Dr Mata was offered a position at QMUL, he asked Michal to continue research with him here. Since arriving, Michal has worked on developing a novel technology to mimic human tissues using hydrogel scaffolds, with his results rivalling recent regenerative medicine and tissue engineering technologies, such as 3D printing.
When Michal heard about the One Start biotech start-up competition, he realised his work would be the perfect fit and applied with his project. Michal made it through to the semi-finals, where 100 teams were narrowed down to 35. The contestants were put through a boot camp at UCL, given access to industry professionals and assigned a mentor. Their projects were scrutinised and analysed by their mentors as they developed their idea further, which they had to put forward in a final presentation. Unfortunately Michal’s team did not make it through to the final, but he has taken away a lot from experience.
Michal tells us about his involvement at QMUL and within the One Start competition:
How would you sum up your research in simple terms?
Recently, scientists are trying to engineer specific, hydrogel-based constructs (scaffolds) to reconstruct or regenerate human tissues, or even create them de novo. My project aims to achieve the same, but with a new strategy. So in short, I’m working on a novel technology for creating new in vitro models of real human tissues.
People are probably aware of many techniques that are designed or modified for this purpose and are already on the market, like microfluidics, photo patterning, or 3D printing, where they try to print human tissues. The difference is that with our technology we might be able not only to overcome technological limitations encountered by recently available strategies, but also propose a solution that has additional market-related advantages such as simplicity, it’s inexpensive, easily tuneable and upgradable, and much more.
So the main disadvantage of recent [approaches to hydrogel scaffolds] is that they cannot yet provide cells with multiple specific cues that will organize and guide them from the molecular to the nano/micro scale (this is where cells live) and up to the macroscale (tissues and organs). This organization is extremely important, because it defines the properties and function of a final tissue. Think of building a house – if you have a pile of bricks it does not mean your house is ready. You have to organize them, so together they can perform their function. The same is true for growing tissues – say, if we want to grow a piece of human liver, it can’t be just something made of liver cells, but rather a construct where the hierarchical spatial organization of liver cells mimics the architecture of a real liver tissue.
We believe that this would be achievable with our technology. If we would be able to create more realistic human tissues, we could use our new models in all healthcare sectors such as tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, drug discovery, cancer research, or developmental biology.
How did that research lead onto the One Start competition?
I found a flyer about the One Start competitions in our department and I thought that my project would be ideal fit for it, as it is strongly focused on medicine. The requirement was that the submitted proposal had to be something that will improve patients’ health and will fall into one of four categories: drug discovery, diagnostics, health IT, or medical devices. I thought that we could use our technology to recreate a specific tissue, which we could later use for drug or toxicity screening. The drug discovery sector would greatly benefit from having more relevant testing platforms, with significant reduction of costs and time related to the development of new drug, as well as reduction of animal testing.
What was the process of the competition like?
First, I had to create a strong team for the competitions. The team was required and extremely important, because judges wanted to know that we would be ready to enter the market and commercialize the idea. After all, the main prize was money and lab facilities to open a real company based on our submitted proposal. The team had to be composed of people that would be able to cover a wide range of aspects, from technological, to clinical and business.
Then, we had to prepare a short application summarizing our proposal, including the company name, logo, one-line pitch, as well as description of the idea, the team, then the market visibility, the opportunity, and also the patent innovation and current funding.
I must say that I was impressed by the competitions organisation and support we got throughout the competitions. We could attend loads of additional events and seminars, which were really helpful both for the competitions and research itself.
I had real difficulties in creating a strong team though. I guess this was mainly because I’m still quite new here in England and it was really hard for me first to find the right people, and then convince them to start with me in the competition. I didn’t manage to find anyone with strong business skills and expertise in the drug discovery market, which is, I think, the main reason we didn’t make it to the finals. However, I found a great man from Imperial College – a physician, already with 6 years of experience in the NHS, also doing a PhD in Biomedical Engineering at Imperial, who could cover all the clinical and medical aspects in my team. In fact, he added much more to the team with his cross-disciplinary experience and it was a great pleasure to work with him. Then, during the boot camp in the semi-finals they stressed again that they really valued and look for is a strong team. So I was really trying to find someone with proper business skills but I couldn’t – so we tried to do everything with us two.
And how did that go?
For me, I think we did a great job because not only did we make it to the semi-finals, but we also managed to interest many people with our proposal, including big companies such as Johnson & Johnson or Syncona Partners. We were asked to keep them posted on advances in our technology, which I think shows the promise in the future of this technology. Anyway, for competitions it was not enough. We were struggling mostly with proposing a proper business model for our company. We didn’t know how to successfully approach a huge drug discovery market with a small start-up company. This market is very specific and a totally different world from any other sectors, so general knowledge on business models was not enough.
I’m really happy I took part in this competition because I learned loads of stuff – I had a chance to enter the world that I didn’t know, which is so different to the one I normally live in, academia. It is known that it’s extremely hard to join these two worlds together, academia and industry, but I really believe that thanks to these types of competitions it can become much easier. I strongly recommend taking part in this type of event for any researcher who thinks his/her idea is ready to change the world.
What support have you had from QMUL?
I had a great support from my supervisor, Dr Mata, who encouraged me to take part in the competitions as well as kept me motivated. Also, I received huge help from people in the Business Centre, Careers and Enterprise Centre, and Technology Transfer Office like Natasha Tian, Charlie Ellis, Tracy Bussoli, and Pushkar Wadke. I’d like to thank all these people for helping me throughout the One Start competition.
So, what now?
In regard to the project – I will carry on working on the technology and do my best to be involved in the development of modern medicine. In regard to my plans for the future, I guess it will depend how my project evolves. I think the choice will be between academia and industry. I really enjoy the academic environment but it would be great to try myself in the industry. I can already see myself in a few places to be honest. I’m not sure about London though – I like the tea, but I miss the sun from Barcelona.
This article is taken from the most recent edition of the Doctoral College newsletter, DC News. DC News is published every month and features a profile on a member of the early careers research community. To subscribe or read the latest newsletter, please visit this page.