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Building Europe’s next breakthrough biotechs

Start Codon's Daniel Rooke on fostering biotech success in Cambridge, UK


Cambridge's new Biomedical Campus is home to specialist NHS trusts, AstraZeneca's new HQ and biotech firms

How can the UK life science ecosystem produce even more biotech start-ups, and propel them to long-term success? That is the question being asked across UK life sciences, but getting the right blend of science, finance and culture isn't easy.

Start Codon in Cambridge, UK is a new strategic initiative aimed at answering this question by providing guidance and support for a new generation of life science and healthcare companies.

Taking its name appropriately from a key messenger RNA (mRNA) sequence, Start Codon will identify and recruit high potential life science and healthcare companies from across the UK and beyond, drawing on the world-class resources of Cambridge’s life sciences cluster to propel them towards their first truly significant - series A - fundraising.

Its founding investors include Cambridge Innovation Capital, Babraham Research Campus through Babraham Bioscience Technologies, Roche's biotech arm Genentech, and Dr Jonathan Milner and Dr Ian Tomlinson, two of the UK's most experience biotech scientist-entrepreneurs.

The accelerator’s leaders say it will be the first in the Cambridge cluster to provide life science and healthcare start-ups with significant investment, which it claims could reach up to £250,000 ($325,000).

The organisation will have a full-time dedicated team of experienced and active mentors, and office and lab space, to be located at the Milner Therapeutics Institute, part of the new life sciences campus in central Cambridge where AstraZeneca, Cancer Research UK and other leading research organisations are based.

Start Codon says it plans to invest in and support up to 50 start-up companies over the next five years.

The first five companies to take part in the initiative are now being recruited. Start Codon says it is looking for companies with disruptive innovations which can revolutionise healthcare, with platform technologies underpinned by strong intellectual property, with a particular emphasis on novel therapeutics, diagnostics, medtech and digital health.

Here co-founder and head of operations Daniel Rooke explains the thinking behind the new initiative.


Daniel Rooke, Start Codon's co-founder and head of operations

PME: Why is there a need for Start Codon?

Daniel Rooke: We believe that there is a significant number of high-potential, but very early stage, technologies in the UK at academic and not-for profit institutes, enterprise hubs and biotech/pharma companies that are not achieving their full commercial potential.

We think that a major reason for this is a lack of sufficient funding and support at the very early stage(s) to enable these technologies to be properly spun-out into new companies that are viable businesses.

Though seed funding is often available from business angels, friends, family or the founders themselves, it does not always come with the experienced mentoring and close guidance that can help drive success. In our view, corporate and institutional investors also have increasingly stringent diligence requirements, effectively raising the bar for follow-on investment in start-ups.

This together creates what we call an “equity gap” in which many very early stage companies struggle to get the finances and support that they need to survive. Start Codon aims to bridge that “equity gap” within the healthcare and life science sectors by providing high potential companies with the funding, support and resources needed to survive during such a difficult time, whilst also preparing them with the tools they need to secure their first truly major financing, a series A fundraising.

What makes it different from academics institutions, university tech transfer office or venture capital funds, for instance, in supporting new ventures?

In our view, many existing organisations and institutions in the UK tend to provide specific types of support to very early stage companies, but not the broader support that such companies need to allow them to grow and develop properly and quickly. For example, there are existing organisations that provide office space and, sometimes, high-level mentoring, to very early stage companies but which provide limited financial support.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are organisations who can provide financial support to very early stage companies, but we find that this often isn’t accompanied with the business support that such companies require.
At Start Codon, our intention is to provide selected very early stage companies operating in the healthcare and life science sectors with significant financing support – a minimum of £250,000 – whilst also providing them with comprehensive business support.

This business support will entail each selected company joining our six month business acceleration programme in Cambridge, UK, during which they will have access to lab space, to enable them to run their killer experiments, office space, a full-time dedicated and experienced team of “intra-preneurs” and access to networks of investors, mentors and advisors. We therefore intend to provide to our selected companies fully-integrated support at the time that such companies most need it.

As an entrepreneur yourself, what are the most important/surprising lessons about the field you would personally pass on?

In order to build a successful business, a market need has to be addressed; a company needs to have a product that people need/want and are willing to pay for.

Sometimes this can get lost in the amazing science that is being developed. Ultimately therefore it is very important that those running a business never lose sight of their strategy (i.e. what they are doing, their market needs and drivers and how to combat their actual and/or potential competitors and market influences).

Part of Start Codon’s job – through our intra-preneurs and our network - is to assist selected companies to better identify and refine their business strategy, so that they can become successful as early as possible. Success isn’t just in the interests of a company and their investors; it’s also in the interests of, amongst others, patients and other beneficiaries of that company’s product(s) and local and national economies.

Founders and other managers of companies also need to be agile in their thinking, and willing to accept change in order to drive their company’s success. It is rarely the case that a company’s initial ideas of products, and how they intend to develop and commercialise them, will remain the same from inception to commercialisation.

Building a company can be a bumpy ride, and my experience is that the more willing people are to adapt ways to smooth over and reduce/remove the bumps, as opposed to riding rough-shot over them, the more successful they will be.

The US (especially Cambridge, Mass/Boston and San Francisco) has produced lots of biotech firms that have gone on to be global firms. Do you think Cambridge, UK and Europe can produce one?

The 'Cambridge Cluster' is the heart of science innovation in Europe, not just the UK. If anywhere in Europe has the potential to produce global firms in the healthcare and life sciences sector it is Cambridge.

Cambridge is Europe’s largest technology cluster and home to a vibrant life sciences and healthcare ecosystem which is driven strongly by its innovative and entrepreneurial community. It is one of most successful university innovation ecosystems in the world, rivalling MIT and Stanford, and growing. According to the Cambridge Cluster Map (, there are currently in excess of four hundred and twenty life science / healthcare companies and four thousand seven hundred (4700+) knowledge intensive firms in the area.

These companies and firms employ in excess of 60,000 highly skilled employees and, as a whole, local companies turnover in excess of £12 billion pounds sterling per annum.

In addition to this, Cambridge is the UK’s fastest growing city economy. It has all of the constituent parts in its ecosystem to provide new healthcare and life science companies with the building blocks that they need to operate and successfully grow, and we hope to provide them with the solid foundations upon which they can start.

Daniel Rooke is co-founder and head of operations of Start Codon.

23rd July 2019

23rd July 2019

From: Research



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