Direct access to counseling with the toxicologists at DTU
We have long had access to QSAR computer models, which can help reduce the need for animal testing in laboratories. However, the results are difficult to interpret, and many tend not to get enough information out of the analyses. Now, the new spin-out company Saxocon comes to the rescue, offering advice and guidance directly to researchers who have developed QSAR models themselves. The service is the result of a close partnership between DTU and a vigorous businessman with his own start-up capital.
The story of Saxocon starts almost as a fairytale; DTU researchers with business ideas met a man, who had both money in his pockets and plenty of entrepreneurship, but who needed the right project to get involved with. It turned out to be the perfect match.
The seeds to the partnership were sowed at DTU's annual medico bazaar, an event where scientists present projects, which they believe have a potential for industrial application.
"At DTU we aim to foster even more partnerships with the industry in order for our work to serve society as a whole. We therefore carefully consider whether the industry could somehow benefit from what we are doing. That year, DTU's Department of Toxicology brought an idea to the bazaar, which really hit home with one of the visitors," says Anders Permin, deputy department head at DTU's National Food Institute, who has more than 10 years' experience with application of toxicology in the development of pharmaceutical products.
And the visitor who stopped by and began asking questions was quite special. For at the time, this visitor, by the name of Martin Friis-Mikkelsen, was seriously contemplating investing his savings in a project with a sound business potential and with the right ethical basis, which he would be able to operate himself.
"At the time, I had actually been offered a job which I was considering accepting. However, the idea presented to me at the bazaar was so interesting, that I went straight home to my wife and had a long chat with her. Over the years, we have investigated many projects, and she completely agreed with me. We simply had to try this one out," Martin Friis-Mikkelsen explains.
Two days later, he called Anders Permin and arranged a meeting, which would mark the start of a fruitful partnership in a joint effort with CPH Spin-outs at the university.
The right combination of service and ethics
In many ways, Saxocon is quite special. Unlike so many other biotech spin-outs, this company does not base its activities entirely on a specific new technology, or a number of valuable patents. Actually, the activities in Saxocon are more closely related to the service industry.
"What we can offer is highly qualified help in performing and interpreting predictive toxicological analyses from QSAR computer models, which have already been used for a number of years. They are capable of analysing new substances, and assessing their potential risks to the human body," Anders Permin explains. His office is located right next to the Division of Toxicology, whose scientists have developed their own QSAR models.
This is what QSAR (Quantitative structure-activity relationship) can do
QSAR are computer models designed to predict the properties of chemical substances. Such properties could for instance be their degree of toxicity. The models are based on experimental test results.
"QSAR models can help us predict whether or not a substance with a specific chemical composition could cause problems in the human body. This can be achieved also via laboratory experiments, but it is both faster and cheaper to use QSAR analyses, partly because they reduce the need for animal testing," explains Eva Bay Wedebye, specialised consultant and one of the prime forces behind the work on QSAR models carried out at the Division of Toxicology and Risk A?ssessment under DTU's National Food Institute.
Such analyses can be made in the early stages of development of for example a new drug, even before the active substance has been produced at the lab and put through testing on both cell level (in vitro) and on animals (in vivo). Use of the models will always imply some uncertainty compared to traditional experimental testing, but on the other hand, it is possible to combine knowledge from several models for a wide variety of properties, to improve the overall accuracy of the analysis.
This is similar to the computer modelling used to develop airplanes. Also in this case a virtual model is created and tested before a real airplane is built and flight tested.
"The development of for instance pharmaceuticals requires huge investments, as the substances involved must be tested very thoroughly for both primary effects and side effects. A QSAR analysis can fairly quickly tell us about the biological activity and the chemical properties of a substance, and with this information, the scientists can determine whether or not to continue their work on it," Eva Bay Wedebye explains.
When Saxocon is given an assignment, the Division of Toxicology handles the practical work and helps interpret the analyses.
"Over a period of many years we have accumulated comprehensive expertise on the process, and even though some QSAR models are free to use for all, it does require specialised expertise to properly interpret the results of the analyses. This is where Saxocon can help," says Anders Permin.
At the moment, the enigmatic results of the analyses are handled by the industry's own laboratories. Some of the biggest enterprices have specially trained experts who are able to do the job, but the overall majority of companies do not have the required expertise to fully appreciate the possibilities and pitfalls of the program. Now they can leave the whole job or parts of it to Saxocon, where Martin Friis-Mikkelsen and his team of DTU scientists are ready to take on the challenge.
"I personally have a background in the service industry, more precisely in the IT service industry, but that does not really matter in this context. The important fact is that I am used to serving customers, and I know the level of marketing and administration required to sell a product. I have always dreamt of starting something up myself. This is a project which both has a sound business potential and a product that I can really support," Martin Friis-Mikkelsen says.
In other words, he will be dealing with all the business affairs of the company, while the scientists at DTU's National Food Institute will handle all the tasks related to QSAR.
Saxocon and DTU have formed a partnership, which, among other things, has made DTU a co-owner of the company.
"In order to best utilise each other's respective areas of expertise, we decided to make a structure which maintains close ties between the company and the university. So both DTU and I are co-owners of Saxocon," Martin Friis-Mikkelsen explains.
It was the natural choice to set up an ownership structure which included both parties, as they can so obviously benefit from each other.
"We are working in a field permeated by prejudice: The universities consider industrial firms incapable of conducting proper research, and industrialists, on the other hand, consider the universities incapable of turning research into business. As a result, we are missing obvious possibilities of forming valuable partnerships. We believe that Saxocon can help foster a dialogue between industry and university and open up new doors, so that hopefully even more joint projects will eventually see the light of day."
These are the hopes of Anders Permin, who represents the university on Saxocon's board of directors. As the deputy director at the university's National Food Institute at the University, one of his roles is to spot mature innovative research projects and help them get in contact with the industry.
"I am very much looking forward to to taking part in the board work, and to getting an insight into that part of the business as well. We definitely expect Saxocon to be the first of various new companies created on the basis of the research of the National Food Institute, so it is extremely valuable for me to be this deeply involved, and to see at close range how these things work," says Anders Permin.
He emphasises that it motivates him enormously to help bridge the gap between science and industry. Maybe this is because he is a veterinarian...
"I have always been a practically-minded sort of person, and to me it is important that the activities of the university also lead to something useful. A little like when you are working as a veterinarian: when you have given an animal an injection, it is quite nice to see it get well afterwards," Anders Permin explains.
For this reason, he was less enthusiastic about his previous job in the pharmaceutical industry, where he was able only to get a limited insight into something bigger and therefore missed the whole picture.
"I like it best when I have many things going on, and in my present position, I maintain close contact to the science environment and its associated expertise – while also applying a helicopter perspective, keeping up with quite different trends in the industry. To me, this is an extremely interesting combination," says Anders Permin.
Saxocon makes optimum use of the toolbox
Saxocon will be more than just a service provider, for QSAR has certain limitations.
"It is not unusual to be looking at a substance which the models cannot handle without further development, but we can help with that, too. As a result, our customers can show us any sort of chemical structure, and if it cannot be handled by any of the available QSAR models, we can help the customers make new models to accommodate their individual requirements," says Martin Friis-Mikkelsen.
QSAR by statute
The customers are right around the corner – figuratively speaking. For in the past decades, there has been an increasing focus on our use of animal testing, and massive popular pressure has caused European legislators to tighten the reins on for instance cosmetics producers.
As a result, the current legislation bans all animal testing of cosmetics – instead, the producers MUST use cell-level testing and/or so-called non-testing techniques, such as QSAR.
"A couple of years ago I attended a conference with participants from the association of cosmetics producers, and as I was explaining about the upcoming new legislation, I encouraged them to start thinking about using these techniques. But NOBODY responded. They probably would today, given that they are now forced to use methods like QSAR. This probably presents them with quite a few challenges, and so it is of course nice to have someone like us to help," Anders Permin says, a little smile on his lips.
Other large players have also added QSAR to their research guidelines, for instance the ICH (International Conference on Harmonisation), whose members include the American food and drug administration, FDA.
Wind beneath the wings...
Throughout the start-up phase, from idea development to business plan and establishment of the Saxocon company, the project has been assisted by CPH Spin-outs.
"To begin with, we considered it a big tap on the back just to get this department's approval. It has worked really well – we have discussed the ideas and been given lots of advice and guidance to get us on the right track. They have also helped us raise the funds to develop a sound business plan. This clearly helped maintain our commitment," Martin Friis-Mikkelsen emphasises.
But those days are over, and Saxocon now has to live a life of its own on market terms.
"Now I have to fly myself, and I am 100% ready for it. There are many winds blowing in the right direction, and the signals for buying are emerging everywhere, so I cannot wait to get started," states Martin Friis-Mikkelsen.
His job and some of his savings are on the line, but he feels quite comfortable about that.
"The worst thing that could happen is that I lose all my money and have to look for a job. On the other hand, I could also lose my savings by investing in shares – and this is infinitely more fun. I have always been keen to take on challenges, and my family are quite prepared for going through an exciting period. Without their support, it simply would not be possible!” says Martin Friis-Mikkelsen, who refuses to be called a business angel. Business angels just show up, unload their money and fly on. Martin Friis-Mikkelsen may be an investor, but he will remain in Saxocon to take care of the day-to-day management.
All that is left is to wait and see if this fairytale will have a happy ending. Only time will tell, and for the moment, a happy beginning is more than enough to get the people behind Saxocon started in business.
ANDERS PERMIN, 50 years
2012- Deputy director, DTU, Food Institute
2006-12: Head of Department, DHI
2004-2006: Medical writer, Lundbeck
2011: MMBA, Business Administration, Probana Managenment
1997: PhD, Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University
Anders likes it best when his work efforts lead to something concrete. So to him, the ideal combination is just what he is doing today: Identifying the results of scientific research at DTU's National Food Institute which could create value for business and industry. He is married to Signe Permin, who is a medical writer at Novo, and together they have three children, aged 5, 7, and 12.
MARTIN FRIIS-MIKKELSEN, 44 years
2013- Manager of Saxocon
2011-2013 - Head of Strategic Alliances, Milestone
2006-2011 - Service Delivery Manager, Unisys
2009: Executive MBA from DTU Business
2005-2006: Deployment Services Manager, Dell
2002-2005: Independent consultant in IT services
1997-2002: Material Program Manager - Intel
1996: Production engineer, Københavns Teknikum
Martin was born with a strong entrepreneurial spirit and thrives only in developing projects with possibilities of trying out new ideas. He is married to Helen Friis-Mikkelsen, who is M Sc(Econ), and works for Infomedia. Together they have a daughter of 10.