Cancer Research UK Deploys €700M to Foster Oncology Startups

27/04/2022 - 4 minutes

In a show of strength after an income squeeze during the Covid-19 pandemic, the charity Cancer Research UK has dedicated €711M (£600M) to setting up a new innovation arm and seed fund designed to speed up the commercialization of oncology innovation.

For decades, Cancer Research UK (CRUK) has played a pivotal role in nurturing advances in oncology and has set up around 60 spinout biotech companies. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, CRUK and many other research charities were hit with shrinking incomes as traditional fundraising methods were hit by lockdowns.

The charity was hit hard by the pandemic – almost every way we fundraise was impacted,” said Iain Foulkes, CEO of CRUK’s new innovation-focused arm Cancer Research Horizons (CRH). “But the charity reacted quickly, cutting costs where necessary and adapting fundraising events.” 

As a result of high donor generosity and the charity’s preparedness, CRUK expects to lose out on €296M (£250M) in income over the next three years rather than the €355M (£300M) it originally predicted.

Amid the squeeze, CRUK plans to strengthen its research ties with industrial partners. This week, the charity created CRH to accelerate the commercialization of oncology innovation, supported by a hefty €711M (£600M) budget over the next ten years. CRH will work with industrial partners to incubate companies in various fields of oncology and will use a non-profit seed fund worth £30M to kickstart cancer startups over the next five years. 

Just over a third of CRH’s budget will come directly from CRUK’s coffers, and the charity plans to source the rest from third-party investors. CRH was forged by merging together many of CRUK’s research departments including the commercial partnerships team, the charity’s drug discovery-oriented Therapeutic Development Labs, and more. 

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The pace of discovery in cancer science is extraordinary and modern drug discovery organizations are going to need scale, agility, and access to academic partnerships to succeed,” said Hamish Ryder, CRUK’s CEO of Therapeutic Innovation. “By bringing together our separate drug discovery units into one organization, we can achieve those goals and be more successful in exploiting new technologies and new insights.” 

As CRH combines many smaller departments, it now has a larger scale to accelerate the most exciting projects in cancer medicines, tests, and diagnostics. The organization will also allow CRUK to provide more support to researchers in the form of intellectual property and technical advice, grants, and access to drug discovery technology.

CRH’s drug discovery expertise lies in small molecule and antibody therapies in addition to technology ranging from disease models to the gene-editing tool CRISPR. The funder is also keen to wade into risky and unexplored spaces. In one historical example, CRUK supported the development of a new class of DNA damage response inhibitors developed by the firm Artios Pharma, which were initially seen as too risky by industry players, but have since bagged the company big investments.

A number of research charities already work with scientists to develop disease treatments, such as a virtual biotech system employed by Parkinson’s UK. CRUK hopes to see more of this activity from funding charities. “At CRUK, we are going a stage further and providing not only funding, but also the resources and expertise of a 200-person drug discovery operation to maximize the chance of cancer innovations being progressed,” explained Foulkes.

In the meantime, CRUK is furthering its goals by working with manufacturing specialists including the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult and with the venture builder Deep Science Ventures (DSV). In the last few years, CRUK and DSV have set up the UK oncology startups Neobe Therapeutics, Enedra, and Stratosvir, which are developing cancer treatments based on live bacteria, synthetic lethality, and viral immunotherapies, respectively.

It’s great to find partners that are willing to jump into such early-stage companies as we build,” said Laura Fletcher, Head of Business Development and Strategic Alliances in Therapeutics at DSV. “It’s unusual to spin out companies on the basis of a concept or a hypothesis, as opposed to a data package that’s had five years of grant funding behind it.

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According to Foulkes, working hand-in-hand with industry means that the various stakeholders can pool and complement their expertise. “Importantly, we are not beholden to governments, shareholders, investors, or industry so we can choose to think long term and pursue the difficult, the challenging, the unmet needs, and niche conditions that other players in the ecosystem cannot,” added Foulkes. 

As such, having charitable-backed operators in the mix such as ourselves complements the other actors, but it doesn’t duplicate them.

27 April 2022: Clarified DSV’s description as a venture builder.

Cover image via Elena Resko

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