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Protein power

12 May 2010

Members of the winning i-Solve team, MuTAGeneMembers of the winning i-Solve team, MuTAGene

Just how many proteins with powerful diagnostic and therapeutic properties can be engineered, and how quickly?

This was just one of four live University research projects investigated by groups of postgraduate students and research staff as part of i-Solve, a unique EPSRC-funded enterprise initiative to help identify the next commercial ventures based on ground-breaking research taking place across the University today.

Now in its second year, four competing and enterprising teams took on the challenge of investigating market demand for carefully selected research projects based on their commercial potential, either through licensing or via a future start-up.

Following eight weeks of hard investigation a six-strong team from the Schools of Biosciences, Business and Dentistry walked away with the title of ‘Best Overall Project’.

Team MuTAGene was awarded the prize for their innovative approach to seeking the commercial viability of a School of Biosciences project for an accelerated evolutionary mechanism that could generate new proteins for future diagnostics and therapeutics.

The team worked with Dr Dafydd Jones, the Principal Investigator behind the new protein engineering technique, which is based on the concept of evolution and natural selection. Random mutations are generated which in turn create new proteins and when the best performers are selected they can give improved activity for particular applications.

Mentored by Abigail Carter, Director of Forensic Resources Ltd and alumna of the University, the team was asked to determine the marketability of the technique, and the best route to market.

School of Biosciences Elizabeth Fraser, who was part of the winning team, said: "The technique has already been shown to work and the results published in highly respected international peer reviewed journals. It could open up new avenues for understanding biological systems, producing new proteins for improved diagnostics, or even new therapeutics and more effective drugs."

"Our challenge was to explore where the best commercial potential for this technique might be found, what disease states could be investigated and how diagnostics might be improved. Once we had done this we then devised the best business model to develop this technology to realise its commercial potential."

The team decided the best way to proceed was to offer a service to academic and commercial research laboratories, rather than considering licensing agreements, thereby generating income more quickly than other routes to market, and retaining control of the technology. By providing a service they hoped to accelerate research that would ultimately speed up the process by which therapeutic protein drugs or other commercial proteins could reach the marketplace.

Dr Jones said: "It was a real pleasure to be working with such a dedicated and innovative group of people. The combination of scientists and business students proved to be the winning formula. The team quickly organized themselves and allocated team roles which they maintained throughout the programme and proved highly effective for them and for me. They quickly got to grips with the technology and its commercial potential and worked hard to validate this information through primary research.

"The information provided by the team is vital and together with the kudos of winning i-Solve, we now have a firm base with which to move forward and leverage money to support the original business idea. Without the input of i-Solve, the idea may have been just a pipe dream but now provides a realistic opportunity with facts and figures as evidence of the technology’s commercial potential – thanks to the winning i-Solve team members."

Elizabeth said, "It was very exciting to be given the award for the best overall team and recognition for the hours of work that we all put in. We had a fantastic mentor who is an entrepreneur herself, and our "inventor" was also very helpful. i-Solve has also been about the process itself. We have learnt about how to work together with others in a team, and about the steps involved in considering new innovations with marketable commodities."

i-Solve attracted postgraduates and research staff from across the University with each team expected to research and create a go-to-market strategy with the support of a Principal Investigator and overseen by a mentor from industry. It was managed by Student Enterprise, part of the Research and Commercial Division and funded by the EPSRC. The Awards evening was sponsored by Cardiff Council.

Cardiff’s i-Solve is based on the i-Teams programmes at Cambridge University and MIT. This makes Cardiff the first university in the UK after Cambridge University to launch an i-Teams course.

Terri Delahunty, Head of the Graduate Centre, said "i-Solve adds another dimension to our offerings for researchers to develop their skills for future employment. Unique to i-Solve is the opportunity to gain knowledge transfer and commercialisation skills while having a positive impact on current research projects. Once again, team members demonstrated real enthusiasm for and commitment to their projects."

The i-Solve challenge saw all four teams presenting their projects to an esteemed team of judges, which this year included Professor Russell Smith and Mr Phil Wragg, Business Boffins; Professor Ian Weeks from Cardiff School of Medicine; Ms Helga Chapman, founding partner of Chapman Molony, Chartered Patent Attorney; and Mr Yannis Pierrakis from National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA).

The other three commercial ventures examined by i-Solve teams were:

  • A School of Engineering project to investigate the opportunities to establish and develop a Welsh Electromagnetics Network to enable effective knowledge exchange between industry and academia. The team was mentored by Dr Sohail Hajatdoost, Head of Business Development, EcoDesign Centre.
  • A School of Pharmacy project to develop an appropriate commercial strategy for a microneedle, pain-free, drug delivery system. The team was mentored by Dr Dominic Griffiths, Commercial Manager, Fusion IP.
  • A School of Engineering project to identify market information and potential partners for a virtual laboratory capable of simulating surgical procedures. This project was named as the Best Early Stage Development Proposal. The team was mentored by Mr Huw Evans, Chartered Patent Attorney, Chapman Molony.

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