Founders of a small biotech company from West London have flown to Boston for the semi-finals of one of the world’s largest and toughest competitions for start-ups. The company, Koniku, was one of five hundred to present its business plan to a panel of industry experts. The team finds out next week how well they’ve done.
“The panel asked very tough questions. But we hope our technology will get us through to the next round because it’s convincing,” says company founder Oshiorenoya Agabi, a PhD student at the MRC’s Clinical Sciences Centre (CSC) in West London and Imperial College London.
Agabi founded Koniku in 2013 when using imaging techniques to study the activity of the brain. Koniku now has around ten part-time employees, who together are developing computer software to study neurodegenerative disorders such Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease.
Koniku is pioneering a technique to grow human brain cells, called neurons, on computer chips. The chips extract information about the neurons as they grow. Researchers developing new drugs can use the device to see how neurons react to drugs in real time.
“It is much more than a computer simulation or a database. It is essentially a lab-on-a-chip,” says Vincenzo De Paola, who leads the Neuroplasticity and Disease research group at the CSC and who is the company’s scientific advisor. “Koniku brings together many technologies into one platform, which makes it more efficient than previous technologies.”
The software can analyse data gathered from the early stages of drug trials, says Agabi. “Our data analysis will give pharmaceutical companies a better insight into how new drugs may act in humans.”
Many drugs that show potential in animal trials fail to deliver when they are tested in patients. This high rate of failure makes drug development expensive. It costs an average of £1.7 billion to bring one drug to market, according to Agabi. If Koniku can better inform the process of drug development, it could help the pharmaceutical industry to achieve cost savings.
Agabi says Koniku needs investors and support to succeed. The MassChallenge competition, which is a not-for-profit organisation funded through sponsorship and donations, offers 120 start-ups access to world-class mentors, training and funding.
MassChallenge attracts entries from across the globe. Over 1, 600 start-ups were whittled down to the 500 semi-finalists who competed in Boston last week. Competitors had 10 minutes to pitch their business plan to a panel of judges, who then questioned the presenters.
Agabi admits that he struggled to communicate his vision. “It is very difficult for me not to use technical jargon. This is something I should have learned by now, but it is still a key issue. I know that I need to be able to communicate in such a way that it makes sense to the person listening.”
Results of the semi-final will be announced next week, on May 21st. If selected, the Koniku team will relocate to Boston for four months. They will then compete to be one of 10 to 20 start-ups who will be awarded a total of $1.5 million in cash prizes.
“Although some of the other competitors had great ideas – such as key hole surgery – we think that we can change the landscape and really make a significant difference. We have a compelling solution and a solid business case,” says Agabi. “We believe we have what it takes to be successful in the next round.”
Koniku has already won $12,000 at similar competitions, and another $2,000 at the ‘Fast Pitch’ competition in Los Angeles last week.
Results of the semi-final were revealed on Wednesday 19. The panel selected 128 start-ups to progress to the final round of the Boston-based competition. Koniku were not selected and now await feedback from the judges.
Agabi says, “We are moving forward with potential investors and grants.”
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