The old adage, “follow the money”, is perhaps best appropriated in the case of Pune-based biotech startup CyGenica.
The company’s product – “technology that is like a nano drilling machine which carries a drug inside a cell in a safe and better way” – is at the very least three years from being on the market.
All the current R&D, proof of concept, and product development is happening in a laboratory at the Venture Centre in Pune.
So, let’s look at the money first. After all, words like “genome editing”, “engineered protein” and “nano drilling” are not cheap to come by.
CyGenica has raised $1.4 million in a seed fund investment round led by global venture capital investor SOSV in June this year.
Co-founder Dr Sk Fazlul Haque Krishnan says, “Other investors also participated in the round. It included the VOYAGER Health-Tech fund, David Rowan, founder of Voyagers.io, and angel investors Sharaf Yamani and Sami Mikati.”
“After an initial Birac grant, CyGenica received a grant of ₹1.1 crore from Bharat Petroleum under ‘Project Ankur’. We had also received ₹15 lakh from National Award of the Technology Development Board and ₹25 lakh from DST Lockheed Martin research grant. In total, we have raised $2.3 million so far.”
Then there is funding from Ireland.
Says Dr Nusrat Sanghamitra, cofounder and person behind the entire biotech enterprise, “I received a first tranche of investment, a $100,000 convertible loan note, meaning a short-term debt that converts into equity. After successfully completing the programme, we were selected for the second tranche of a convertible loan note which was $150,000.”
The funding received in Ireland is currently being used for operations.
That kind of cash backing generally suggests a product that has more than proven there is money to be made, or in CyGenica’s case, a proprietary and disruptive technology which enables safe, targeted, and affordable intercellular drug delivery.
In the beginning
As the eldest daughter in her family, Dr Nusrat, in her school days, wanted to become a doctor. She could not make it through in the exams. This “failure” did not deter her from dreaming big. Her father was then diagnosed with cancer. She witnessed her father suffering from the side-effects of his therapy.
“I thought if I can’t serve society as a physician, I will try to make a bigger impact by discovering a drug and making it available all over the world. I decided to do a BSc in Chemistry. I dreamt of making a cancer drug, but had no idea how difficult it would be. It is only after years of efforts I am now realising it,” she says.
Dr Nusrat was a visiting student in 2001 at the Advanced Centre for Treatment, Research and Education in Cancer (ACTREC) at the Tata Memorial Centre in Mumbai. She got admission to IIT Bombay, but gave it up and chose the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bengaluru to pursue her PhD.
Dr Nusrat says, “I had then started working on new molecules that can be better anti-cancer drugs. The molecules worked very well in the labs, but did not work in animal models. I was disappointed and felt, what is the point in making new molecules if they are toxic too? Since I was not a biology student, I decided to understand how drugs work in the human body.”
“I had studied chemistry all along. Since, for most drugs, targets are proteins, I tried to understand what proteins are, what is the structure and how they behave. At that time, I didn’t really get to work on cancer drugs,” she recalls.
The eureka moment
After finishing her PhD from IISc, Dr Nusrat came to the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in 2006. She studied proteins and their structure for two years at TIFR.
Says Dr Nusrat: “I was awarded the post-doctoral Marie Curie fellowship at the Leiden Institute of Chemistry in 2008. I worked there for next two years. I wanted to further study how proteins can be functionalised. I met a professor from Kyoto University, Japan. He was looking for someone who was not from the biology background, but wanting to work in cell biology. At that time I knew Chemistry, a bit of biophysics or proteins, but I still didn’t know what exactly happens inside the cell. I accepted the offer and went to the Institute of Integrated Cell and Material Science (iCeMS) at Kyoto University as a post-doctoral research fellow in April 2010. I spent four years there and by sheer serendipity, found a molecule, a protein that goes inside the cell.”
“That was my moment. Now I knew what cancer drugs are… I knew how proteins behave… I had a protein that goes inside the cell. I thought I can combine that protein with the existing cancer drug to deliver them effectively into the cell. We found that it was a very extraordinary solution, unlike any other drug delivery system known in that point of time. I wanted to work on that project, but the group in Kyoto was not interested in it. So, I decided come back to India,” she says.
Back to India
After returning to India, Dr Nusrat volunteered to teach in schools and slum children. While doing so, she came across the Biotechnology Ignition Grant (BIG) scheme by the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (Birac). She applied as an individual researcher and got it.
Says Nusrat, “The BIG grant in 2016 was an opportunity to prove my hypotheses. Within a year at the KIIT Technology Business Incubator in Bhubaneshwar, I could prove that an engineered protein could go inside the cell. This was a different molecule than that I worked on in Japan, as I could not use the earlier one because of patent issues.”
“I patented the new molecule. CyGenica has filed two international patents – one in 2017 and other in 2018. It is in public domain. One patent covers India, US, Europe and China. This year we are filing it in more countries like Canada, Korea and Japan,” she added.
Serendipity, the real life story
Dr Nusrat’s entrepreneurial journey is filled with disappointment and luck. While pursuing her research, Dr Nusrat had filled a form online one day. A few days later, she received an email inquiring about her work. It was then she realised that she had applied for ‘RebelBio’, a Cork-based life sciences start-up accelerator programme in Ireland, which was being conducted by SOSV, a global venture capital and investment management firm. Dr Nusrat was invited for the programme in April 2017 and her startup was one of 15 selected from the world over.
Dr Nusrat said, “I had to go to Cork in Ireland for the residential four-month accelerator programme. We had a full day of lectures, workshops, pitch trainings and along with it, we also had to prove our research at the lab there. After accepting the invite,
They had a pre-condition that I should form an Irish company to be eligible for it. Since I had got the Birac grant as an individual researcher, I had not formed a company. In April 2017, we formed an Irish company. Initially it was called Cyca Oncosolutions and was recently renamed CyGenica. I had then realised that in drug discovery and delivery, it was challenging to raise private investment in India. Our Indian ecosystem does not understand this space,” Dr Nusrat explained.
Dr Nusrat also got selected for another Irish government programme called “New Frontier”. She stayed for another eight months to complete all three phases of the programme and then returned to India, to her hometown in Bhubaneshwar.
Drug delivery and genome editing
Dr Nusrat clarifies that her startup is not into discovering any new drugs for cancer or genetic diseases. Says Dr Nusrat: “We are focussed only on reducing the dosage of the drug being delivered in order to make it safe and better for patients. We started with our proof-of-concept (POC) to deliver cancer drugs effectively. We could also figure out that the molecule that we engineered was able to deliver not just cancer drugs, but all such genome medicines or therapeutics. We proved we are safely delivering that molecule. In a way it was gene editing and hence, we changed our startup name to Cygenica.”
Explaining further, Dr Nusrat says, “Our technology is able to deliver small molecules like cancer drugs as well as big proteins also. We want to establish and position our technology as an enabler for making any kind of therapeutic delivery safe and better. It was found during the 28-day mice-study that our molecule delivery is non-toxic in high dosage events too. That increased our confidence. Since most of our investors are interested in genome editing and gene therapy, we have a 50:50 focus on cancer drug delivery and genome editing work.”
Pune over Bengaluru…
CyGenica as a company is registered in Odisha. Dr Nusrat and her team were operating from Bhubaneshwar till October 2018. However, as work progressed, they needed advanced equipment on a daily basis, not available at their preferred lab. Dr Nusrat had two choices – move to Bengaluru or Pune.
Says Dr Nusrat: “Pune has a bigger talent pool. Our milestones were getting delayed due to lack of access to certain equipment, which were essential, but very expensive for us to purchase. Bengaluru was an option, but it was much more expensive. Since Venture Centre has the equipment we needed within the campus, we decided to move here. We are renting lab space there since 2018. My brother Dr Fazlul also joined as co-founder and director of operations last year (October 2020).”
Status of pre-clinical trials
Dr Nusrat and Dr Fazlul plan to complete all the pre-clinical trials in the next 18 months. Says Dr Nusrat, “We are in a pre-clinical development stage and a lot of experiments are going on. With new investment coming in, our target is to prove our genome editing technology delivery in stem cells and T-cells which are more difficult to modify. In the next 18 months we want to prove that we are able to edit the genes inside stem cells and T cells. After that it will be validated by a third party. Imperial College and Kings College London would do it for us.”
“Along with that, by next year, we want to launch our technology for cancer drug delivery. Drug-wise nothing is approved by the FDA. However, we want to launch it as a ‘research reagent’ and get feedback and testimonials from key opinion leaders in the industry. Some other companies have also developed reagents to deliver edited genes inside the cells in the labs. We believe that our technology will perform better,” explained Dr Nusrat.
Says Dr Fazlul, “The genome editing molecules will help us get strategic partnership with pharma and biotech companies. Our plan is to complete all preclinical trials inhouse and go for specific disease indication with partnerships with bigger companies in future. We will take at least three years to complete the preclinical trials in the lab – for genome editing drug conjugate and positive drug conjugate. Post trials, the mice study will be conducted in collaboration with ACTREC of Tata Memorial Hospital. This will give our strategic partners more confidence.”
“Dr Nusrat is solving for one of the most valuable problems in therapeutics. Her approach is completely novel, which is a reflection of her interdisciplinary background.” -Sami Mikati, angel investor