Welcome to Startup of the Week. A column highlighting BC’s most innovative and exciting tech startups. Today, we’re featuring Vancouver’s ABOzymes Biomedical.
Did you know that someone needs a blood transfusion every two seconds in the US and Canada? ABOzymes Biomedical’s proprietary technology aims to make matching blood donors to recipients seamless as their tech is able to convert A-type blood to O-type blood—or universal blood.
We spoke to John Barclay, Vice President of Business Development at ABOzymes, about how the entrepreneurship@UBC and New Ventures BC programs helped them along their journey, what the use cases are for their technology and when we can expect to see a world without blood types.
Q: Pretend I’m your Grandma, explain what your company does.
A: A patient receiving a life-saving blood transfusion or an organ transplant must receive donated blood or a donated organ that is the same ABO type, commonly referred to as “blood type”. We are developing a technology that converts A-type to O. In doing so, we can increase the supply of universal donor blood, which is always in short supply but in high demand. In addition, this technology can increase the supply of O organs, which then become available for transplant to patients with any blood type.
Q: What was the impetus to start ABOzymes Biomedical?
A: It began with the work of our Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Peter Rahfeld, in collaboration with his postdoctoral supervisor, Dr. Stephen G. Withers, and their collaborator Dr. Jayachandran Kizhakkedathu. Peter and his colleagues were intentionally trying to develop enzymes that could efficiently render blood cells as O. This idea has been understood for many years and other groups have attempted to achieve it, but with limited success. Our team was the first to find the right enzymes that could perform the job well enough for commercial development and scale.
Then recognizing the potential, Peter and his colleagues, Spence Macdonald and Haisle Moon, entered ABOzymes into the entrepreneurship@UBC’s Lab2Launch (L2L) incubator program in March of 2020. Our CEO, Dr. Geoffrey Houlton, and I actually began as their L2L mentors. Through this process, we grew to understand the potential of the technology, as well as the team’s capabilities and enthusiasm. We also realized that Geoff and I could be a strong complement to the team. Geoff has extensive experience as a life sciences industry executive and I have experience in the blood banking space. We had the necessary pieces of the puzzle in place to launch the venture.
Q: What don’t people know about ABOzymes Biomedical that they should?
A: We are not building a vertically integrated company. Our business model is to outsource manufacturing and to sell or license our technologies to distribution partners, such as blood bag manufacturers.
The blood bag manufacturers will integrate our enzymes into their systems and sell them to suppliers, such as the Canadian Blood Services and the American Red Cross. Blood bag manufacturers are large multinational companies with extensive distribution networks. The sale of these bags is dominated by a small group of companies, and blood bag systems are a relatively commoditized product. Being able to offer a premium system that converts A-type blood to O-blood will provide our partners with a competitive advantage. We are in early discussions with a few of these companies and are encouraged by their level of interest.
There is another use case for whole blood transfusions for wounded soldiers in frontline military scenarios. Both the US and Canadian Armed Forces have shown interest in our technology for this purpose.
Q: What keeps you up at night?
A: A major concern is how we can continue to secure the necessary investment to fund our product development programs. This is of course dependent upon many different things. However, a very important factor is how authorities, such as the United States FDA, will view our product from a regulatory perspective.
Since there is no other technology approved for this purpose, there are different perceptions around our regulatory path. We recently submitted a Pre-Submission (or Q-Sub) information meeting request to the FDA. This process allows companies to request feedback on potential and planned medical devices, biologics and drug submissions. Feedback from this meeting will inform product development planning and timelines, and thus our costs of development and time-to-market.
Potential investors and partners we are speaking with are also eagerly awaiting the outcome of this meeting, so it represents an important value inflection point for us. We expect to receive FDA recommendations in May of this year.
Q: What has been most helpful to you in building your business?
A: Without question, entrepreneurship@UBC was instrumental in the formation of ABOzymes as it literally brought the team together. Furthermore, we received feedback from a large variety of entrepreneurship@UBC’s mentors and entrepreneurs-in-residence.
We also benefited tremendously from participating in the 2020 New Ventures BC competition as we obtained valuable feedback during that process. We were thrilled to place in the top 10 of the 2020 competition.
I would also like to highlight the collaborative nature of BC’s life sciences community. Everyone tries to help everyone succeed. We get a lot of very useful feedback and advice within the community—there are many people trying to help us. Of course, we also want to acknowledge our investors that participated in our pre-seed round of financing. The response and belief in our team was amazing.
Q: When do you predict we will live in a world where blood types are obsolete?
A: It will be a reality from a product standpoint in five years. What I mean by that is that I think we will have the A to O and B to O products approved by regulatory authorities and commercially available within this timeframe. At this time, there will be the potential for all donated A, AB and B blood and organs to be converted to O. Therefore, our technology will considerably de-risk the management and logistics of the blood and organ supply to the healthcare system.
However, in order for blood types to be truly obsolete the healthcare system needs to fully adopt and pay for this technology. This will take longer. Healthcare systems are notoriously slow to adopt innovations when there is an additional associated cost. I believe the real-world use of the technology will demonstrate the net benefit to the healthcare system over time.
Q: Do you have a favourite book you like to recommend?
A: I can’t choose one so here are a few novels that I have found particularly wise:
Both offer so much in terms of dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty, which I believe is a large component to our entrepreneurial journey.
Another book I want to highlight is “The Comeback Quotient” by Matt Fitzgerald. The author uses endurance athletes as case studies in order to develop a framework for “ultra-realism,” a mental fitness mindset that enables individuals to fully accept, embrace and address reality. I think this framework applies well to the startup experience—as well as life in general.
ABOzymes hopes to have exciting partnership news to announce in the near future and will post this information to their social media accounts when they’re able to do so, so be sure to follow them on Twitter to stay in the loop: @ABOzymes
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