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Africa Series III

Africa Series III

The final post of our Africa series was curated by last year’s Ambassador Laurinda Mqhaba. Join us as we discover the inspiring journey of Dr. Nick Walker, co-founder of OneBio, as we delve into the intersection of science and entrepreneurship in the African biotech sector. 


Biotech start-ups

By Laurinda Mqhaba

Biotech start-ups are revolutionizing the healthcare industry through advancements in genomics, precision medicine, and gene therapy. These entrepreneurial ventures leverage biological systems to develop innovative products for various industries, with a primary focus on improving human health (1). Biotech start-ups are crucial for driving innovation within healthcare as they pursue cutting-edge research that larger pharmaceutical companies may overlook. They also contribute significantly to job creation and economic growth (2).

These start-ups have made fundamental impacts in specific areas therapy by developing targeted treatments based on genetic information, integrating patient-specific data with advanced analytics tools, and exploring gene editing techniques(4). However, they face challenges such as high research costs and regulatory hurdles. Despite these obstacles, biotech start-ups continue to thrive due to their commitment to pushing boundaries and making a positive impact on human health (5).

The future of biotech start-ups looks promising with advancements in technology like artificial intelligence and big data analytics opening up new avenues for innovation (6). Collaboration between academia, industry leaders, and government agencies will further accelerate progress in areas such as regenerative medicine, immunotherapy, and bioengineering. Ultimately, biotech start-ups play a vital role in shaping the landscape of healthcare by tackling complex medical challenges with agility and fresh perspectives. With ongoing support and investment from both public and private sectors, we can expect even greater advancements in improving human health.

Spotlight on ONEBIO’S mission

In 2018, Michael Fichardt and Dr. Nick Walker co-founded OneBio. Their inspiration was rooted in the potential of biology to improve the world, alongside a firm belief in Africa’s scientific and entrepreneurial talent to establish competitive biotech companies on the global arena. Unfortunately, in January 2022, the biotech world lost a luminary when Michael Fichardt, one of OneBio’s co-founders, passed away. His legacy remains a vital catalyst in the evolution of South Africa’s flourishing biotech sector.

A Closer Look at OneBio: (https://www.onebio.africa/why-onebio).

During this blog interview we will embark on an exploration of the biotech with Dr Nick Walker, the co-founder behind OneBio. We will be delving into the unique journey that has shaped his experiences in the industry, from pivotal moments to the inception of OneBio. This conversation provides insights into the interplay between science and entrepreneurship, offering a real-world perspective on translating scientific expertise into entrepreneurial endeavours. Dr Walker shares practical strategies for navigating the dynamic field of Business Development and Technology startups, shedding light on the evolving biotech sector.

 

 Diverse Roles and Journey:

1. Please can you take us through your journey, from your early career choices to becoming a Co-founder, Scientist, and Entrepreneur? How have these roles intertwined to shape your unique perspective?

I was always interested in science and business and so naturally the intersection of the two is where I have ended up. At OneBio, we believe that biotechnology holds the potential to positively impact the world and the best way to see this materialise is through business. But as an investor in biotech businesses, it is essential to understand the underlying science and technology on which they are built.

 

2. What pivotal moments or experiences have significantly influenced your path in the biotech industry?


I can identify three moments that have defined my career path:

Firstly, deciding to continue studying for my PhD. It’s silly as I don’t think I am much more skilled having a PhD than a masters but to some, the title is important and it has been massively beneficial.

Secondly, I won the Singularity University Global Impact Challenge in 2015. This awarded me a scholarship to attend the Singularity University Global Solutions Programme in Silicon Valley in 2016. This really fostered my love of entrepreneurship and outlined the opportunity that tech in general has to solve big problems.

Thirdly, deciding to start my own company. Through the Singularity programme, I met my co-founder of OneBio, Michael Fichardt. He attended the programme in 2015 and co-organized the Global Impact Challenge competition which I later won. Post my programme in 2016, we began spending more time together and eventually, OneBio was born.

 

ONEBIO’s Genesis and Mission:

1. Could you provide us with an in-depth understanding of the inception of ONEBIO? What prompted you to embark on this transformative journey?

Michael had a background in finance and investments and through his journey at Singularity University he became excited about the power of biotechnology and its potential to have a positive impact on the world. After I graduated, we began discussing the elements of an ecosystem that produces successful biotech companies. The three elements we identified after studying the most successful ecosystems in the world (San Francisco, Boston, Cambridge and others) were strong universities, support systems (incubators and accelerators) and Venture Capital funding. We knew we had good universities producing good scientists in South Africa, but we had no biotech-specific support systems and biotech-specific VC on the African Continent. So, we set out to create OneBio Venture Studio to address this.

 

2. How does ONEBIO’s mission align with your personal values and aspirations in the biotech landscape?

At OneBio we want to create and support companies that, if successful, will make the world a better place in one way or another. So, we focus on companies that will improve human and planetary health. Our view is that there are enough significant problems in the world that need solving, so rather than building another photo-sharing app, smart people should rather build a company that matters. If we can support meaningful companies that become successful, I personally will be very proud of our small contribution to their journey at the early stages.

 

 

Interplay of Science and Entrepreneurship:

1. As both an Innovation Scientist and Entrepreneur, how do you see the interplay between scientific innovation and business development shaping the future of biotechnology?

Some skills you acquire whilst becoming a scientist can be at odds with the skills required to be an entrepreneur. Scientists are conservative, having to make 100% sure of every data point before publishing their work. Entrepreneurship is a bit more “dreamy”. You have to sell a vision to investors, co-founders and employees and prove the science in parallel. Having said that, some skills are very complimentary. Both scientists and entrepreneurs are, in essence, problem solvers. Some of the critical reasoning skills one develops as a scientist can be very useful in business.

 

2. Can you share a specific instance where your scientific expertise directly influenced your entrepreneurial endeavors?

Early on in our fund’s life, we were very close to making an investment in a company. Having extensive experience in cell biology, I was able to look into their projections and form an opinion that their techno economic analysis was “ambitions” to say the least. We chose not to invest and later that year, a detailed techno economic model was published on the entire sector that this company was working in, that confirmed my suspicions.

 

Navigating Business Development and Technology Startups:

1.In the realm of Business Development and Technology startups, what strategies do you employ to identify and capitalize on emerging opportunities in the biotech sector?

Our underlying process is to assess teams. A great team with a bad idea will likely pivot and get it right in the long term. A bad team with a great idea has no chance of succeeding. Ideas are cheap and good talent is priceless.

 

2. How do you approach the challenge of integrating cutting-edge technologies into real-world solutions?

This is always a challenge but we believe that if companies are attacking a big problem in the world and they get the tech right, getting the regulatory or market buy in is a lesser problem.

 

Impact on Global Challenges:

Winning Singularity University’s Global Impact Challenge highlights your commitment to addressing global issues through technology. How do you envision biotechnology’s role in making a substantial impact on these larger societal challenges?

We believe that the convergence of biology and computational techniques such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) will be looked at in retrospect as a pivotal moment in human evolution. For the first time in history, we can cheaply generate enormous amounts of data on biological systems owing to advances in genome sequencing, microscopy and other technologies. This presents a problem: How do we make sense of this complex data? Serendipitously, massive advances in computational techniques such as AI and ML can make sense of a lot of this for us. This will give us the ability to better understand disease, leading to better ways to treat it. In combination with technologies like CRISPR, it will lead to us having the ability to precisely engineer biology to degrade pollutants and produce materials in a far more sustainable manner.

 

Guiding Emerging Biotech Leaders:

Mentoring emerging biotech leaders is a shared goal. Could you elaborate on your approach to mentoring and fostering growth in the next generation of biotech pioneers?

We try to get founders trying to solve a large problem in the world in a pragmatic way. Often, entrepreneurs approach us with technology without a problem. They have developed a technique or product and are trying to find a place where this product or service fits. We believe in the problem-first approach. If you are passionate about solving a problem and are agnostic to the technology to do so, we believe that you have a far better chance of being successful.

What advice would you offer to postgraduate students and young professionals aiming to contribute meaningfully to the biotech landscape?

Dream big. As Steve jobs once said, “Life can be so much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call ‘life’ was made up by people who were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”

 

 

 

REFERENCES

  1. Alivia Kaylor, 17 October 2023, The Impact of Biotechnology Breakthroughs in Healthcare, TechTarget Life Sciences Intelligence ( https://lifesciencesintelligence.com/features/unveiling-the-impact-of-biotechnology-breakthroughs-in-healthcare)
  2. FIERCE PHARMA. SMALL PHARMA DRIVING BIG PHARMA INNOVATION. HTTPS://WWW.PHARMAVOICE.COM/NEWS/2020-01-PHARMA-INNOVATION/612330/
  3. Thimbleby, H. (2013). Technology and the future of healthcare. Journal of Public Health Research, 2(3), jphr.2013.e28. https://doi.org/10.4081/jphr.2013.e28
  4. Why genome editing technologies are creating buzz in medicine. Isabelle Heiber & Elias Eckert. https://www.ey.com/en_gl/strategy/genome-editing-technologies-creating-buzz-in-medicine
  5. Start-ups in the time of COVID-19: Facing the challenges, seizing the opportunities. 13 May 2020. https://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/start-ups-in-the-time-of-covid-19-facing-the-challenges-seizing-the-opportunities-87219267/
  6. Tomy, S. and Pardede, E. (2018). From uncertainties to successful start-ups: a data analytic approach to predict success in technological entrepreneurship. Sustainability, 10(3), 602. https://doi.org/10.3390/su10030602

 

Laurinda Mqhaba is originally from South Africa. She is a medical science graduate and student at UKZN. She is also a data science intern at the KwaZulu-Natal centre for Radio astronomy Economic Advancement, Technology and Entrepreneurship (KREATE).

Mqhaba’s purpose of writing an article about the challenges in the biotechnology industry in Africa is to generate awareness, facilitate knowledge sharing, encourage dialogue on policy reforms, promote investment opportunities, and foster collaborative efforts. By shedding light on these challenges, the goal is to support the growth and development of biotech in Africa, recognizing its potential to contribute to advancements in healthcare, agriculture, and other vital sectors on the continent.

 

LinkedIn:  linkedin.com/in/laurinda-mqhaba-907855227