At a glance
You may have heard the saying ‘let food be your medicine and your medicine be your food’, but what if that were literally the case?
Auckland-based startup Helico is exploring just that: using plants to produce therapeutic, life-saving compounds and, ultimately, edible medicine.
The business’ big vision is to replace pharmaceutical factories with ‘pharming’ – growing high-value therapeutic compounds via low-tech agriculture – and its first target to prove the concept is insulin.
“It sounds like science fiction,” admits Ilya Vensky, but thanks to recent advances in technology, it could be a reality within three to five years, says the Helico CEO.
Plants have an ability to store all kinds of compounds, and Helico is exploring using targeted modifications to enable bioaccumulation of certain target molecules within plant cells, essentially turning them into tiny, living pharmaceutical factories.
Established 18 months ago, Helico is capitalising on recent advances in computational biology, such as Google’s AlphaFold, where the use of AI and machine learning is unlocking scientists’ capability to explore areas that were previously not possible.
By harnessing the power of supercomputers (the business taps into NeSI – a NZ supercomputer network for academic research – and is also in the process of purchasing its own machine) to screen, explore, and test candidates, he says, the concept is now possible to pursue commercially.
The number of New Zealanders with type 2 diabetes is expected to increase 70-90% in the next 20 years, with the annual cost of the disease projected to rise by 63% to $3.5 billion over that time.
Helico’s technology could also help overcome issues with accessing medicines, such as those caused by supply chain disruption due to trade wars and disasters, by enabling territories to ‘grow their own’ drug supplies, without the need for costly factories.
“In NZ, insulin is purchased from offshore via government channels and subsidised programmes right now, but if there’s no supply available, or it’s blocked, what’s the solution? And that’s just in NZ; many other countries are more vulnerable.”
Building a team
Still in its market validation phase, Helico aims to identify compounds that have issues with conventional production in certain territories, such as being only required in small amounts that don’t justify investment in a factory. It would then license the technology to a partner in that territory to grow and extract the compound at source, says Vensky.
Helico currently has a team of 10 and Vensky says the challenge is to scale fast and build an experienced science team with limited resources.
To help achieve this, the business has used Callaghan Innovation Student Grants. It found its two lead bioinformatics engineers via internships supported by R&D Experience Grants, and is now exploring Career Grants to support two postdoctoral students to work in the business, and further accelerate its R&D.
Drawing on Callaghan Innovation support has been vital when growing a deep-tech venture, where risk is high and development pathways are long: “Without Callaghan Innovation’s help,” says Vensky, “we wouldn’t be here today.”
Helico has accessed services through the HealthTech Activator – a coordinated, ecosystem-wide support mechanism for early-stage founders and businesses in NZ’s healthtech sector, run by Callaghan Innovation with Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) funding.
Vensky describes a HealthTech Activator market validation workshop the business attended, for example, as “world class”.
“The workshop was specifically for businesses in the health field, and the facilitator was highly experienced in health. The session gave us a whole framework for market validation – how to schedule and conduct customer interviews to really test our assumptions and avoid the typical mistakes startups make.”
Vensky has remained in touch with the workshop facilitator, who has provided valuable connections within NZ’s R&D ecosystem that have uncovered further research collaboration opportunities.
Accessing Callaghan Innovation’s Beyond IP programme, which helps businesses create an intangible asset strategy to realise true business value, has also helped when building a team around such novel technology.
“Using EverEdge Global, the programme enabled us to educate our entire team about things like risk structure, patents, trade secrets, and licensing opportunities. It’s important when you’re growing a cross-disciplinary team to have that common knowledge as a foundation,” says Vensky.
And more recently, Helico undertook further IP work with Callaghan Innovation support, accessing the expertise of Catalyst IP Partner and former Harvard Medical School postdoctoral research fellow John Mansell to carry out a Freedom to Operate search.
Helico’s long-term vision is to be a platform for the production of multiple compounds. But an even wider opportunity beckons, says Vensky.
“Our real aspiration is to reposition the NZ agricultural story, from being based on commodities to highly specialised R&D. The opportunity to grow very desirable and expensive compounds using agricultural methods fits with NZ’s story, and with future markets.”
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Updated: 7 September 2022