InvitroCue, a Singapore-based biotech company, made its debut on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX: IVQ) on Jan 27 2016, – just four years after its founding. Theis spin-off company from A*STAR, announced that it had raised an AUD 3.15 Million (SGD3.17 Million) on the ASX through a reverse takeover. On March 1st, 2016, they announced the expansion of their cell-based laboratory facility in China.
In a chat with Biotechin.Asia, InvitroCue Co-founder Dr Steven Fang along with Dr. Abhishek Ananthanarayanan, one of the first pioneering members spoke about their technology, challenges faced, future prospects and insights gleaned over the course of years.
Can you tell us more about your company’s technology?
We focus on two core technologies. One is the cell-based assays and the other is Digital Pathology (Image Analytics).
With the Cell-based assay, we maintain the liver cells in 3D culture for a prolonged time, representing a faithful mimic of the in vivo liver. We use these in vitro models to do chronic or repeated dose toxicity studies and perform safety assessment services to test experimental drug compounds.
The second core technology development focuses on Imaging Analytics; and we currently operate in the space of digital pathology, which is a relatively intact research area. It is more about quantitative image analysis.
Our CuePath platform converts pathology images derived from pathology glass slides to digital and optical images, and subsequently archive and transmit via our CuePath to various other pathologists.
If you look at pathology, there is a lot of variability when different pathologists read the information, so through image analytics we do feature extraction on these digitised images and use machine learning algorithms to analyse them so that you get consistent readouts for any pathological sample and this way there will not be any inter-observer variation at all. This could expedite preclinical research outcome.
Using machine learning to analyse pathological images hasn’t been done yet?
Image feature extraction and analytics for healthcare are not being exploited to the maximum extent. It has been used traditionally for facial recognition and video recognition, but isn’t used much for healthcare images. If you look at pathology, very few groups have done any work on this.
What is the USP of your product?
The key advantage of our analytics solution is that:
- We are able to digitise and quantify and do the analytics behind it. We are able to extract certain features which cannot be discerned by naked eye. Like for eg. in liver samples we are able to identify even the different states of fibrosis, which only feature extraction can help.
- Our software can work across any scanner vendor, so we extract the meta data and reconstruct the image.
- These digitized images can also be used for educational purposes.
- Analytics right now is done on liver cancer, fibrosis with some work on biomarkers. The same approach can be used for any type of image analysis, but you may have to build a data set with enough clinical data for a particular disease, so that you can train your algorithm.
- Our technology is a unique combination of feature extraction, artificial intelligence and machine learning.
*Can you tell us more about your team?
In a startup, we need people with natural ability and desire to lead. In InvitroCue’s case, Dr Fang and Prof Yu are experienced mentors who inspire and coach the pioneering team members to better themselves and advance the company to greater heights. Prof. Hanry Yu is a veteran in interdisciplinary research who has maintained a keen interest in industry and academia, while Dr. Steven Fang is a seasoned entrepreneur, who has successfully led startups to IPO in ASX.
*What is your market strategy?
Due to the fundamentally different natures of our two technologies, we chose to adopt distinctive market strategies. We made the strategic decision to secure our revenue by selling customized cell-based assay models to the global pharmaceutical companies through collaborative partnerships and services-based contracts. In return, this secured revenue is used to support our digital pathology business development and marketing implementation. We are amazed to see the uptake of the pathology services in strategic research programs, and as a result, we have managed to sell both technologies and services to all corners.
How is the reception to your technology?
Oncologists are interested. From a research-driven standpoint it is very useful because you can correlate genomics with image analytics. However, it will take some time for pathologists to use it as a standalone tool for diagnostics, because in pathology, the ultimate decision maker is the pathologist, and any wrong-doing may result in felony charges in some countries. So, even though it aids in diagnosis, it may take a little more time before it becomes widely used.
Your company recently announced the expansion of your cell-based laboratory facility to China?
The expansion of InvitroCue to China is part of our strategic investment plans for China, to meet the current and future growth of the drug development in China.
The laboratory facility shall provide preclinical testing services to biopharmaceutical clients in Suzhou Industrial Park and in the greater Shanghai areas. InvitroCue China provides full-service offerings in cell-based assaying services, which include custom tissue development service, in vitro toxicology and in vitro skin and cosmetic product safety testings.
With these capabilities, the Suzhou laboratory facility will be able to support multinational companies in developing and testing new drugs and cosmetics products.
Why did you decide to launch in China?
Cosmetics spending patterns in China and the emergence of e-commerce are expected to drive up cosmetics sales in China. Animal tests are no longer mandatory for non-special use cosmetics produced in china – a move towards ending animal testing of cosmetics.
Dr Li Qushi, Head of Operations, China Business Unit, Suzhou explains, “We know that many cosmetics companies will be keen to sell in China without the risk that their products are tested on animals in China. We are pleased to broaden the in vitro assays to testing requirements for the domestic skin products. We hope to make progressive steps in this area and contribute to the non-animal testing movement.”
*What are the things to remember when thinking of potential exits?
When you are looking for potential exit for the company, you should keep your eyes on the horizon – the global market – as it is important to identify a compatible match between your company and market demand. We choose ASX because ASX has a better market understanding for early-stage biotech companies. Singapore and United States stock markets are more suited for mid-to-large size companies, However, it does not preclude us from being listed in other markets when opportunities arise down the road.
What are the points to remember when venturing into foreign markets like China?
Dr. Steven Fang: China is a big market with a lot of growth opportunities but its a different market. We spent the last year trying to understand the market, and established our presence by working with partners and understanding how the overall healthcare system works.
1) You need to be focussed, you need to know exactly which area or part of the market you want to enter. One of the mistakes that many companies make is that they think, “Ah since we are going there, let’s try a few more things.” Trying a few things typically becomes one of the key reasons for failure, even for big companies. So, Focus. Let it be small success but get going, develop some credibility and then people will come to you.
2) Hire good local people. Many companies think about just sending their people there, but I say, localisation is the key to get anything off the ground.
3) Have a clear understanding of the regulatory policies of that country. A lot of companies, especially in our space, underestimate the effort needed to overcome the regulatory or to meet regulatory requirements.
When you look back at your entrepreneurial journey, what are the lessons you learnt? Any tips for youngsters wishing to do a startup in this space?
Dr. Abhishek Ananthanarayanan says–
- You have to take risks
- Think Globally. Aim to go global in the future.
- It is important whom do you train with. Most of the scientists are just looking at what is happening in the lab and are focussed on one small topic. It is not bad, but if you want to undertake an entrepreneurial venture, you have to look beyond the project you are working on. It also helps to be in a lab that is translational in a way. Of course the basic science must be sound, but also look at what problems you are going to address.
- Talking to people in Pharma, in the commercial sector is very important as you get feedback as to what is exactly required. As a scientist you think whatever you are doing is really important and valuable, but a lot of times when you commercialize it, you find it doesn’t have much value. So it’s important to listen to what your clients want and then go back and innovate based on that.
* These questions were sourced from our collaborator – Biotech Connection Singapore’s article. Click here to read it.