Listen to this article
Landmines, cholera and yellow fever regularly lead to high death tolls but all three are dwarfed by the impact of snake bites, which each year effect 5.5 million people, killing about 125,000 with over 400,000 others needing amputations as a result. The deadly venom is a particular problem in Africa where less than 2 per cent of snake bite victims receive proper treatment. This is exacerbated by the cost, which can be as high as $800 a dose.
So it was that VenomAb, a Copenhagen-based biotech start-up set about finding an affordable solution. Three of its founders are scientists, who believe the answer to the cost problem lies in replacing conventional animal-derived anti-venoms with synthesised serums that are cheaper to produce. The fourth member of the team, business school graduate Alexandra Jakobsen, is on board to make the company commercially viable.
The team met and became friends during a Chinese study trip for Danish students interested in emerging markets. At the time Ms Jakobsen was studying for a degree in applied economics and finance, which she followed up with the Cems masters in management programme at HEC Paris.
It was while Ms Jakobsen was in France completing the Cems programme that her future co-founders contacted her with their product idea. “They had realised that they did not have the business acumen to make it work,” she recalls. “Luckily for me I was the person they thought of.”
Anti-venom serums to date have been developed using antibodies found in horse blood which are then injected with snake venom — an expensive process that also involves a risk. As many as 80 per cent of those who receive a vaccine may suffer adverse effects from having the horse blood in their system.
By analysing the venom from a variety of snakes — one member of the team is currently in Costa Rica analysing the Black Mamba — and identifying the most ‘medically relevant’ toxins in each, the team at VenomAb are developing a “polyvalent antivenom” which is able to treat bites from multiple species without the use of horse blood.
The Cems programme includes a requirement to work on a particular business project, which was a useful justification for Ms Jakobsen to improve her understanding of developing markets and the world of social business. She chose to look into the viability of creating a social business incubation fund for Care, a venture capital incubator programme aimed at helping non governmental organisation projects develop into self-sustaining businesses.
“This experience really opened up my eyes to all the stakeholders involved when running a social business,” Ms Jakobsen explains. “It turns out that doing well by doing good is not always a straight forward path.”
Ms Jakobsen also used the network available through the Cems social partners to test whether there was an actual demand for her team’s antivenom. This led to discussions with Médecins Sans Frontières whose neglected tropical disease unit expressed an interest in VenomAb’s research and the final product.
This is not to underplay the importance of the teaching. “Learning how to approach problems and break them down, how to do market research [and] how to carry out analysis are all highly useful skills in a start-up,” she says.
Overall, the value of the Cems programme to Ms Jakobsen was its practical approach. “Unlike many other programmes, [Cems] is not theory heavy, instead using cases and practical teaching. This is exemplied by the many business leaders and ex-chief executives who teach.”
The VenomAb team have to date secured $800,000 in university grants, which will fund up to two years of research for the first product. Last March the team also won a competition giving them office space at the Copenhagen Entrepreneurship Lab for the Life Sciences (Cells), an incubator space for start-ups at the Copenhagen Bio Science Park, by the city’s main university campus.
“We will need lots more long term, patient capital to get to market, which is why I spend a lot of time entering these competitions,” Ms Jakobsen says. “We are not after investors looking for a quick return.”
The plan is to raise a further $1m next year to continue this work further, followed by a much larger round, of up to $12m, to take the product through clinical trials. If this turns out to be successful, clinical testing with snakebite victims is the next step.
Although most of these stages are science-focused, Ms Jakobsen is trying to figure out how to make the antivenom affordable to end users by 2018 and supplied in sufficient quantities to meet demand. This entails joining forces with philanthropic organisations interested in fighting what arguably is the world’s most neglected disease as well as entering into dialogues with African governments and companies, in order to better understand the African markets.
“What is fun is that we are a bit different, so it makes you more interesting compared to other start-ups. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but . . . what we do is a matter of life and death. That really motivates me.”
Drawing board revisited: Where are they now?
It’s child’s play for Tiggly
It was in late 2013 that six Harvard MBA students hit the news with a pre-school toy designed to fill middle-class Christmas stockings in the US, writes Della Bradshaw.
Tiggly is a range of toys and apps that brings together traditional physical toys — for example, the shape sorter was the first — with the iPad. According to the inventors, although an increasing number of young children have taken to the iPad with alacrity, they still need to manipulate physical objects for brain development and motor skills.
Less than two years later, this combination of physical and digital play is an idea that has gained traction with aspirational parents and investors alike. The Harvard founders have so far raised $4m, which has enabled them to expand the range of toys; a maths product is already selling well and a language product will be released this year.
Bart Clareman, one of the six Harvard MBAs who developed Tiggly as part of their Field 3 project, in which students have three months in which to develop a microbusiness, is now chief operating officer.
The initial launch of the toy “feels like a lifetime ago,” he says. The number of staff employed by Tiggly has tripled to nearly 20 and the company is expanding its sales outlets from niche to large-scale retailers. Mr Clareman also has his sights set on international markets, such as Canada and the UK.
Hidden pitfalls for Raid
Not even business plans compiled with military precision are always successful.
When Seth Norman joined Stanford Graduate School of Business, the former US army captain worked with a team of fellow students to develop a intravenous drip for use in combat. The Rapid Autonomous Infusion Device (Raid) works like a balloon, relying on external air pressure rather than gravity to deliver fluids, thus freeing up the soldier who used to hold up the IV bag.
But even though Raid could potentially save lives, events have overtaken it. “The good news is that wars are ending,” says Mr Norman. “From a military standpoint it’s a Catch 22. The focus is on closing things down and reducing spending, so it’s tough.” Existing IV bags work well enough,” continues Mr Norman. “This is what they [the US military] are trained to use, so to try something new is hard.”
The lengthy patent process has meant that Raid will not get its “final, final patent” until the summer, and then Mr Norman believes it could have a future in disaster recovery and emergency service scenarios. In the meantime, all three of the Stanford participants are pursuing their own careers, one as a paediatric resident, another running an overseas investment group, and Mr Norman running the sales and marketing team for a healthcare company.
“One of the hard things I learnt at business school,” says Mr Norman, “is that the world is awash in great ideas that don’t have a business model.”
This article has been amended since publication to update the statistic referring to snakebites
Get alerts on Starting a business when a new story is published