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Blog 02 - Rosa’s journey from the lab-bench to commercialisation

The core idea for the science that underpins Rosa Biotech dates back to a meeting in Dek Woolfson’s office at the University of Bristol in spring 2017. Dek’s enthusiastic at the best of times, but he was particularly animated as he and a small group of post-docs and PhD students laid out a plan to develop a new type of biosensor – one that would be based on designed proteins.


Fundamental science with real-world applications


Dek’s academic group specialise in designing brand new protein structures and, over the years, they’ve been pretty successful in finding uses for the proteins they’ve designed. For instance, during my PhD I was developing some of these proteins to form a gel that could be used to culture neuronal cells – the idea being that this would be a better mimic of the human brain than a petri dish. During his time with the group, Jordan – our principal scientist at Rosa – designed self-assembling protein cages as potential platforms for vaccine development and drug delivery.


One of the alpha-helical barrels designed by the Woolfson group that forms part of Rosa's sensing platform.

In 2011, Dek's group designed the first ever example of a new protein structure, known as an alpha-helical barrel. Aside from representing the culmination of decades of ground-breaking protein design work, this barrel was particularly interesting, as it could bind certain molecules within its central channel. Since then, the group has designed many different alpha-helical barrels with subtly different channel properties, meaning that each one binds to analytes in solution to different extents. The group's proposed biosensor would exploit this by using a selection of these barrels (or an array) that would produce an analyte-specific fingerprint in response to different single analytes and complex mixtures. Hence, we dubbed the project Barrel Array Diagnostics and SenSing, from which you can decipher Dek’s pet name for the project.


After two years of research by members of Dek's group (Will Dawson, Guto Rhys, Chris Wood, Kathryn Shelley, Lucia Lombardi, Jordan and I) we found that our array of alpha-helical barrels was able to differentiate between a variety of single biomarkers and complex mixtures. Our combined efforts developed the technology from proof-of-concept to a commercially tractable biosensor in the space of two years.


The Woolfson research group, summer 2018. Jordan (third from right), Kathryn (fourth from right), Will (fifth from right), Arne (sixth from right), Chris (ninth from right), Guto (eleventh from right) and Dek (twelfth from right).

Like many other academic scientists though, we had little idea how to commercialise our research. Luckily for us, the excellent work of Harry Destecoix and Ziylo, as well as Andy Boyce in his role as innovations manager of BrisSynBio at The University of Bristol, had blazed a trail out of academia that we could follow. We teamed up with Andy, now our CEO, and he and Dek completed an initial raise of £760,000 from a stellar group of angel investors to commercialise our technology.


Two years after the original idea had been conceived, Dek and Andy formed Rosa Biotech and set up at Unit DX. Jordan and I soon joined them, and Tania LaGambina recently completed the team as our computational scientist.


Switching academia for an early-stage spinout


It was my opinion during much of my PhD - and I think one that a lot of academic scientists share - that there were few opportunities to do creative, self-driven research outside of academia. As part of the scientific team at Rosa, I not only get to continue to do this, but do so in a way that shapes the scientific strategy of the company and translates into tangible real-world impact away from the lab. As a PhD student, I was generally responsible for my own research project, perhaps also that of an undergraduate student. At Rosa, my contribution has a big impact upon the team, and so I have a responsibility to the whole company to do a good job. Being part of a team with a common goal isn't always a characteristic of academic research, but it’s essential to a good biotech company. That is one aspect that I'm really enjoying.


My involvement in both the science and business development behind Rosa was one of my biggest achievements during my PhD. It’s great to be able to continue the journey as an employee at the company.

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