For our latest series of blogs, we’ve been speaking to the final Young Entrepreneurs Programme (RG YEP) award winning startups and their mentors, to hear more about their innovative business ideas and their RG YEP experience. In our first blog, we speak to RG YEP Rising Star Award winner Estelle Botbol, Founder of Nanoshield, and her mentor Dr Nicolas Huber, CEO of ProteinLogic Ltd. Estelle and the Nanoshield team, Simeon Superville, Maximilian Gray and Yasmin Dosanjh, met during their masters degree in biotechnology at Imperial College London. Nanoshield are developing a dragonfly inspired material designed to protect surfaces from bacteria. Specifically for use with medical equipment, bacteria sticks to the surfaces of such equipment and becomes up to 10,000 times more resistant to antibiotics than normal bacteria. The aim is to combat the problem of increased antibiotic resistance. This issue presents a big threat to lives, it will be the leading cause of death by 2050, and costs hospitals a significant amount – hospitals spend £4 billion per year due to longer stays and ineffective antibiotic treatments.
Currently the most commonly used coating for medical equipment is silver – but this is expensive, and only has a 40% efficacy rate. By comparison, Nanoshield will be more affordable and has a 99% efficacy rate. The team has had validation from experts and the NHS that there is a need for a solution. In particular the catheter market is dominated by two main companies, both of which have shown interest in Nanoshield’s product and an Austrian manufacturing company has agreed to manufacture products for R&D purposes.
The Nanoshield team participated in the RG YEP Ignite workshop at Imperial College. In October 2019 Vasiliki Chounta, Global Health Director at Viiv Healthcare (Pfzier/ GSK) helped to develop their business idea at the Ignite workshop then from January to March 2020, Dr Nicolas Huber, CEO of ProteinLogic Ltd, a novel diagnostic technology platform in the biotech sector, became the team’s dedicated mentor during the accelerate phase of the programme. Nicolas, who previously worked in the aerospace sector, works in biomedical sciences and focuses on medical device research and commercialisation. Nicolas is an experienced mentor, he has mentored healthcare start-ups through established accelerators including RG for the past few years.
Interview with Estelle Botbol, Founder of Nanoshield
RG: So, how did you all meet and first come up with this idea?
Estelle: We met during our masters degree in biotechnology. We came up with the idea during our Antibiotic Resistance class. We were delivering presentations on interesting papers and Simeon (team member) talked about dragonfly wings and their antimicrobial properties. I instantly thought it would be amazing to recreate the material synthetically to prevent medical devices and catheters from getting infected.
RG: Your team is made up of four biotech students – how have you found developing a business idea alongside your study commitments?
Estelle: It was very challenging because we had deadlines for our master and had to intentionally set deadlines for our business. But everyone was very motivated which made it easier. The other good thing is that our masters includes a Biotechnology Entrepreneurship module which helped us set milestones and practice pitching.
RG: Antibiotic resistance has been a well-known problem for some time – why has it not been addressed before now?
Estelle: Antibiotic resistance is a large problem and nowadays most research is oriented towards the ESKAPE pathogens. They are free-floating bacteria that are resistant to most antibiotics. But free-floating bacteria are not the only problem. Biofilms are clumps of bacteria that stick to surfaces and that are 10,000 more times resistant to antibiotics. In this case, it is not individual bacteria but the structure that is resistant. Discovering new antibiotics to treat biofilms and ESKAPE pathogens is a dead-end because bacteria naturally evolve to acquire resistance. We will be preventing biofilms rather than treating them with a physical alternative to antibiotics.
RG: You said in your RG YEP presentation that other nanospike designs damage human cells, and therefore haven’t proved scalable. Are you able to explain how Nanoshield avoids the same problem?
Estelle: This is our little secret! All I can tell is that other nano spikes have been shown to damage humans cells and this can be a problem when materials are implanted and undergo friction. We are preventing that, and that is what will make us unique and patentable.
RG: What was your main reason for entering RG YEP and what was the most important thing you took from the programme?
Estelle: RG YEP was a great opportunity to learn more about business and entrepreneurship. As science students, we were used to generating ideas but not commercialising them. The most important part of the Young Entrepreneurs Programme was the mentoring. We were able to take our idea to a promising biotechnology company in less than 5 months. The mentors were very specialised in the Healthcare/Biotech sector and this was extremely useful for our financial model, business model and customer validation.
RG: Congratulations on winning the Rising Star Award. What does this mean for you personally and for Nanoshield’s future plans?
Estelle: The Rising Star Award means a lot to us personally. It illustrates our hard-work and dedication to battle antibiotic resistance. The other participants had amazing ideas and strong team members with a lot of experiences. But I think our main strength was the progress we made in such a little amount of time.
RG: What impact do you anticipate the current COVID-19 crisis will have on your immediate plans and the opportunities for your idea?
Estelle: We were planning on prototyping and testing our material in April but laboratories are closed at the moment. But instead of waiting, we decided to start a freedom-to-operate study.
RG: You were matched with Nicolas Huber, CEO of ProteinLogic Ltd, as your RG mentor. Had you worked with a mentor before & how did you approach your mentoring relationship during the programme?
Estelle: I had never worked with a mentor before. I believe the best approach is to be flexible: accept that your company has many areas of improvements and try to learn as much as I can from experienced individuals.
RG: Nicolas’ experience in the area of medical device research is very relevant to Nanoshield’s product. What key insights could Nicolas offer you from his knowledge and experience?
Estelle: Nicolas knew about the medical devices market and tailored me through a licensing business strategy rather than mass producing. He also helped me on many other aspects such as team management, patenting, financial modelling and pitching. Nicolas’ mentoring was transformative. He kept repeating me “Estelle, this is not a project, this is a company” and this is really a summary of what happened. At the start of YEP, Nanoshield was a blurry project with an unstable base. At the end of YEP, Nanoshield became a promising company.
Interview with Dr Nicolas Huber, Nanoshield’s RG Mentor
RG: Your professional focus is on medical device research and commercialisation. What was your initial impression of Nanoshield’s idea?
Nicolas: As the current pandemic is showing, we are woefully underprepared for dealing with new infections, and especially with superbugs. We need to find novel ways to fight them without the use of antibiotics, as we are running out of options in the drugs space. The promise of the Nanoshield concept was the first thing that attracted me to the company, due its potential for very significant social impact over time in the fight against antimicrobial resistant infections.
RG: How did your skills and experience help to develop Nanoshield’s idea & their RG YEP pitch?
Nicolas: As a CEO myself, my experience in honing the message, understanding the hurdles ahead, and building valid business propositions were the skills I drew upon to help the team with. My main focus was to ensure that the team explored commercialisation options and decided on a very specific route to market to inform their financial ask. I also drove the point of making the value proposition crystal clear when presenting, of selling the bigger picture but being 100% grounded in reality for the tactical steps needed to be taken. Ultimately, investors/judges above all need to feel confident that you can execute your vision, and this is where my skills were helpful to the team.
RG: How did you see the Nanoshield team develop throughout the RG YEP journey?
Nicolas: I primarily worked with Estelle, the CEO. She is a real pleasure to work with because she is very enthusiastic, asked a lot of questions, and is very happy to receive direction and advice. In the few weeks I worked with her, I saw her understanding growing on the fact that her concept is a business above all, and then a technology. As she is transitioning out of her studies, I watched her take on the mantle of CEO significantly, realising to some extent what is required of her. It is very refreshing to see someone grow so rapidly into a role that they had no exposure to before.
RG: You have mentored various healthcare related start-ups over the past few years. What is your mentoring style and has it changed as you’ve gained more experience?
Nicolas: My mentoring style is very conversational and very open. After all, it is the CEO’s/team’s vision that will drive the company, not that of the mentor. I do my best to highlight opportunities and, maybe more importantly, pitfalls ahead, ensuring the team is grounded and they understand the size of the challenge ahead of them to make better informed decisions. From then on, I let them develop their idea in the direction they find is more promising, be that through customer validation or through market size.
Thank you to Estelle and Nicolas for sharing their RG YEP story. In terms of the team’s immediate next steps, Nanoshield need investment of £30,000 to get proof of concept and patent application started. Nanoshield’s RG YEP prize includes a place on RG Challenge, Reload Greece’s intensive 10-day accelerator programme, which supports startups to become investment ready and consulting services by PwC. We look forward to working alongside Nanoshield at the RG Challenge accelerator programme. To fast track your startup, applications to our next RG Challenge accelerator are open now!