Thinking (Truly) Outside The Box: Crowdfunding Meets a Biotech Startup

Author: Flavia Scialpi Edited by: Burcu Anil Kirmizitas

Dr Lysimachos Zografos is the CEO of Parkure, a Scottish startup that originated from an idea developed initially in a research project (http://parkure.co.uk/). During his PhD and postdoc at the University of Edinburgh, Dr Zografos contributed to the development of a simple and effective tool to discover compounds in a high-throughput manner to fight Parkinson’s disease in vivo.

Parkure, based in Edinburgh, started off its path in a brilliant way by securing a 5-digit figure through an ambitious and creative crowdfounding campaign in 2015. Parkure aims to discover drugs that can either impair or stop the progression of Parkinson’s.

Dr Zografos’s story as an entrepreneur starts like many other scientists’ stories. Initially interested in an academic career, he pursued a PhD determined to give his career a solid structure. Early on in his postdoc he discovered the many issues a PhD graduate has to face in academia in terms of job security. He also realised that he was personally more interested in the management aspect of his research project than in being “hands-on” with the experimental side. One of the many useful skills learned in the lab environment is to diversify, so he thought to put it to good use. Instead of aiming to lead his own lab, he thought to lead his own startup.

Inspired by his boss Prof J. Douglas Armstrong, he began looking at the main technical tool developed during his research in a different way. Using genetically engineered Drosophila fruit flies that expressed human genes involved in several central nervous system diseases, Prof Armstrong’s group aimed to test the efficacy of different drugs. The results obtained with this system were so interesting and promising that a small pharmaceutical company approached them with the request to test a few compounds. Dr Zografos and his colleagues started thinking outside the box: using this tool as a service to test a few drugs on a larger scale would have been inefficient from an economic point of view, while using it to discover new purposes of known compounds would have been cost-efficient with the advantage of having data generated in vivo. In other words, they thought to adopt a “drug repurposing” approach, testing compounds already approved for human use in order to maximise the chances of identifying potential therapeutic candidates ready to go into clinical research. Neurodegenerative diseases appeared to perform the best using this tool, and Parkinson’s offered a promising market.

Prof J. Douglas Armstrong is an academic that always nurtured the business-oriented aspect of his projects, and generously mentored Dr Zografos in building the foundations of Parkure. “As in academia, an entrepreneur’s success greatly depends on who is inspiring and mentoring them”, Dr Zografos remarked several times during our chat.

Finding equity was the following challenge. Not differently from an academic once again, Dr Zografos started applying for grants and fellowships. During his studies at the University of Edinburgh he found out about the University initiative “Launch.ed”, which helped him to get started. Initially, things were a little bit more difficult than expected and he grew a bit discouraged. Attracting funding for budding drug discovery ventures is extremely difficult, so he and his colleagues had a radical thought: “why not try crowdfunding?” which turned out to be a great idea. Parkure successfully attracted over £75,000 through the platform ShareIn, using a short video describing its vision and goals, and how they wanted to reach those goals (watch it here: https://youtu.be/cxA5Dm7xhDs). Traditional advertisement and social media activity attracted attention and press coverage, giving the crowdfunding the exposure needed: Parkure became the first biotechnology company to be bootstrapped. In addition to this successful attempt, Parkure secured a SMART grant from Scottish Enterprise and Dr Zografos was awarded a Royal Society of Edinburgh Enterprise fellowship.

Transitioning from academia to entrepreneurship brought many challenges for Dr Zografos, but at the same time it was empowering and rewarding. Finding his vocation in a different path than he initially thought was reinvigorating his enthusiasm. Talking to him, it was clear that although there were (and there will be) turns and bumps on the way, thinking outside the box has always been the right strategy to bring out the best of himself and to successfully approach and overcome all challenges.

According to Dr Zografos’s personal experience, in the world of start-ups’, there is generally willingness to share tips and knowledge. Basic business skills and basic social skills go hand in hand, networking is as crucial as in academia – a more competitive world in comparison- but much more developed and implemented at any level. He is not afraid to ask for help (even if he has to reach out to some “bigger fish”) and he found that most people are happy to help. Reciprocally, he is happy to help anyone who asks him for help.

So, what are the key points that make a scientist, inside or outside academia, successful? First, looking for inspiration, being creative, developing a diversified set of skills. Then, having an original idea and implementing it into a bigger picture, a vision even. Finally, looking for funding, networking extensively in order to expand knowledge, and experience.

Dr Zografos’ story, as well as Parkure’s, highlights once again the great potential that the same set of skills can have in very different settings. Science has always been intertwined with innovation and courage, with passion and drive, and now more than ever, the future belongs to creative minds that are willing and excited to step out of “the comfort zone”.