SIUOxford: From Idea to Start-up (Portable Sequencing and Self Driving Cars)

Author: Miguel Ramirez Hernandez Edited by: Emil Fristed

What does it really take to bring your research into the real world?

In the current zeitgeist of internet company unicorns valued in the billions of dollars, an increasing number of scientists are thinking about using and applying their own research findings to create a company, . Among all the success stories out of Silicon Valley and other epicentres of the digital economy, are these billion dollar start-ups realistically achievable for science academics, wanting to start a company based not on likes, but on solid science? Are there frameworks for success?

To explore these and related questions, the Science Innovation Union (SIU) in Oxford recently hosted the second talk in our series “From Idea to Start-up”. During the event, speakers from two successful start-ups originating from the University of Oxford shared their experiences translating science and technology into promising and successful companies: Oxford Nanopore Technologies and Oxbotica.

Oxford Nanopore Technologies: Disrupting the genome sequencing industry

The first speaker of the evening was Dr. Lakmal Jayasinghe, Director of Oxford Nanopore and Leader of the Oxford Nanopore Research Team. Oxford Nanopore Technologies (ONT) develops and manufactures portable DNA/RNA sequencing devices. The company is developing and offering a radically different way of doing genomic sequencing that is an alternative to traditional sequencing methodologies such as Sanger sequencing.

The technology behind ONT does not require PCR amplification or chemical labelling steps. Instead, it consists of electrophoretic devices that transport single DNA/RNA molecules across nano-pores. As each molecule passes through a single nanopore, individual nucleotides (building blocks of DNA/RNA) are detected and identified in real-time. Oxford Nanopore devices are affordable, portable and simple to operate in multiple and unconventional environments.

Oxford Nanopore’s path to success

According to Dr. Jayasinghe, the innovative technology behind ONT sequencing was first conceived over 25 years ago by Prof. Daniel Branton and Prof. David W. Deamer [1]. Their ground-breaking idea, consisting of sequencing a single polynucleotide molecule as it is transported across a nanopore, inspired numerous academic groups and companies seeking to materialise this technology. Ultimately, over the last 13 years a team of talented scientist and engineers led by Prof. Hagan Bayley at the University of Oxford developed the first working system, which eventually became the basis of ONT. Today, the company has over 430 employees headquartered in Oxford, with offices also in the US, China and Japan. Oxford Nanopore is currently valued around £1.5 billon.

OTN offers a range of DNA sequencing tools with different capabilities for a broad set of tasks. Compared to the classic sequencing companies, ONT sequencers differentiate themselves by combining real time sequencing, with a very small physical footprint. As Dr. Jayasinghe described, these sequencers are the first devices to “…access all areas: Anything, anywhere, and anyone”. 

Dr. Jayasinghe commented that the success of ONT was a result of a clear vision, strong leadership, effective communication, and adaptability. In addition, he highlighted the following points important to the success of ONT:

•  Having a strong, global, and long-term IP strategy: The company holds 620 issued patents.

•  Having a carefully planned funding strategy: In the case of ONT, initial funding came from public sources, but a rapid shift to private investors led to more opportunities for growth.

•  Allocating resources intelligently: Available funds have to be wisely invested in the right people and projects at each stage of development.

•  Having a growth strategy: Expansions in Oxford Nanopore are for specific purposes, and not only because they are affordable.

•  Creating a dynamic company: Creativity and fast iteration are very important. ONT tends to release products fast, engage and learn from customers, and adjust products and services as required.

•  Having an adaptive culture: As the company grows, it also changes. Cultural changes are required as goals shift from R&D stages, to sales and marketing.

What makes Oxford Nanopore a disruptive DNA sequencing technology?

According to The World Economic Forum, the fourth industrial revolution is characterized by the digitalization and analysis of data, and how this information is used to improve other services and technologies. Companies such as Uber and Airbnb, known as transportation and accommodation services, have achieved high levels of success by being data-driven companies. The ability to collect and analyse information using consumer-generated data provides these companies with significant operational and financial advantages. Additionally, “the internet of things”, whereby devices such as refrigerators and cars are connected to the internet, is becoming an integral part of consumer technology. The commonality within these technologies is the availability and analysis of information. Dr. Jayasinghe highlighted that he sees ONT as a future enabler of the “internet of living things”; being able to access and analyse biological information in real time via fast and efficient DNA sequencing services.

Dr. Jayasinghe himself has been surprised by the creativity with which their customers have used the product. Devices from ONT have been successfully used in locations where other technologies are not easily accessed. For example, viral DNA sequences during the Ebola outbreak obtained with ONT devices allowed the identification and classification of samples to create a surveillance map and prevent further outbreaks. In addition, NASA successfully used these sequencers at the international space station, planning to develop a system to monitor the health of astronauts. Additional uses of ONT sequencing tools include precision farming, and at-home diagnostic tools.

There is signifiant potential for of the company’s sequencers to be implemented in the medical industry.  In the near future, these devices can be used during diagnosis for the detection and identification of pathogens, resulting in more targeted medical treatments; this will lower the risk of developing anti-mirobial strains. Furthermore, maximizing the potential of precision medicine depends largely on the ability to access and DNA sequence information readily and economically [2]; this is what ONT strives to accomplish.

Ultimately, Oxford Nanopore believes their technology will deliver an affordable and simple method to obtain and analyse biological information with unprecedented potential in several areas.

Oxbotica: Enabling vehicle autonomy with modular software

The second speaker of the evening was Prof. Ingmar Posner. He is the Founder and Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) of Oxbotica, and co-founder and Deputy Director of the Oxford Robotics Institute.  Oxbotica is an Oxford-based start-up specializing in the development of algorithms and software for autonomous vehicle operation. Prof. Posner spoke about his experiences founding Oxbotica, the vision that led him into this role, and the path to the current success of the company - all whilst continuing his role as a university professor.

In 2011, a group of University of Oxford academics led by Prof. Posner launched the UK’s first autonomous vehicle using new and innovative software technology. The success of the launch attracted significant interested from potential users, who immediately expressed their desire to purchase and implement the new technology for commercial applications. As an academic lab, Prof. Posner’s group did not seek to commercialize products at that moment, nor did it have the capabilities to do so. Nevertheless, the demand for this technology planted the idea of creating a company.

During the following three years and with additional funding, Prof. Posner led a group of professional scientist and engineers to the creation of Oxbotica, focusing on the development of tailored software systems for different applications in autonomy. This includes not only autonomous vehicles, but additional applications in logistical and fleet management operations.

Today, Oxbotica offers a range of software packages focusing on three independent and fundamental tasks, systematically answering the following questions:

•   Where am I? This includes technology for vision-based localization.

•   What is around me? This is done using algorithms for the effective identification of objects on the road such as cars or pedestrians.

•   How should I act? This task requires automatic planning and calculating safe and efficient routes.

Each software package can be implemented independently and fitted to specific customer needs. This is what makes Oxbotica different from other software for manufacturers of autonomous systems. Software packages can be adapted independently in diverse applications, allowing flexibility for customer-specific needs. Environments for applications include off-road driving, airports, shipping facilities, mining facilities, and agriculture. Additionally, the software can be used in non-vehicle applications such as in warehouses and logistics operations.

What makes Oxbotica a successful start-up?

As the founder of a successful start-up company, Prof. Posner is often approached with questions regarding ‘the key to success’. Prof. Posner emphasized that there is no template. Success really depends on the project and the team of people working on it.

Throughout his presentation, Prof. Posner mentioned some aspects that contributed to Oxbotica’s current success:

•  Strong teamwork: Within the team, members not only have to be experts, but must also share collective goals.

•  Expertise and experience: In the case of Oxbotica, Prof. Posner and his team are experts in machine learning, artificial intelligence, and robotics.

•  Vision and ambition: Innovators and technology developers believe in their creations, and have a clear vision for them. For Oxbotica, the ultimate goal is to develop software packages to operate “every moving vehicle in the planet”.

•  Truly great technology: The technology behind Oxbotica is effective in many environments, from mines to warehouses, rain or shine, light or dark.

•  Readiness to act: Early deployment of technology is essential to demonstrate utility. This allows investors and customers to experience the product and assess its quality.

Prof. Posner believes that autonomy will fundamentally change how the world moves people and goods over the next 20 years. Oxbotica seeks to be part of this transition.

In summary, both presenters provided constructive advice on transforming ideas into successful start-ups. After the event, attendees had the chance to network and meet the speakers and the SIU team over wine and delicious cheese.

 References:

1.           Kasianowicz, J.J., et al., Characterization of individual polynucleotide molecules using a membranechannel. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 1996. 93(24): p. 13770-13773.

2.          Ashley, E.A., Towards precision medicine. Nature Reviews Genetics, 2016. 17(9): p. 507.