AC BioScience: Committed to fight against cancer

The Vaud based company is a pioneer in the development of a novel treatment in immuno-oncology that will enhance patients immune capabilities and help them fight off cancer. Interview with Andreas Schläpfer, AC BioScience's CEO and cofounder.

How does your company fight cancer?

AC BioScience is deeply committed to fighting cancer and improving the lives of those who suffer from it. We are pioneering a novel treatment in immuno-oncology that will enhance the body’s immune capabilities to fight off cancer. We have also developed another drug candidate to challenge an existing treatment paradigm and address the unmet medical need for a more effective treatment of metastatic pancreatic cancer.

AC BioScience was founded 4 years ago in 2017, and you’re already entering the clinical trial stage. What’s your “secret sauce”?

Our “secret sauce”, as you call it, is made up of very special ingredients. Our company combines scientific excellence with seasoned general management. In addition to my colleagues’ biotech expertise, I bring my life-long non-scientist experience in senior executive management in the Nestlé Group, i.e. financial skills, strategic thinking, and operational experience.

Another ingredient of our “secret sauce” lies in our business model. Our second co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer, Prof. Christian Auclair, has systematically been scouting for promising molecules based on clinical observations and previous experiments. One of these molecules had already received all the preclinical and clinical approvals by the FDA in a different field, and we obtained the rights to use all these data in oncology applications as a ‘re-purposed’ drug. After pending approval from European Medicines Agency and French Agency for the Safety of Medicines and Health Products (ANSM), we hope to start with a clinical trial Phase 2 by year-end.

When we first met, you said “Canton de Vaud has built a beautiful enabler for companies like ours”. How did Innovaud and the Canton of Vaud help you set up your business in our region?

We started first at the EPFL innovation Park and have recently moved to the Biopôle. What we felt right from the beginning was the proactive and visionary attitude of the Canton of Vaud through its agency Innovaud to encourage and facilitate the creation of start-up companies and to embed them in a life-science ecosystem. It figuratively provided the fertile ground for green shoots to thrive: companies benefit from a comprehensive and relevant catalogue of measures such as financing, coaching and advice, promotion and networking, and access to scientific parks. And we personally experienced that Innovaud has a human face, with a highly competent and motivated team of experts.

AC BioScience is headquartered at the life science campus Biopôle. What benefits does Biopôle offer to young companies?

Biopôle is vibrant, young and highly professional. The Management of Biopôle reaches out to its members, organizes networking events, and is particularly helpful in business development, including participation in investor conferences. An ingenious support for young companies comes in the form of StartLab. This is Biopôle’s life science incubator where young companies can rent one workplace in a fully equipped shared lab space. Biopôle is an ideal home that meets all the requirements of a fast-moving biotech company.

What advantages does being in Vaud, the Health Valley and Switzerland more generally have for life science and oncology companies?

Most of the life science hubs in Switzerland benefit from their proximity to world-class universities with their incredible talent pool and spin-off resources. The Lausanne region is home to a unique cluster of oncology research and treatment centers. The CHUV, UNIL, EPFL, the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research and the Foundation ISREC are of immeasurable value for life science and oncology companies domiciled in the region.

Are there any business challenges that keep you awake at night?

Building a biotech business is not for those with feeble nerves. The road to clinical validation is pitted and paved with uncertainties. Safety and efficacy issues during clinical validation can never be predicted with certainty. We overcome these by focusing on the positive outcome that will result from our clinical trials, and we strongly believe we will achieve a significant increase in the survival rate of millions of cancer patients. Besides, we are thrilled to have recently received the public endorsement and support for our revolutionary pancreatic cancer therapy by a 2011 Nobel Prize laureate in Physiology and Medicine!

What would you say are the required skills to lead a successful fundraising round and convince investors?

At the base of any fundraising round is of course a solid business case and plan, presented in the form of a well-structured presentation deck. There are numerous organisations that provide help or coaching in this field (e.g. Venturelab). One of the pitfalls to be avoided when talking to investors is to unduly belabour the technical aspects of the invention without giving due consideration to the financial, intellectual property, competition, and market-size related issues. Having a solid management team with complementary skill sets is in itself a convincing argument. And, of course, the pitch has to be adjusted to the type of investor, if these are Angel investors, private equity or venture capital investors.

What are your future business development plans in Vaud and internationally?

Our priority remains to bring all of our three cancer treatments to clinical validation. Meanwhile, we are also scaling up our infectious diseases drug development. An Innosuisse co-financed project on Leishmaniasis is currently being carried out at UNIL to find a treatment for this debilitating Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD) that affects large numbers of people in developing countries.