Chief Scientific Officer at OneBio, Dr Nick Walker, explains how his experience as a young scientist led to him co-founding the first pan-African biotech incubator to develop entrepreneurs.

I grew up in a family of curious minds. My mother was a nurse and my father has owned a few small businesses but has a fascination with learning, especially in the sciences. My brother, and possibly biggest influence, is an environmental scientist. This environment meant I grew up loving science, and in particular, biology.

It was only when I started my undergrad at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in biochemistry and microbiology that I really began having some direction around where I wanted my career to move. I was immediately fascinated by the incredible work done by Professor Carola Niesler in the field of myogenesis, or muscle stem cell biology. Prof Niesler later became my PhD supervisor and it is largely due to her leadership and guidance that I find myself in the field that I am today.

Scientist to entrepreneur

I started my career at Next Biosciences, Africa’s leading umbilical stem cell storage and genetics company. Next Biosciences combines medicine, science and technology to create innovative products and services, empowering people to invest in and take personal ownership of their future health. Next Biosciences is at the forefront of the biotech industry and is focused on bringing various genetic tests to the market, making them easily accessible to the general public enabling people to make smart decisions regarding their health.

In my role as the innovation scientist, I was responsible for keeping an eye on all the latest trends in biotech and trying to work out how best to bring them into the business. I spent quite a bit of time in the lab and testing out new bits of equipment and techniques that were being marketed to the company. Later, I was promoted to the Head of Business Development. This involved more on-boarding new products and services and establishing the brand in new territories.

In my own capacity, in 2016 I won the South African leg of the Singularity University Global Impact Challenge for my concept into gene editing stem cells for curing HIV/AIDS. I proposed a gene therapy technique to make stem cells effectively immune to HIV and then to use this as a treatment for the disease. Although this would provide a potential cure in theory, it would be prohibitively expensive and quite a dangerous procedure for the patient. This, coupled with the fact that ARV therapy is so effective and relatively inexpensive, made me pivot my focus to the real challenge in combating HIV, early diagnosis.

This resulted in the founding of Muzi during my time at Singularity University with an amazing Argentine software engineer, Agustina Fainguersch. Muzi is an app-based, mobile platform that can incentivise people to test and be tested for HIV in a decentralised manner. The platform uses image recognition and AI to read, interpret and validate point of care health screening tests. This improves accuracy of results and creates reliable epidemiology data which will result in disease predictions models. Muzi is currently being run from San Francisco and Johannesburg with Jaryd Ridgeway taking over the reigns in Johannesburg at the end of 2017.

While I’ve been involved in fascinating work, as a young scientist I found myself increasingly frustrated by the constant failure of experiments that goes hand in hand with almost all biology related research. I also found the lab quite a lonely place during my PhD, when I was working in relative isolation and a whole day could go by without having to talk to anyone. It works for some people but I prefer having more interpersonal interactions. I therefore decided to go down the entrepreneurial path, which I find fascinating; the idea of building something that has real-life value to people, that wasn’t there before.

Developing the African biosciences landscape

Alongside our partners the Cape Innovation & Technology Initiative (CITI) and the Centre for Proteomic & Genomic Research (CPGR), Michael Fichardt and I are building OneBio, an African focused biotech business incubator.

The biotech incubator will bring biotech entrepreneurs from across Africa to Cape Town for a six month immersive residence programme, which will include: access to lab facilities; funding; boot camps; science support; data science resources; connections and network; community; business coaching and mentorship. Our aim is to transform African scientists into entrepreneurs with the tools to raise further funding at the completion of our programme. We will be focusing on startups solving problems in healthcare, agriculture, food and biological tools.

The reception has been amazing so far and it is apparent that there’s a need for this type of ecosystem support in the life sciences in Africa. We are working with a number of startups doing amazing work already and hope to launch the incubator programme officially in early 2019.

With the costs of biotech getting cheaper by the minute, biotech is becoming the domain of startup companies and not just the domain of the large pharmaceutical and agricultural companies of the past. With this in mind, we believe that all the indicators are in place for Africa to really start playing in the biotech startup world for the first time.

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