Well, the good ship Venomtech has sailed through another year and as every blog writer has probably already written, what a year it has been! However, for the crew at Venomtech, it has been an exceptional year with some great, positive growth. At the point of writing our 10-year anniversary blog in February 2020, we were looking forward to an exciting year with investment opportunities under discussion, and I had just come back from the RSC (Royal Society of Chemistry) Ion Channels conference at the Sanger Centre. At the conference, I was invited to write a chapter on venoms in drug discovery, which should be coming out soon. It’s amazing to think that 2020 started off like any other year. By the time we published the blog and had the usual coffee and cake photos on the 16th March 2020, it was clear that a dark cloud was looming over the horizon. After Boris Johnson’s announcement that evening, I decided to take the difficult but logical course, and so the day after our 10th birthday we all went home to work. That is apart from the essential job of caring for the animals.
With everything suddenly on hold and looking like it was going to get worse before it got better, we hunkered down to ride out the storm. Investment discussions, customer enquiries and contract work were all put on hold and we took a deep breath, waiting to see what was coming next. The entrepreneurial spirit that has gotten Venomtech through many challenges started to ruffle the sails once again. What if the component parts of venoms, that we know so well in many drug discovery pathways, could also disrupt the now infamous SARS CoV2 binding to the human ACE2 receptors? There was only one way to find out. So as the curtain lifted from lockdown one, we devised a protein binding assay to get around the need for live virus or cells and that could easily be performed with the equipment we had at the time. This produced some fascinating early results that can be seen here. Meanwhile, the reduced travelling and time at home lead to some productive writing.
As the summer progressed, so did talks with our investors. But then out of the blue came the surprising news that we had to move labs! So not only did we now have to rally the crew, we also had to pack up everything and move a lab full of venomous animals across the site, and all on one of the hottest days of the year! The crew all pulled together, and with a little help from our friends, we successfully settled into a new lab in building 500, Discovery Park. Interestingly enough, the building I left just about 11 years earlier when I got made redundant. Although a tough challenge and not something we had intended to do, it did give us the opportunity to design a new and improved lab layout, which is now working really well.
With investments, you don’t choose the close date, it appears to choose you. On September the 11th 2020 we closed Venomtech’s largest investment deal and brought a little local light to an otherwise internationally dark day. So, with a close weather eye on the rising COVID-19 infection, we set about speeding up our production and data output to achieve a planned growth in sales. As a lab scientist, it is always exciting having the budget for new instrumentation that allows you to peer further into the biology and see new things. For us, the key new toys were an UltiMate 3000 UHPLC system to speed up production and a CLARIOstar plate reader to delve deeper into the venom biochemistry action. With this new hardware the horizon had opened-up in front of us. With our sails filling, we looked towards lockdown two. But this time was different, as it was for many labs. We now knew more about what we were dealing with and that science needs to continue. So, with COVID safe measures in place we once again took up the fight to see how our venom peptides were interacting with the SARS CoV2 spike protein and also inhibiting Angiotensin Converting Enzyme two (ACE II). View here.
In November Dr Humaira Mahmood joined the team as our first ever sales account manager. It was a novel recruitment process where we never physically met, and so far still haven’t. The plan was coming together and we were getting even stronger. In December the next piece of the puzzle fell into place. As part of the investment proposal, I took the bold step of employing my boss, bringing in a new CEO to take the helm allowing me to focus more on the science. Dr Paul Grant stepped up to the challenge. Having been with us in several forms since 2016, Paul shares our vision of how venom peptides can be utilised in drug discovery as well as our growing cosmetic and crop science markets. We have also strengthened our board of directors and are in the best position we have ever been to sail the choppy seas of a biotech in a pandemic.
Now as we approach the end of lockdown three, with cautious excitement as to what the future brings, we are bigger and better than ever before. The appreciation of science, specifically drug discovery around the world, is really encouraging and exciting. I’m really looking forward to getting vaccinated and then taking the tentative steps into a new society where we will bring learnings from this most challenging of years into the future. Getting to see friends and family again in person with a hug or a handshake will be strange, but very welcome. Getting back out to scientific conferences in the near future will be great. I know it has been a tough year for many, but the future is what you make it. I’m looking forward to a new era of scientific innovation and exciting biology, that has come about as a result of the unprecedented challenges we have faced together over the last year.