DDW’s Diana Spencer speaks to Alok Javali, CSO of dawn-bio, a new addition to BioInnovation Institute’s (BII) Venture Lab acceleration programme, about the lack of innovation in women’s reproductive health and the company’s plans to fill the vacuum.
Earlier this year, dawn-bio was one of five drug discovery companies to enter the BioInnovation Institute’s (BII) Venture Lab acceleration programme for early-stage companies. The 12-month Venture Lab programme is designed to support start-up companies with business acceleration, scientific, and team development, and provides a loan of €500,000 plus access to labs and offices at the BII in Copenhagen.
In becoming a part of the Venture Lab programme, the early-stage companies also get an opportunity to apply for €1.4 million in follow-up funding through BII’s Venture House programme.
Each start-up will be supported in undertaking the necessary steps to reach initial proof-of-concept, to make a business plan and to set up a team. Assisted by a dedicated scientific advisor, a leadership coach and a BII business development expert, the new ventures will be guided in developing a detailed milestone plan and will be assisted in overcoming the challenges of growing a business.
Since its inception in 2018, BII has supported 80 start-ups and projects with €65 million alongside the venture capital, industry and business expertise it provides to help them accelerate to the next level. In total, BII’s start-ups have raised over €333 million in external funding from both local and international investors.
Danish company dawn-bio is a drug discovery platform based on human embryo models for drug development for women’s reproductive health.
DS: Can you tell us more about what you do?
AJ: Global fertility decline has considerable social, economic, and geopolitical consequences and places a great emotional burden on society. Despite this tremendous impact, few therapeutics exist to improve women’s reproductive health. The lack of a physiologically relevant discovery platform is the major bottleneck to the development of such drugs. We have now produced stem cell-based surrogates of early mouse and human embryos for high-throughput screening. We have also developed a lab grown model of the uterus. We leverage these technologies to discover molecules that can improve IVF outcomes and treat a number of clinical conditions in early pregnancy, such as repeated implantation failure and spontaneous miscarriage. Our initial screens have already identified several molecules that we are currently validating in the clinic.
DS: What motivated you to start the company?
AJ: The WHO has recognised fertility as one of the top global health concerns of the century. Despite its importance, there is a lack of innovation in the field, particularly with regard to women’s reproductive health. When we developed our technology in our academic lab, we recognised its unique potential to disrupt this field, where there is a huge vacuum due to the lack of platforms. As the inventors of the technology, we believe that we are in the best position to accelerate its commercialisation. And it’s a great thrill to prepare all this while seeing this long-term vision of contributing not only to science but also to medicine.
DS: What advice would you offer to similar start-ups in this sector?
AJ: Our platform offered several opportunities – IVF, drug discovery, screening as a service, etc. However, to build a business efficiently, it was absolutely critical to focus. We had conversations with dozens of key opinion leaders and potential customers to identify the key issues in the field and understand which problems we could address. The early engagement with potential stakeholders to determine the direction of the business was very valuable for us and would be helpful for other start-ups.
DS: It’s a difficult time for investment at the moment. How have you overcome these challenges?
AJ: Indeed, these are challenging times. Fortunately, we had already received funding from BII as well as from multiple other sources, including the EU and public agencies. This gives us enough runway to make progress to reach key inflection points. That is what we have been focusing on at the moment. However, we are closely monitoring the economic situation and actively seeking contact with new investors. With the progress we make in the coming months and a more favourable economic environment, we are confident of closing investments in our next round.
DS: How important is funding and support from organisations like the BioInnovation Institute?
AJ: We just started the Venture Lab programme a few months ago. But their support has been incredible. Of course, the funding itself helps us make further progress. In addition, the coaching and support in finding collaborators, partners, talent and investors has been instrumental.
DS: What’s next for the company?
AJ: Our immediate goal is to validate our molecules in the clinics. Meanwhile, we are expanding the team, discussing with the main players, and developing a long-term strategy to use the platform for drug discovery.
DDW Volume 24 – Issue 3, Summer 2023
Alok Javali gained his PhD from the Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. He joined Nicolas Rvron’s lab in 2020, where he co-invented human blastoids; the model of early human embryos derived solely from stem cells. In 2022, Javali co-founded dawn-bio, a start-up leveraging human blastoids to improve IVF outcomes.