Careers in Marine Sciences: Fishing for Pharmaceuticals


Marine microbiologist Andrew Mearns Spragg is busy creating jobs. If all goes well, his fledgling company will provide employment not just for himself, but for a bunch of other scientists too. Spragg, fresh from his PhD investigating antimicrobials derived from marine bacteria at Heriot-Watt University, is one of the current crop of Royal Society of Edinburgh/Scottish Enterprise (RSE/SE) fellows. The fellowship gives Spragg a year's funding to get his company, AquaPharm Technologies Ltd, off the ground, as well as support in the form of mentoring and business training. AquaPharm aims to find novel medicinal compounds from a variety of marine sources and licence them to pharmaceutical companies for development.

Spragg first spotted the commercial potential of the sea during an undergraduate practical class. The task was to kill the superbug Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus with chemicals isolated from microbes in a huge tank of seawater. Spragg was hooked, and he learnt more about this underexploited environment when he researched his final-year project on an antibiotic extracted from a marine bacterium. Only 10,000 marine compounds have been isolated so far, he points out, compared with 150,000 from terrestrial sources, so that you're much more likely to come up with a brand new molecule if you look in the oceans. But getting start-up funding for a company to tap the potential of the sea was difficult. "It was very, very hard to actually make people listen," Spragg tells Next Wave. Fortunately, AquaPharm's technical director Kenneth Boyd, an organic chemist who gained his marine science expertise at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the United States, pointed out the RSE/SE fellowships. Spragg applied and was amazed to be chosen. "It has springboarded me into a position where I've got credibility," he says, making it a lot easier to grab the attention of potential investors.

Fellows can take up their fellowship at any academic institution in Scotland, provided that institution is willing to offer them space. Spragg was ready for a change of scenery after completing both his undergrad and postgrad education on the outskirts of Edinburgh and has relocated to the Gatty Marine Laboratory, part of the University of St Andrews. Spragg points out that the Gatty is an ideal environment for his start-up. "They have very good facilities," he explains, and "there's a lot of complementary research going on there." Surprisingly, no one else at the Gatty has yet commercialised that research, but "it's just a matter of time," reckons Spragg, who thinks that his fellowship has "given people the idea."

The first molecule which AquaPharm hopes to see hit the market is an antioxidant, but Spragg says they will be concentrating their search of marine microbes, seaweeds, and sponges for novel anticancer, antimicrobial, antiviral and anti-inflammatory compounds. Not only are these molecules likely to be different from those extracted from land-based plants and bacteria, but they're also likely to have "unique modes of action," maximising their chances of making it to market and becoming best-selling drugs.

As well as opening doors, the fellowship has given Spragg the opportunity to learn the skills he'll need to make a success of his business. All the fellows spend one day a month at Glasgow Caledonian University studying for an MSc in New Venture Creation. They've learnt business techniques such as how to go about market analysis, financial projections, and assessing the competition. Spragg had already written a business plan, but as a result of the course this has "completely changed." It now looks like a proper business proposal, he says, instead of being "more like a BBSRC [Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council] proposal." He also has the benefit of two mentors, one each provided by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and Scottish Enterprise.

Spragg believes that learning from the experience of others who have trodden the same path before you is invaluable. "I think it's a lot easier now for young entrepreneurs ... than 3 or 4 years ago," precisely because there is an increasing number of scientists who have formed their own companies and who are willing to share their knowledge. "There's a lot more help within universities" too, although he's aware that universities that don't have a lot of experience of commercialisation can sometimes hamper their scientists' business prospects. "They tend to take a line that a lot of venture capitalists think is just unrealistic," demanding rapid returns, instead of allowing the new company an opportunity to reinvest and grow. This makes venture capitalists unwilling to come on board, ultimately to the detriment of the university itself.

Meanwhile, Spragg is doing a lot of talking to venture capitalists himself. He aims to raise £2 million, which will allow AquaPharm to grow and employ up to six people in the next 3 years. He'll be looking to hire scientists in the areas of biochemistry, microbiology, and molecular biology to complement his own and Boyd's expertise. At the moment Spragg still spends a considerable amount of time in the lab, but he acknowledges that this is set to decrease as the company grows. "I do get a lot of enjoyment out of doing the discovery part," he says, but admits, "I think I'm better suited to doing the business side." Talking to him it's obvious that building a new company from scratch can provide just as much of an intellectual buzz as pushing back the frontiers in the lab.

Royal Society of Edinburgh/Scottish Enterprise Fellowships are available in the fields of biotechnology, optoelectronics, oil and gas, communication technology, and microelectronics. The RSE also runs an enterprise fellowship scheme on behalf of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council. For further information about these programmes contact Anne Ferguson, research fellowships secretary.

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