Dr Yen Choo is one of biotechnology’s brightest stars. And in Progenitor, his third venture, the much-lauded scientist has proved that he’s no novice when it comes to business, either. The proof was there for all to see in Amsterdam this April, when Stevenage, U.K.-based Progenitor bagged one of only eight Red Herring Top 100 Europe Awards given to biotech companies.
“The Red Herring awards have an enviable track record of predicting successful technology ventures and I am therefore extremely pleased that Progenitor Labs is one of only eight biotech companies to have been named in this year’s list,” said founder and CEO Choo.
Progenitor is, according to its website, “a pioneering regenerative medicine company that develops drugs to regenerate specific tissues of the human body in response to injury, disease or aging.” The company aims to help the human body cure itself, rather than responding to the symptoms of disease, by advancing stem cell research – a market that Transparency Market Research last year claimed would reach $119.51 billion by 2018.
For Choo, though, it began not with the bottom line but in the research lab. Choo has a long and distinguished career in biotechnology, having completed the International Baccalaureate at the United World College in Singapore. He then completed a BSc in biochemistry at Bristol University, before embarking on a decade of academia and work in the historic city of Cambridge – first gaining a PhD in molecular biology at the university, then working as a staff scientist at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology.
It was at the latter that Choo met Aaron Krug, winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in crystallographic electron microscopy. It inspired him to venture off into the world of biotechnology entrepreneurship.
“I’ve started three companies,” Choo tells the Wellcome Trust. “My first company was Gendaq, which was eventually sold to a U.S. company called Sangamo. This company was set up to commercialize methods for engineering zinc finger proteins.
“I then started Plasticell, which created a technology to produce stem cells for research purposes or manufacture cells for therapy,” he adds. “Unlike Gendaq and most other biotech companies, it wasn’t a spin-out of any academic institution or any research that had been previously ongoing. The company was founded without a single experiment having been done, and concurrently with the company we invented the technology and provided proof of concept and got patents granted.”
Progenitor was formed using technology from Plasticell. Whereas Plasticell’s product is the cell itself, Progenitor is focused on the discovery of related drugs. “The idea behind Progenitor is that we’re going to find small-molecule drugs that regenerate particular tissues that are damaged in disease,” says Choo.
Progenitor is focused on discovery of natural and synthetic molecules that regenerate tissues of the human body. The new venture brings together proven high throughput technologies with a deep understanding of stem cell biology. The key proprietary technology, ProScreen, is a drug screen for molecules that can regenerate cells by acting on adult stem cells resident in the body. In addition the Company has obtained an exclusive license to CombiCult, Plasticell’s award-winning combinatorial technology, for use in regenerative drug discovery.
In 2011, the company was voted Best Emerging Biotech at the Oxford Biotechnology Network’s Annual Awards Dinner. Progenitor took another stride forward in March last year, when it raised $5.8 million in seed funding from GlaxoSmithKline’s Corporate Venture Fund, which Choo said would boost the company’s research and development pipeline. That meant that the company split from its parent Plasticell – which Choo also founded, and which has forged partnerships across the world in stem cell research.
In the future Choo plans to expand his portfolio even further, creating “more spin-outs of Plasticell, maybe. Plasticell is a very powerful platform.” However for now his time is very much taken nurturing the businesses he has grown from scratch. According to Choo, 99% of his time is filled with Progenitor, with the other one per cent spent directing Plasticell’s scientific and business strategy, “but with a helicopter view.” Choo already has a list of achievements most people can but dream of. And with a third company set to thrive in an ever-expanding field, that list is sure to grow fast.