Dublin’s Valitacell pursues the next big thing in biotech

Dublin-based Valitacell combines core bioprocessing know how with analytical, detection and predictive analytics.

One of the 15 companies short-listed for this year’s The Irish Times Innovation Awards, Valitacell is a biotechnology company that develops analytical technologies to make innovative medicine manufacturing cheaper and safer.

“Our customers and partners develop, test and manufacture medicines to treat a range of diseases and conditions including cancer, osteoarthritis and Crohn’s disease,” explained CEO Dr Jerry Clifford.

“Our Holy Grail is automated nearer-to-patient manufacturing”

“Our analytical technologies will help make these medicines accessible to all.”

The company operates in the large and rapidly growing bioprocessing segment of the innovative medicines market, which is valued at over $600bn and growing at 10pc annually.

“We estimate the size of our market to be approximately $40 billion,” said Clifford.

He explained that the problem Valitacell addresses is the high economic and environmental cost of developing and manufacturing innovative biological medicines.

“Our advanced analytics drive the automation, miniaturisation and digitisation needed to drive down biomanufacturing costs.

“Advances in life science technologies are enabling a deeper understanding of disease and more personalised medicines, especially in the rapidly emerging cell and gene therapy market. This challenges our current centralised biomanufacturing infrastructure. Our Holy Grail is automated nearer-to-patient manufacturing

“Our team is developing a suite of novel analytical technologies to support this migration to small-scale manufacturing.”

B2B innovation

Valita test product.

Valitacell is a B2B ‘innovation’ supplier and its products are more typically found inside a hardware solution that it currently exports to a number of regions including EU, Asia and US.

“We could see that technology had the power to provide personalised medicine but cost and developing medicines safely, at pace was a big challenge for the industry. We decided we wanted to take on that challenge”

“We have broadly two types of technologies available. Firstly, our reagents business is based around measuring key proteins/processes during the biomanufacturing process which generates data that end-users require to manage the process e.g. our Valita TITER range is used by many global companies to measure Immunoglobulin G (IgG) concentration during the manufacturing of monoclonal antibodies used to treat cancer, etc. We target individual proteins/processes using proprietary internal platforms which result in a signal change detected using a fluorescent polarisation detector.

Valita test plate.

“Secondly, our data solution is quite similar in focus, i.e. data that end-users require to manage the process, but in this case the data is generated using image-based artificial intelligence in high-throughput format and typically label-free, hence the cell sample is not destroyed.”

Spinouts’ perfect chemistry

Valitacell was started as a project within the Technopath Group and in 2014 was formally spun out by Dr Jerry Clifford and Dr Terry McWade.

“All the co-founders have medical/biotechnology backgrounds and are passionate about innovation.

“We could see that technology had the power to provide personalised medicine but cost and developing medicines safely, at pace was a big challenge for the industry. We decided we wanted to take on that challenge.”

Clifford and his colleagues believe that entrepreneurship and innovation is highly valued and encouraged in Ireland.

“Our headquarters itself is based in the National Bioprocessing Institute (NIBRT) which is a world class facility on the UCD campus. We are also extremely fortunate to work closely with Prof. Frank Barry in REMEDI for our Cell Therapy work – the ecosystem in NUI Galway is really strong for Cell Therapy. Valitacell is an Enterprise Ireland company and we have received extremely valuable support from EI throughout every stage of development.

“It is part of Valitacell’s DNA to collaborate with external institutions and companies on an ongoing basis and in 2020 we commenced an Artificial Intelligence collaboration with Ireland’s Centre for Applied AI (CeADAR).

“We had a great 2020 across all metrics including significant revenue growth. We also opened up some excellent, long-term channel partnerships and secured some patent awards. Whilst we always explore in-bound funding discussions, we do intend to initiate a Series A in Q3 2021.”

Like most companies in Ireland, the company has had to be agile in the face of the changes wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“At Valitacell we were early adoptors of Zoom; long before Covid-19. We are a physically dispersed team so Zoom and Microsoft Teams are excellent ways of staying connected. We host internal data and content on the cloud and use Microsoft Sharepoint to collaborate on live documents.”

A chain reaction

Reflecting on the journey so far, Clifford said: “I think the biggest lesson I have learned is that bringing on-board mentors – both technical and general – is crucial. It is even more crucial that their purpose is not affirmation of your thought process but rather to critique the strategy, and to do that it is essential there is a really high level of trust and respect.

“We would encourage founders to look for guidance, alternative views and direction early in the development of their idea or business. Ultimately, execution is going to be the major driver of success or otherwise and external views of your plans will help you to reshape, iterate or even change approach on your execution plan.”

Main image at top: Dr Jerry Clifford, CEO and co-founder of Valitacell; Dr Ben Thompson, chief technology officer, and Dr Terry McWade, chair and co-founder

By John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 19 January 2021