Despite having absolutely no personal knowledge of biology or technology, let alone biotechnology - when I stumbled across Upside Biotechnologies, a company offering regenerative medicine solutions for severe burn patients, I knew that I was on to something revolutionary. This amazing New Zealand start-up has managed to develop the fastest technology for growing human skin to date and can grow enough skin to cover an entire human body in just 16 days. 16 days. In just over two weeks, this company can totally change the life of a severe burn victim.
Dr Robert Feldman, CEO of Upside Biotechnologies very generously took the time to sit down with me to have a chat about Upside's upcoming clinical trials, why they are currently the best option for burn patients and their recent research agreement with the US Army.
Natalie: Tell us about Upside Biotechnologies and what work you guys do
Dr Robert Feldman: We are an early stage, pre-clinical, biotechnology company, developing the best treatment for people who have suffered large burns. Our technology allows us to take a small piece of someone’s skin and grow it into multiple sheets of their own skin very quickly. We could grow enough skin to cover an entire body within 16 days which is faster than anyone else in the market is currently able to do.
Natalie: Where did the idea to test this technology come from?
Dr Robert Feldman: The technology was developed by Professor Rod Dunbar and Dr. Vaughan Feisst from the University of Auckland, immunologists who were researching immune defences of the skin. They were actually trying to work out a way to study immune responses in test tubes which they needed to grow skin for, and in doing so realized that there was another great potential for their technology.
Natalie: What differentiates Upside Biotechnologies from its competitors?
Dr Robert Feldman: Upside Biotechnology produces skin twice as fast as anyone else, we grow much bigger sheets than anyone else and we have much better handling in terms of how easy it is for surgeons to deal with.
Natalie: How have you grown Upside Biotechnologies presence in the market?
Dr Robert Feldman: Where most companies have paying customers, our customers are likely to be companies that will buy out Upside – it is conceivable that we will continue and sell directly to people needing healthcare, but in the overall scheme of things, smaller companies tend to get bought out in the biotech industry. The bigger companies will sell it to health providers who will use it for burn patients but exactly who will use the technology will vary from country to country.
Natalie: What are the biggest challenges in the industry you’ve had to overcome?
Dr Robert Feldman: Obtaining funding is not a challenge that is unique to the biotech industry but it is more acute and always a particular challenge for us. If you’re developing a software, you’re going to make money in a relatively short period of time. In biotech, the norm tends to be that there won’t be any sales for maybe 10 to 15 years. The whole structure related to funding biotech is challenging and big countries tend to deal with it better as there are a lot of investors who understand that dynamic.
Getting approval for your technology is also a challenge, there are differences around the world but it tends to be a complicated, slow, expensive process that you have to do country by country.
Natalie: How have you found developing a biotech company in New Zealand?
Dr Robert Feldman: New Zealand is quite behind in the biotech industry in a lot of different aspects. The support offered by governments in other countries is much better, for example, in Australia they have tax incentive schemes which offer tax reductions for your investment in research. New Zealand just doesnt have this type of support.
Business in general is also harder in New Zealand due to geographical and time distance – when you’re selling to a global market you need to talk to a global audience which is incredibly difficult from where we are in New Zealand.
Another challenge is that we simply do not have the infrastructure or expertise that other countries do, purely due to the small population size. Upside uses a lot of expertise overseas in Australia, Britain, US, South Africa, we just try use who we think are the best people and that often means finding people overseas.
There are almost no benefits to being a biotech company in New Zealand, you definitely find yourself at a disadvantage. The education and university system is quite good here which throws up a lot of opportunities, but the challenge is what you can do with those opportunities.
Natalie: What’s next for Upside Biotechnologies?
Dr Robert Feldman: We have recently signed a cooperative research agreement with the US Army, who as you can imagine, see a lot of burn victims. The agreement essentially means they help us with the scientific and regulatory aspect of our skin product development which will hopefully speed the process along and could provide them a large benefit in providing treatment for their burn victims.
The immediate future for us will be raising more money, preparing for clinical trials and carrying them out which we are aiming to do in New Zealand in early 2019.
Natalie: As a New Zealander and as a student of the University of Auckland, it is very exciting to see our professors and senior lecturers carrying out such valuable research and developing technology that has such a positive impact. It is the work of people like Professor Rod Dunbar and Dr. Vaughan Feisst that inspire us students in our areas of study and keep us motivated with the thought that our degrees may actually help us to achieve something significant one day. I look forward to following the journey of Upside Biotechnologies through their upcoming clinical trials and seeing them change the lives of severe burn patients around the world.