Dr Olivia Champion is co-founder and CEO of BioSystems Technology Ltd, a company that provides low cost, ethical alternatives to animal testing. The team, (two staff and four advisers) operate out of a lab and office on the University of Exeter Streatham campus, providing alternative solutions for animal testing. The Company’s main markets are primarily in the UK and Europe, though significant interest from the US is also coming through.
Insight asked Olivia about her business, her career, and the future
“Over the past year or so I have been working towards commercialising some of my research and this has led to the establishment of the University of Exeter spin-out company, BioSystems Technology.
In vivo models form an essential component to research in the life science and healthcare sectors. However, these models often lack predictive capability and have proven expensive, time consuming, and ethically contentious, being based on mammalian, primarily rodent, systems.
BioSystems Technology provides a non-mammalian based alternative system called TruLarv™, which is able to address scientific need whilst minimising the regulatory burden and ethical issues concerning the use of mammals. The TruLarv™ larvae are much cheaper to use and produce quicker results than comparable experiments using mammalian models. They are capable of providing statistically more robust data and results correlate strongly with those obtained in mammals.
It’s been a very steep learning curve, moving out of the laboratory, where I have been focused exclusively on research for over a decade, to become co-founder and CEO of a start-up company. However, my business idea was picked up early on by the Research Knowledge Transfer group at the University of Exeter through which I was introduced to a business mentor, Dr Paul Sheppard – a leading member of the ExIST group. Paul guided me through the challenges of entrepreneurism and I have also been supported by the business incubator SETSquared.
During the summer we wrote and won two grants from NC3Rs. The funding has now been awarded and is being used to support two research projects with Industry. The first project is with a major contract research organisation which is testing TruLarv™ as an acute toxicity model that can be used for the assessment of the safety of chemicals. The second grant is being used to support the integration of TruLarv™ into early stage discovery of novel antibiotics into industry pipelines. These projects are now underway and I am involved in project management to ensure we meet the deliverables on time and also data analysis, interpretation and dissemination of the results at relevant meetings and conferences.
Having originally intended to follow her father and grandfather into optometry, Olivia changed her mind when the mother of a family she was staying with in Nepal fell desperately ill from Typhoid fever: “I remember thinking how ridiculous it was that people were still dying from drinking dirty water.”
It was this experience which changed the course of Olivia’s career – she switched her course to Applied Biology at Cardiff University, and gained valuable experience at the World Health Organisation in Geneva, at Public Health England, and at North Middlesex Hospital’s Microbiology lab, at the same time as studying for an M.Sc. in Clinical Microbiology at Queen Mary and Westfield University, and then a PhD at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). Since achieving her PhD, Olivia has worked at both the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and at the University of Exeter.
While Olivia’s varied career has seen her work at prestigious organisations across the world, her career highlight to date, was pitching for and winning private investment to launch BioSystems Technology:
“I work in a very male-dominated world of science and business and I feel frustrated about the gender imbalance in these areas that is due, in part, to sexism. I believe I was the only female pitching at the investor event and it felt good to make a strong business case and connect with the investors in the audience in such a positive way.
Having three children, two girls and a boy, I am very conscious of the opportunity I have to be a strong female role model and I often participate in outreach events aimed at encouraging young people into careers in science. The advice I would give to a young person considering a career in science would be work hard, network lots, don’t give up or beat yourself up when things go wrong but learn from your mistakes. Just do your best and keep a sense of humour about it; don’t take yourself too seriously.”
And the future?
“I love creating new knowledge. Creating knowledge is the main aim of a researcher. Now that I have moved into business I’m still interested in the R&D and I like the fact that BioSystems Technology develops products that can help create new knowledge that could have huge real world impact, such as the discovery of new antibiotics.
My wish is for the city to become a hub for science, business, and innovation similar to the digital and creative hub that has sprung up in Bristol. The fundamental elements are in place: the Science park, the University, the Met Office, graduates and a skilled workforce. I would say that the University, Met Office and local businesses and entrepreneurs should aim to interact more to build partnerships that can drive and support innovation and business.”