ORIG3N: Early Stage Company Building Early Revenue

Early stage investing is not just about money – at this stage, we also put a lot of “sweat equity” into our portfolio companies. However, ORIG3N is the first to ask for our blood. They recently came by our office to take small samples of our blood to help build a biobank of stem cells for use in research and possible future medical treatments.

Through its Life Capsule program, ORIG3N is a fantastic example of how an early stage technology company can build its business, get its technology into broader use quickly, and create an early revenue stream.

Daniel Wolfe, Managing Director at Harris and Harris Group, has his blood drawn by ORIG3N phlebotomist Tisha Williams
Daniel Wolfe, Managing Director at Harris and Harris Group, has his blood drawn by ORIG3N phlebotomist Tisha Williams

The Nobel Prize-winning technology behind ORIG3N was developed by researchers from Kyoto University in 2006. Effectively, ORIG3N is able to take blood cells and reprogram them into induced pluripotent stem cells. Once ORIG3N has created a population of stem cells, they can allow the cells to begin differentiating again into any kind of human body tissue such as neurons, liver cells, or heart muscle cells. These cells can be used to develop better treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s.

We’ve all heard of the promises of using stem cells to cure disease, but common stem cell storage available is related to storing fetal stem cells from umbilical cord blood, which needs to be captured and stored at the time of birth. There are whole business models built around families who pay to have their children’s stems cells banked for future use. With the technology behind ORIG3N, it is now possible to create stem cells at any point in your life.

As an example of how this technology can be used, in 2011, a child with long QT syndrome proved to be one of the 40 percent of patients whose abnormal heartbeats don’t respond to medication. He was getting up to 300 shocks a month from his defibrillator, a sign that things were not going well. Doctors took skin fibroblast cells (which was the approach used before it was switched to using blood cells), induced them to become stem cells, and then grew them into samples of his heart tissue. The doctors were then able to use these samples to screen different combinations of medication and pacemaker settings to find one that calmed his heart. He went from 300 shocks a month to none.

Now, this was an entirely experimental case, but it shows the tremendous potential of these cells both for medical research organizations and for an individual’s personal diagnostics. The problem is, the technology has been limited to being a laboratory oddity. ORIG3N’s goal is to industrialize it, scaling it up to make it generally available. If this is to be used to cure rare diseases, then there needs to be an infrastructure in place to take a lot of samples, grow a lot of stem cells, and do it against very diverse populations. ORIG3N is focused on creating the necessary infrastructure and paving the regulatory pathway to attacking some of these diseases.

ORIG3N is taking three different approaches to getting this technology out into the marketplace. First, ORIG3N is building up a tissue bank that is intended to help medical researchers. They have been travelling around the country, going to marathons, asking runners and their families to donate a small sample of blood to support medical research. The program has been remarkably successful thus far – ORIG3N thought they would get 100 samples at each marathon, but instead they are getting closer to 300 at each event, and accelerating. People at marathons and triathlons are very focused on health, and they have no hesitation in donating a teaspoon of blood for research purposes.

Contributors to ORIG3N's Life Capsule biobank get a sticker to show their support for medical research.
Contributors to the Life Capsule biobank get a sticker to show their support for medical research.

The cells collected at the marathons are stored in the Life Capsule biobank. Those who donate blood can also have the option of having the cells banked for their own use in the future, not just for general medical research. This gives ORIG3N an early revenue stream. This offering is similar to the service of cord blood banks for newborns. There are definitely people who are interested in having their stem cells banked as a possible cure for future illnesses. The younger you are when you give your sample, the more fully-functional the stem cells are.

By the end of 2015, ORIG3N plans to have one the world’s largest biobanks of stem cell lines available for research, creating an essential resource for medical and pharmaceutical researchers looking to conduct statistically significant research across specific populations. It’s all very exciting.

Which brings me back to the day that Robin Smith, CEO of ORIG3N, and Kate Blanchard, the COO, came to our offices with a phlebotomist to take our blood as part of their effort to supply this biobank of 5,000 cell lines. We were happy to do it (well, most of us were). Our Managing Director Daniel Wolfe was the first to get his blood taken. Daniel, brave man, taunted the rest of us to follow.

While the samples were being taken, we spoke to Robin and Kate about the efforts of another of our portfolio companies, TARA Biosciences, in developing “heart on a chip” technology that will enable researchers and physicians to work with heart muscle cells in a 3D environment. The story I told earlier, about the child with long QT syndrome, is exactly the sort of situation TARA Biosciences is targeting: Enabling doctors to use real heart muscle cells to test different combinations of treatments to determine the optimal balance of effectiveness and safety for an individual patient.

We’ve long held that it will require much more than just genetics to make the promise of personalized medicine a reality. That’s why we seek out BIOLOGY + companies like ORIG3N, who not only hold great promise for future breakthroughs but are also doing things right now, like building the Life Capsule biobank, that address real and immediate needs.