BioAscent Discovery’s watchwords are “honesty” and “fairness,” says the company’s CEO, Paul Smith. He points out that BioAscent, a Scottish contract research organization (CRO), has often put integrity above the bottom line. The trust of clients, he insists, is priceless.

Paul Smith
Paul Smith is CEO of BioAscent Discovery.

“We advise customers to do what is right for the project,” Smith continues. He reinforces the point by citing the example of a drug developer that asked BioAscent to run particular assays: “We knew that developing some of those assays would have been very risky. At that point, developing them with us would not have been best for our client’s budget. If a program can be run more efficiently (or is potentially not going to make it), we’ll say so.”

BioAscent’s clients typically are looking for an expert, advisory partner CRO with a consultative approach, Smith says. They include virtual biotechs, venture-funded companies, global foundations, and academic groups. “We also attract companies that have been let down or disappointed by other CROs,” he continues.

For example, BioAscent’s head of biology was chatting with colleagues in another company who complained that although they had been working with a large CRO in Asia for the past six months, the program was going nowhere. “Our head of biology listened to the problem,” Smith recalls. “‘I know how to fix that,’ he said. Within 10 days, they had the problem sorted. They transferred the entire program to us.”

The company also boasts success in the challenging area of allosteric modulation, a biological three-part interaction where a modulator affects the binding affinity between a receptor and its ligand. “That’s tricky biology, and the chances of failure are higher,” he explains, because binding sites for allosteric modulators can be some distance from the site of ligand–receptor interaction. The modulation BioAscent attempted for its client succeeded, but, Smith admits, he wouldn’t want to focus the company solely around solving such difficult challenges.

Seizing opportunities

BioAscent’s capabilities are derived, partially, from a bioscience incubator that incorporates a former Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD) facility. “A few years ago, MSD left a new $20 million research facility that had a fantastic robotic compound management system,” Smith recounts. In 2012, MSD donated the facility to the scientific real estate company BioCity Scotland, which was formed to run the new incubator.

Several of MSD’s 250 employees remained and began working with the European Lead Factory (ELF), an open innovation platform for drug discovery currently housed at BioCity Scotland. At present, ELF is managed by a consortium of 20 partners, including eight members of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations. These partners have contributed 300,000 proprietary molecules to the Joint European Compound Library (JECL). In recent years, the addition of publicly submitted molecules has brought the JECL’s holdings up to 500,000 active compounds, which serve as drug discovery starting points for academics and small companies.

A year after BioCity Scotland’s founding, in 2013, BioAscent was founded to make use of part of the former MSD facility. Initially, BioAscent focused on compound management and logistics, supporting a largely biotech-oriented client base, allowing it access to Big Pharma–grade compound management. Since then, it has managed more than 1 million compounds and delivered more than 90,000 screen plates globally.

The company expanded services in 2017, when Smith joined the company as CEO. He secured funding from Maven Capital Partners to reconstitute MSD’s early discovery function, transitioning many of the chemists and biologists still working at MSD’s former facility into BioAscent’s bioscience group. “It was an obvious thing for me to do,” he notes. “It was easy to sell the idea to investors. The scientists had the credentials, experience, and laboratories.” In 2018, that funding enabled him to add an experienced management team from the European Screening Centre—also based onsite—to the company.

With those additions, BioAscent became a fully integrated drug discovery CRO focused on early-stage projects. “We have chemistry, biology, and compound management services all based at one site,” Smith notes. “We also have a 125,000 lead-like compound diversity library for screening, and the ability to build custom libraries.” Today, he adds, the BioAscent team has interpreted and triaged the output of more than 70 high-throughput screenings.

“As a fully integrated drug discovery CRO, we do the early thinking,” Smith says. “By getting involved early in the process, we are able to influence the project, ensuring the right decisions are made to maximize chances of success.”

“Customers also come to us for standalone chemistry, biology, or compound management services,” Smith adds. Less than 18 months after the drug discovery service was launched, revenues are evenly split between integrated drug discovery and compound management.

Freeing inquiring minds … to inquire

“Keeping the team engaged and doing interesting work is important. We do not ‘silo’ people into specific functions or techniques,” Smith says. “Instead, we deliberately expose our people to all aspects of drug discovery.” This, coupled with scientists who have logged an average 15 years immersed in drug discovery, ensures deep knowledge and broad understanding of the entire process.

Although BioAscent Discovery has assembled an experienced team, the company, compared to some of its competitors, is relatively new to the market, Smith admits. As a relative newcomer, one of BioAscent Discovery’s challenges has been attracting and retaining the best people as it grows. That’s a challenge for any young company.

The company’s attitude toward staff enrichment factors into its structure. “Employees want to be trusted—to be allowed to inquire,” Smith explains. “That’s the beauty of having integrated activities on one site. All team members are immersed in all the aspects of drug development. They can see what the total drug development facility looks like. That’s really exciting for people.” Working in a fully integrated environment is quite different from being isolated in one silo or another, for example, a chemistry lab or a biology lab. Colleagues in different silos might not even work in the same country.

Revenue triples in 2018

Combining integrated drug discovery services and compound management in one facility signaled a turning point for BioAscent. Smith says, “This is a key differentiator that is driving the growth of the business.”

BioAscent’s commercial revenue tripled in 2018 and is on track for a 2.5-fold increase in 2019. Recently, the company won a second, five-year contract with ELF and was selected to deliver services to clients of the Medicines Discovery Catapult, a not-for-profit company funded by Innovate UK.

To continue such growth, BioAscent is expanding into the United States. “The East Coast alone has more biotech investment than all of Europe,” Smith says. Rather than locate a laboratory there, however, Smith launched a business development office, headed by Julian Abery, a biotech consultant.

BioAscent is not only expanding its reach, it is also growing its capabilities. As the company determines which services to add, any growth is likely to be organic.

“Honesty and fairness are our watchwords,” Smith reiterates. “That’s a very, very simple code to stand by, and we reaffirm that—not in a cheesy PR way, but in an intellectual way. This is all deadly serious. We want the best people to be attracted because of our high standards.” Client trust depends upon it.

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