After seeing many close relatives suffer from cancer, Lucas Czentner wanted to make a difference. He decided to complete his expertise in producing immunotherapies in big pharma with academia’s creative and technical environment. As a PhD student at Utrecht University, he is now developing an innovative therapy that he and his supervisor, Gert Storm, are planning to bring to the market.
The desire to develop a non-toxic and effective cancer therapy
Lucas Czentner is doing his PhD research at the pharmaceutics department at Utrecht Utrecht, working on developing immunotherapies in collaboration with Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. Throughout his three years of the PhD, Lucas has received tremendous support from his supervisor Gert Storm, who proudly highlights the great results Lucas has achieved so far “One of the primary things about Lucas is his enthusiasm to go in the direction of a startup and make something applicable with his research,” Gert declares. Gert explains that he has been involved in a few startups before and is a co-founder of one himself, so it is a rather familiar process.
Lucas has a background in the pharmaceutical industry. He has worked in the production and development of immunotherapeutics in big pharma companies. However, he realised that innovation and developing disruptive ideas were challenging in a bureaucratic and highly regulated environment. “That was one of the reasons why I temporarily quit my career in the pharmaceutical industry and I went into academia to do a PhD. I joined the opportunity that Gert provided me because I really wanted the flexibility of academia to develop the new drugs for tomorrow,” Lucas explains. He says that he wanted to pursue a PhD because of the challenge it offers, the challenge of being able to develop something that nobody has ever done before. “But starting my PhD felt like taking a step backwards,” Lucas says laughing. “When I started my PhD I was 30 years old, thus some years apart from my master’s graduation. So I was thinking ‘What am I doing? I’m going back 7 years in time, starting all over?!’. But it was super worth it – this risky pathway.” He continues, “I have one year to go now, and I think that this is the most exciting period of the PhD, now I’m in the happiest moment of my life. That is because we realised that all the work done might have an impact on people. And it’s something that I feel very personal about, I guess that’s where the enthusiasm comes from.”
I’m in the happiest moment of my life
Lucas continues to share that his father as well as two cousins had cancer, of which one of them passed away young. He says that when you experience someone going through cancer, two moments are particularly rough. Firstly, once you receive the news about your relative being ill and secondly when you watch them go through a commonly very toxic treatment. He explains “People think that it is cancer itself that is causing the pain during the treatment and leading to so much damage, but sometimes it’s actually the treatment itself that is very toxic.” This realisation is the foundation of Lucas’ research “I really feel that it’s very inspiring to try to develop a treatment that can improve the therapeutic profile and people can be cured of cancer without suffering all the toxicity that current treatments cause.”
I really feel that it’s very inspiring to try to develop a treatment that can improve the therapeutic profile and people can be cured of cancer without suffering all the toxicity that current treatments cause.
Can you describe your startup Ayuvant briefly?
“We are trying to help our immune system to fight cancer cells by itself. At the beginning of cancer development in one’s body, there is a moment when your own immune system is able to recognise the cancer cells and stop their growth,” Lucas describes. “But, there is a moment in the progression of cancer when cancer gets very aggressive and starts to convince the immune system that it should not attack the cancer cells. So, we want to bring back the immune system to the state before that, to the moment when the immune system was able to recognise and fight the cancer cells.”
When you started your PhD, did you have the idea from the beginning that you wanted to set up a startup?
“No,” Lucas says. “But I knew that if I wanted to develop a new product, it should be in academia.” He explains that in the pharmaceutical industry, the patent is kept by the employer, which means that you as an employee who invents a new drug will never be able to commercialise that on your own. In academia, however, the system is different. “When working for the university, they hold the right of the patent and can sublicence it to you. This means that you can start a startup based on that intellectual property,” Lucas says. He continues by saying that he never thought about starting a startup when he joined the PhD project, it was something that happened in the middle of the process when they realised what an impact their results could have on people’s lives. Gert agrees that the project started in another direction, and explains that “Lucas personally saw this opportunity among many other elements of the project, and brought it up more and more.”
From researcher to entrepreneur
Since February 2022 you have been participating in UtrechtInc’s Science Validation Programme, how is that?
“It has been essential to me,” Lucas states. “The programme has helped me focus on the research, to really think about what type of experiments I need to perform for the patent and for making the startup, as well as for making a business plan. Even though we officially haven’t set up the startup yet, the programme has been critical. I have received coaching for doing the commercialisation and for obtaining funding.” Lucas adds that it was a good moment for them to join the validation programme now when they still have funding from academia for the initial research project. “We can really use that funding to focus on creating a good business model from a scientific point of view,” he adds.
The programme has helped me focus on the research
What will happen next year when you are done with your PhD?
In a year from now, Lucas hopes to have a patent application submitted. Now they are validating the concept in animal tumour models and eventually, they will need to raise funding to go into clinical trials. Therefore they are already planning and preparing for fundraising. In comparison with other therapeutic applications, only a small fraction of oncology drug development succeeds in clinical trials. So, for doing this type of initiative, you really need to be very sure that you have a certain amount of chance of success,” Lucas adds with a smile.
Gert adds that the earnings are not the reason why they are doing this, they are both in it for the valorisation of results. “At a certain point, however, it really becomes commercial, and then Utrecht Holdings is also there to help us out and to guide us. And UtrechtInc as well, because you all are part of the Utrecht University and the valorisation process,” Gert declares. “That’s why Lucas is doing the course, to see what is possible and how the thinking is. It’s striking, he really loves it! You don’t see that with many PhD students, most are not interested at all in any commercialisation. They are focused on getting their paper published, but Lucas, if he could forget about those papers and journals he would run with the company,” Gert adds laughing.
How familiar were you with entrepreneurship before joining our programme?
“Entrepreneurship was a new world for me,” Lucas says. “I do think, however, that you can always be entrepreneurial in your life, by taking risky decisions, in how you think about the future and long-term gains. In that sense, I did have an entrepreneurial type of life before I joined the programme.” He explains that he joined a ‘Future leader programme’ run by a big pharma company, which included mentoring by executives of the company. “There, I realised how the business model of pharma companies was changing, from having very significant resources of R&D to buying small startups from academia,” Lucas says. He adds “A recent paper in nature biotechnology showed that although in the year 2000 only 17% of the 30 top-selling drugs were based on academic intellectual property, in 2018 this was more than 50%.” This planted the seed for the startup that Lucas and Gert are setting up now. Lucas believes that being in an academic setting offers much flexibility to develop as fast and robust products as possible. However, he acknowledges that in the late stages, it is critical to have a partnership with a big pharma company to accelerate the execution of clinical trials, regulatory submissions and commercialisation.
Entrepreneurship was a new world for me.
What would you recommend to other researchers who are considering setting up a startup?
“I would absolutely recommend them to do it!” Lucas says. “Also for the benefit of society, because setting up your own company is a way to really bring new therapies to the market. Academia has flexibility and an environment of creativity that is quite hard to find in big companies. So, I would recommend anyone who thinks that they have a valuable idea to try to look for an opportunity and strive for it. And also to talk to other people with some experience in the industry, to see how compatible your idea can be for real application.”
Published August 2022