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Innovator of the Year 2019 finalists

Our Innovator of the Year competition recognises and rewards inspirational individuals and small teams who have harnessed the potential of excellent BBSRC-funded research in the following categories:

There is a £10,000 award for each category, plus a further £10,000 for the overall winner. Winners will be announced at a special awards ceremony at the Science Museum in London on 15 May 2019.

Commercial Impact

Professor Achillefs Kapanidis and Mr Bo Jing, University of Oxford

Nanoimager: desktop single -molecule imaging for the biomedical researcher

Professor Achillefs Kapanidis

My laboratory (“Oxford Gene Machines”) develops novel ultrasensitive microscopy methods, and uses them to answer fundamental questions about molecular mechanisms of gene expression and DNA repair. Although our biological systems are bacteria and viruses, our studies are relevant to complex organisms, including humans. Our work is highly interdisciplinary, as witnessed by our diverse team and our collaborations with biomedical researchers.

The inspiration for my scientific journey came from my introduction to the wonders of molecular biology and protein engineering during my graduate education, and from exciting developments in biophysics in the late 90’s that permitted detection of single fluorescent molecules with unprecedented resolution. As a postdoctoral researcher in California, I combined these fields to uncover the complex sequence of events occurring during the initial transcription of DNA into RNA. Since these studies were done in the dawn of single-molecule biophysics, we innovated constantly to be able to examine delicate biomolecules in a sensitive yet robust fashion; those exciting years fully convinced me that innovation and cutting-edge research are inextricably linked.

When I started my own lab, I realised that, to enable our methods to reach biologists and clinicians, and fulfill their enormous potential, easy access to single-molecule imaging was paramount; I thus dedicated significant time towards this goal. The product of this quest, the Nanoimager, is driving further innovation in hundreds of academic and industrial labs worldwide, including my own: we are now developing novel methods for rapid detection of antibiotic resistance and viral pathogens.

Being a finalist along with my co-inventor Bo Jing makes me proud and very happy, since it serves a tangible recognition of our long-term efforts and success of the spin-out company that commercialized our innovation. We are also excited about the opportunity to display, discuss and celebrate innovation at this fantastic BBSRC event.

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Professor Sandra Esteves, University of South Wales

High Rate Gas Transfer Reactor for Enhanced Bioconversion of Gases for Renewable Energy Storage

Professor Sandra Esteves

I am Sandra Esteves, a Professor in Bioprocess Technology for Resource Recovery (Energy and Materials) and the Director for Wales Centre of Excellence for Anaerobic Digestion based at the University of South Wales (UK) with over 20 years of experience in biotechnology research, development and full scale deployment. Resource recovery and industrial circular economies have been drivers in my career. Understanding and capitalising on natural microbial catalysts and their interactions within ecosystems, for the purpose of recycling and conversions and follow on conceiving and optimising industrial bioprocesses, form part of my daily routine. I have concentrated on pushing the bioprocesses to deliver efficiently, in shorter periods, with lower footprint and parasitic energy loads.

I am very glad it has been a highly diverse and an absolute fascinating professional journey. More so, when the recycling concepts are from waste gases or electrons, which through industrial biotechnology become fuels, food/feed, chemicals or materials. It feels a bit like being in a show and the magic is done by microbes!

It is a great excitement to be able to contribute to the widening of Industrial Biotechnology applications even further to include now also the energy storage sector, facilitating an increase in renewable energy deployment and carbon capture and use, and positively impacting in terms of societal benefits and environmental delivery and growth of the UK industry.

The team looks forward to continuing the development of the biotechnology and bringing it to a world stage shortly, enabling more renewable energy deployment and use, as well as the reduction of pollutants and further increasing its function and applicability in a variety of other markets. The team is extremely pleased in being a finalist on the BBSRC Innovator of the Year 2019, which is a reflection of the impact created so far and the future technology potential.

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Dr Caroline Barelle and Professor Andy Porter, Elasmogen Ltd

An award winning biotech company delivering innovative new medicines

Dr Caroline Barelle
Professor Andy Porter

We both fell into the area of biologics drug discovery by accident rather than design. In the mid-1990s Andy was parachuted into the late (and very great) Professor Bill Harris’s lab in Aberdeen, whilst Bill set up his antibody engineering spin-out - Scotgen Ltd. With Bill as a mentor Andy was soon bitten by the commercial bug and help founded his own antibody biotech in 2002 called Haptogen Ltd. In 2006, straight out of academia, I joined Haptogen as programs manager and incredibly, following a very steep learning curve, was part of the team that sold Haptogen to Wyeth Inc in 2007.

Andy and I then parted company for a number of years. Andy became an academic again and I “enjoyed” life within Wyeth and then Pfizer Inc as a bio-therapeutics team leader. Pfizer’s exit from the UK, together with my desire to get back into small biotech and an opportunity to combine my background in pharma with IP from Andy’s academic group, brought us back together again. We successfully secured some (£1.8 million) PoC grant income from a number of sources including: SE, BBSRC and my RSE/BBSRC Enterprise Fellowship. With a portfolio of 4 patents (1 old and 3 new) we spun Elasmogen Ltd out of Aberdeen in Feb 2016, but this time with one very important difference, I was Andy’s boss and CEO.

Since its launch, Elasmogen Ltd has been a resounding success. The team has now grown to 10 FTEs and together we have been successful in securing an additional £7 million in funding from a combination of equity, grants, platform access charges and license fees from commercial partners that include Amgen Inc and Almac Discovery Ltd.

We are delighted to be named as finalists in BBSRC’s Innovator of the Year awards for 2019. The journey to commercialisation is often a long and difficult one and throughout our journey BBSRC provided a vital helping hand, with invaluable support beginning in 2000 and the funding of a PhD to study the shark immune system to more recently FoF, Link and RSE/BBSRC Enterprise funding - for which we are both eternally grateful.

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Professor Tuomas Knowles, University of Cambridge

Translational research in protein biophysics

Professor Tuomas Knowles

My work is focused on understanding the fundamental principles that govern protein behaviour in health and disease. In particular we have become fascinated by how proteins are able to find the correct partner to bind to and form complexes which act as the machinery of life, and what protection mechanisms exist in living systems to prevent aberrant self-assembly.

This molecular sociology, despite being at the heart of biological function, remains challenging to study, and we have focused our efforts in recent years towards developing new ways to probe this phenomenon. A particularly fruitful way to achieve this objective has been to simply scale down in size the volumes in which we study proteins through the use of microfabrication and microfluidics. Through this approach we are now able to study protein behaviour and self-assembly under length-scales characteristic of biological confinement, and able to exploit the highly controllable laminar flow behaviour characteristic of fluid behaviour on small scales to monitor in real time under native solution conditions the formation and dissociation of protein complexes and their interactions with other biomolecules including nucleic acids and lipids.

These new approaches open up possibilities for experiments which are largely out of reach of conventional methods, but significant technical difficulties remain in the routine fabrication operation and use of microfluidic device technology in protein science.

In order to lower the barriers for the use of this technology and to allow the community to access these methods more readily, we set up a company, Fluidic Analytics, to transform these ideas onto products and solutions to solve problems in protein science and allow us to ultimately understand the machinery of life.

This journey has involved fundamental science, applied science and technology development, and it has been a real privilege to have the chance to work with the exceptional team at Fluidic Analytics and with the brilliant and hugely talented set of students, post-doctoral scholars and colleagues at the University of Cambridge in this exciting area. I am really delighted that this shared vision and collaborative hard work has been recognised by the BBSRC and would like to take this opportunity to thank all of my co-workers and colleagues without whom none of the work would have been possible.

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Early Career Impact

Dr Oscar E. Gonzalez-Navarro, Quadram Institute Bioscience

Open source low-cost benchtop growth cabinet for speed breeding

Dr Oscar E. Gonzalez-Navarro

We are a multidisciplinary team from three BBSRC strategically funded institutes (Quadram Institute Bioscience, John Innes Centre, Earlham Institute) and the University of Oxford. Our work is primarily in crop improvement focused on yield, nutrition, pathogen immunity, and plant-soil interaction. We have taken the concept of speed breeding and systematically reviewed and revised the technology to make it accessible to everyone in the form of open-hardware.

As a team, we believe that innovation is how hard work and generated knowledge reaches the real world with the aim to improve people’s lives. We were all born and raised in countries from the Global South and our inspiration to get involved in biosciences comes from its immense potential in helping make a better world. It is only thanks to directed research and innovation funding that ideas can be translated into impactful projects.

We feel greatly honoured to be named finalist in this year’s event. Given the competition for this award, it strongly made us feel that our hard work is being acknowledged by the wider scientific society. In addition, it gives us a step to raise awareness towards the potential impact that open technologies can have. It motivates us to continue making new technologies available to everyone, and particularly for the benefit of low-income laboratories around the world.

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Dr Christine Tait-Burkard, The University of Edinburgh

Genome edited pigs are resistant to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome

Dr Christine Tait-Burkard

Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) is the most economically damaging pig disease worldwide, causing respiratory distress and high mortality in young pigs and reproductive failure in sows. As current strategies to combat PRRS are failing, new innovative approaches are required.

My passion for how viruses manipulate a host into supporting their replication whilst often causing severe side effects began as an undergraduate in Switzerland and inspired me to do a PhD on coronaviruses in the Netherlands.

The BBSRC-funded post-doctoral research position to generate a genome edited pig resistant to PRRS virus felt like it was written for me. Having grown up on a pig farm, I knew a lot about pigs and I had acquired extensive knowledge of virus-host interactions.

I was given freedom to run this amazing project, generating pigs that had a small segment of their genetic code removed, disrupting an interaction of PRRSV with its host and making the pigs resistant to infection.

Through working with Genus PIC, the largest international pig breeding company, a route to global impact is ensured. I believe open communication and effective public engagement is critical to delivering impact, especially for new technologies such as genome editing. I hugely enjoyed engaging with all stakeholders, including the general public. It was exciting to present my research to an audience of millions through broadcasts and press, including the BBC News at Six and at Ten.

Innovation is finding new approaches and solutions to problems, which is something I appreciate being able to do in biosciences. It is exciting to think that the impact of my research may be felt on my parents’ pig farm.

I am honoured to be shortlisted for the Innovator of the Year 2019 award. This affirmation at the start of my career as a young independent researcher is fantastic!

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Dr George Frodsham, MediSieve Limited

Magnetic Blood Filtration for the Treatment of Blood Borne Diseases

Dr George Frodsham

I have been working on the concept of magnetic blood filtration since the start of my PhD in 2011. The idea is to provide doctors with a tool to remove specific components from a patient’s bloodstream, thereby providing a new approach to the treatment of bloodborne diseases. The technology is similar to dialysis, continuously circulating a patient’s blood through an extra-corporeal loop, capturing and extracting the targets, and flowing the blood back to the patient.

Magnetic particles coated with antibodies are infused into the extra-corporeal loop, binding specifically to the targets; a magnetic filter then captures the magnetic particles and everything they are bound to. Using this method, practically anything can be removed from the blood, including specific cell populations, pathogens, toxins, inflammatory cytokines and even potentially viruses. The vision is to revolutionise the treatment of diseases like malaria, sepsis, leukaemia and others, improving patient outcomes, and ultimately saving lives.

In 2015, I created a spinout company, MediSieve Limited, to further develop the technology. BBSRC enabled this through an Enterprise Fellowship award that I received in 2014, providing the training, mentorship and confidence I need to launch MediSieve. Since its foundation, MediSieve has raised over £2 million from investors and over £2 million from grants, growing from a “one-man-band” to a 10-person team.

Our first product (for malaria) has completed pre-clinical validation and is ready to enter clinical trials, and our second product (for sepsis) is undergoing pre-clinical validation.

It is a huge honour to be named as a finalist in this year’s Innovator of the Year Awards. While there is still a long way to go to achieve our goals, it is important to look back at the progress that has been made. It means a lot to be recognised by the same institution that provided the initial catalyst for the creation of MediSieve.

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International Impact

Dr Diane Saunders, John Innes Centre

Mobile And Real-time PLant disEase (MARPLE) diagnostics

Dr Diane Saunders

Crop pathogens are truly fascinating. Their persistence and ability to remain one step ahead is a constant threat to food security. As a project leader at the JIC my research focuses on (re-)emerging plant pathogens that includes the wheat rusts, which are known as the “polio of agriculture” due to their significant threat to wheat production worldwide.

Capitalising on advances in sequencing technology we previously developed a rapid, innovative, genomics-based pathogen surveillance technique termed “field pathogenomics”. This method generates genotype information of pathogen strains at unprecedented scale and resolution directly from field-collected infected plant samples. More recently, to make this technique even quicker, cheaper and suitable for deployment in developing countries we adapted our “field pathogenomics” strategy for use with the portable nanopore sequencer. This new system - MARPLE (Mobile And Real-time PLant disEase) diagnostics - is the first operational system using nanopore sequencing for rapid diagnostics and surveillance of complex fungal pathogens in situ.

To maximise international impact, we also joined forces with CIMMYT and EIAR to target its deployment initially in Ethiopia, which acts as the wheat rust gateway for East Africa. I’m delighted that this work and our international collaboration has been recognised in the Innovator of the Year competition. We are in a constant battle with the wheat rusts and our diagnostic kit allows users, for the first time, to generate detailed genotype data about the current strains present in their region within 48 hours of collecting samples. This data then feeds into immediate decisions regarding disease management within the current growing season. Innovation is an essential transformative accelerant that creates new, wide-reaching opportunities for advancement in the biosciences.

For MARPLE, this innovation is a revolution in plant disease diagnostics and will have far-reaching implications for how plant health threats are identified and tracked in the future.

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Dr Amin Asfor, The Pirbright Institute

A universal test to ensure production of effective foot-and-mouth disease vaccines

Dr Amin Asfor

At a young age I witnessed one of my relatives suffer from a rare, long-lasting and debilitating disease - it motivated me to pursue a career where I might be able to develop a cure. However, when I began my studies in veterinary medicine I discovered the link between ecology, animal and human health, known as One Health, and in particular the impact of viruses. During my Ph.D. at the Royal Veterinary College in London where I was doing research on the molecular biology of RNA viruses I was introduced to the concept of translational science, moving from the bench to the market and from basic sciences to tangible product that would provide a wider benefit to communities around the world.

I joined the Pirbright institute in December 2009 to study foot-and-mouth disease virus (FMDV) antigenicity, epitope mapping and virus evolution under the direction of Dr Toby Tuthill, the head of the virus programme and the head of picornavirus molecular biology group. He gave me the opportunity to think independently and to lead the development of a universal test to ensure production of effective FMD vaccines. This will have an impact on the control of one of the devastating disease of animals that costed the UK economy more than £8 billion during the 2001 outbreak and causes significant financial losses with annual loss of US$5 billion worldwide.

Innovation is at the heart of all scientists when they tackle the day-to-day problems within the research environment and try to find an innovative solutions to overcome the challenges. However, the real innovation in my opinion is to translate the data generated from basic science into a value that benefit the stakeholder.

I am very honoured and was very delighted to be named a finalist in BBSRC Innovator of the Year award 2019.

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Professor Andy Jones, University of Liverpool

The Proteomics Standards Initiative - global, open access to data through innovation in standards, software and databases

Professor Andy Jones

I first got a taste for bioinformatics during my undergraduate degree in Genetics at Edinburgh University, which inspired me to learn more about coding and computational methods during a Masters degree and then a PhD in bioinformatics at Glasgow University.

During my Masters and PhD, I was first exposed to Omics – particularly proteomics and mass spectrometry, and started to work on software and a database. I became aware of new efforts coordinated initially from the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) to improve how proteomics data were represented, stored and shared - the Proteomics Standards Initiative (PSI) – set up with significant input from Henning Hermjakob and Sandra Orchard amongst several other senior scientists at the EBI.

I joined my first PSI meeting in 2003, and I was excited by the energy of people passionate to make data open and accessible, at a time when every lab seemed to be keeping a tight hold of their own precious data. Eric Deutsch from the Institute of Systems Biology (Seattle) was also working on standards and tools for proteomics, and soon joined the effort, as did Juan Antonio Vizcaino (EBI). Since the mid-2000s, Henning, Sandra, Eric, Juan Antonio and I have attended almost every PSI meeting, developing and promoting standards for proteomics and open data sharing.

We have seen a fantastic transformation from when we started out. There are now 10,000s of proteomics data sets freely available, being re-used for all sorts of tasks, including re-annotating genomes to detect coding regions, to find new types of post-translational modifications and to understand how proteins interact with each other.

What does it mean to be named a finalist? Our work in data sharing does not often get the limelight, so it is fantastically rewarding that our collective work over more than 15 years has been recognised by BBSRC as innovative!

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Social Impact

Professor Alan Radford, University of Liverpool

The Small Animal Veterinary Surveillance Network - big data to improve animal and human health

Professor Alan Radford

I graduated in 1993 with degrees in veterinary science and molecular biology. These gave me the taste for research - the desire to work with others and find out new things that, in their own small way, could make a difference to animal and human health. My PhD on evolution of feline calicivirus (the best virus in the world!) taught me not just about virology, but also how epidemiology could make our work more applicable to the wider world. Over the last 30 years, two other things became clear. Firstly, that pet animals’ impact massively on human health and wellbeing, and secondly, despite this, no one at a population level was looking after their collective health, nor how it affects their owners and wider society.

Select image for larger version.

These observations all came together in SAVSNET, the Small Animal Veterinary Surveillance Network. SAVSNET @ University of Liverpool is a truly collaborative effort that aims to help fill this knowledge gap in companion animal population health. It’s built on a network of veterinary practitioners and diagnostic laboratories across the UK supplying large volumes of electronic health data. These data are analysed by a multidisciplinary team of epidemiologists, computer scientists and microbiologists, and applied in innovative ways for which they were never originally designed. Using such a health informatics approach, we can now start to answer previously unanswerable questions of importance to practitioners, their patients and clients, as well as the wider human population. Our research is now beginning to help change the way pets are treated, from antibiotic use and resistance, to poisoning, vaccination and ticks.

What does it mean to be named a finalist? Honoured, humbled and flabbergasted. But mostly thrilled to be able to recognise the work of all the members of our interdisciplinary team that together are making this innovation possible.

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Dr Andrew Broadbent, The Pirbright Institute

Addressing 3Rs requirements by increasing the life of infected chicken immune cells in vitro

Dr Andrew Broadbent

When I was a toddler, I entered the “why?” stage, and I guess I never grew out of it. This curiosity morphed into a love of Science, and my career to date has been driven by the desire to answer the question “Why do things get sick?” Following this passion led to a degree in Veterinary Medicine, a PhD in Microbiology & Immunology, and postdoctoral research in Virology.

I started my laboratory at The Pirbright Institute to discover the causes and consequences of immunosuppression in farm animals, where I worked with scientists who developed a way of keeping chicken immune cells alive in the lab. We demonstrated that the cells could be used instead of the chickens for experiments, thus reducing the number of birds used in research. By making the cells accessible to labs that lack animal facilities, we can also build capacity, and save vaccine companies money. Working with the poultry industry has presented exciting opportunities for me to apply creative scientific ideas to help address real-world problems such as securing enough food for a growing human population.

For me, this is an example of innovation in action. I view innovation as a creative and collaborative process, however a key aspect is being able to translate these ideas into something that has value to society. In short, innovation is turning imagination into reality, thereby fulfilling an unmet need.

I am honoured to be named a finalist in the BBSRC 2019 Innovator of the Year awards, and my Imposter Syndrome is kicking in as I find myself among such inspiring people. The experience will not only allow me to share my passion with others, but I will also hear about cutting-edge developments in the Sciences, which may lead to new ideas and collaborations, thus driving continued innovation.

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