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By Tom Fleming

Tom Fleming - finalYou may not be aware of it yet, but there could be a unicorn hidden in your lab. I am not talking about a mythical flying horse but a start-up whose valuation has exceeded a billion dollars. How could such a conspicuous creature go completely unnoticed? Well, I think that it happens all the time. I’ll describe two high-impact start-ups that are helping to save lives in the face of an international public health emergency and their unlikely beginnings in academic labs.

You cannot have missed in recent news the outbreak of the Zika virus in Brazil and the shocking rise in babies born with microcephaly. Worryingly, Zika’s symptoms can go unnoticed, and, for pregnant mothers, infection can lead to severe developmental problems for the unborn child. I was fascinated to learn of two cutting-edge technologies deployed to the frontline in efforts to track and control the spread of the outbreak. I’ll briefly discuss their scientific origins and the successful companies that have developed around them.

Unicorn in the lab

Technology 1: Nanopore sequencing is a DNA sequencing technology that is tracking the Zika outbreak by identifying patient samples that contain the viral DNA sequence. It is fast, simple, and the instrument is extremely compact.

Nanopore sequencing technology began as the academic study of a naturally occurring proteins (nanopores) that form small pores in the walls of cells, allowing molecules to pass through. Sequencing genes once took years, teams of scientists, and multiple expensive, large instruments. With nanopore technology, sequencing is completed in just hours, with one scientist, a laptop, and the nanopore sequencing device the size of a memory stick—enabling its use in the field. Oxford Nanopore Technologies has an extensive patent portfolio and has raised £251 million to date.

From academic research on an obscure protein to a multimillion-pound company whose innovations are used internationally, could such a transformation be lying dormant within your research?

Technology 2: The Zika virus is spread by the Aedes mosquito, and controlling the mosquito population is a key strategy for limiting the spread of the virus. Pesticides are not a favoured approach—they often encounter resistance and can contaminate the food chain. Another Oxford-based biotech company, Oxitec, has developed an improved approach for suppressing mosquito populations.

Oxitec employs genetic engineering to create “sterile” male mosquitos that are then released into local ecosystem in waves. The males mate but do not produce offspring, thereby reducing the population. The solution is effective, environmentally friendly, and self-limiting, and it is in use to control the spread of the Zika virus, as well as controlling other insect pests that spread disease or damage crops. Oxitec has won numerous awards, and their technologies are in use to tackle global problems in health and in agriculture.

These examples, among many others, make me wonder how many other innovations lie unexploited? Technologies without application; processes without industries.

Are there other academic research labs where the potential of their knowledge has not yet been realised? Almost certainly. Could there be a novel application of your research that you’ve not yet considered? Maybe so. Might it be worth exploring the less-trodden route of entrepreneurship to discover how your unique knowledge and skills can create international impact on human health, economy, and science? Definitely…Is there a unicorn hiding in your lab?

“Research is to see what everybody has seen and think what nobody has thought.”—Schopenhauer

Tom Fleming is a Chemical Biology Ph.D. student at the University of Oxford in Professor Tom Brown’s Nucleic Acids Chemistry Lab. He is investigating novel probes of DNA repair enzymes for basic biology and early drug discovery research.