10 min 🕐
(Originally published on October 28 2021 on the EVPA blog). Eleni Theodorou from We Share Ventures and Jessica Lee from Medicines Discovery Catapult explain how they are joining forces to drive medicines discovery through an impact-driven funding model. This partnership has the potential to develop new treatments that could change the lives of vast numbers of people.
Tell us about your organisations.We Share Ventures, an active member of the EVPA community, are a not-for-profit foundation that promotes and supports social entrepreneurs and student changemakers who are working to improve the lives of people and communities in disadvantaged situations. They provide support via donations from their community of engaged funders, who utilise We Share as a vehicle to put their impact aspirations into action, as demonstrated through their partnership with Medicines Discovery Catapult. We Share enables Social Entrepreneurs and Changemaker Students to impact global challenges and accelerate the Sustainable Development Goals by providing a unique philanthropic circular funding model. Medicines Discovery Catapult (MDC) are an independent not-for-profit organisation enabling the UK drug discovery community to reshape medicines discovery by driving scientific innovation, harnessing new technologies and encouraging collaboration. Syndicates are one of MDC’s many innovative programmes; they build UK skills and capacity in patient-focused medicines discovery by bringing together leading experts across sectors to identify unmet needs and catalyse efforts to address them. They are currently focused on three areas: infections associated with cystic fibrosis, hearing loss and tinnitus, and psychiatric disorders.
The founder of We Share Ventures, Edward de Jager, said that despite the many successes of the traditional model of using venture capital to fund projects in medicines discovery, some areas require a different funding model. At Medicines Discovery Catapult, when did you realise that this traditional route was no longer sufficient and that a different funding model was needed?Jessica Lee, MDC: For too long, accessing catalytic funding has been a challenge for medicines discovery start-ups focused on areas of clinical unmet need. While venture capital has been highly successful in many areas in driving world-class medicines discovery, some areas such as antimicrobial resistance, have been underfunded due to the high-risk nature of generating financially viable returns. As the agile risk takers of medicines discovery, more funding is needed for medicines discovery start-ups in the early stages of their development, to help them bring forward new medicines in areas of patient need. Through its Syndicate programme, MDC has created and supported world-class drug discovery consortia in areas of patient need. By bringing together MDC’s Syndicate programme with We Share’s impact-driven revolving funding model, we are driving a new approach for the medicines discovery sector. We believe that it has the potential to create and sustain funding opportunities for medicines discovery start-ups focused on patient impact.
What does your partnership look like and what is the social impact you are trying to achieve?
Jessica Lee, MDC: Our partnership is a pilot programme to apply We Share’s revolving funding model to medicines discovery. MDC will hold a call for applications inviting early-stage start-ups across Europe to apply for funding to support their drug discovery projects. We will be looking to fund projects that not only demonstrate scientific and technical innovation but demonstrate a clear route to patient impact. Eleni Theodorou, We Share: MDC will undertake a robust due diligence process, working closely with its Syndicate partners and the patients they represent, to identify the most scientifically rigorous and impactful projects. We Share Ventures will then conduct due diligence on the start-ups business and finance models and select at least two projects to support. We Share will provide the winning organisations with a grant which will be paid forward to the next generation of early-stage medicine discovery start-ups. Ultimately, we hope to fund at least two world-class drug discovery projects, focused on addressing patient unmet needs and bringing new treatments to the clinic. If successful, we hope to expand our partnership and fund more early-stage medicines discovery start-ups, providing more opportunities for this passionate and dedicated sector of innovators.
What is the biggest added value of the partnership for each of you?Eleni Theodorou: We Share Ventures aims to ignite a ‘share-it-forward movement’ where start-ups who have flourished with our help, then share with the next generation of businesses. Once you have been helped, you help others. We hope that our collaboration with MDC and our robust experience in financing social entrepreneurs will bring more value to philanthropic giving for medicine discovery and will be the catalyst of a new approach to financing for early-stage development of medicines discovery companies. A financially sustainable model that can help more innovators survive the valley of death and come one step closer in meeting patient needs. It is exciting to apply our revolving funding model to early-stage medicines discovery, but the patient centric design of this partnership is its most crucial element. Patients will play a key role in the due diligence process, assisting us in selecting the start-ups to fund. This is integral to ensure that we are addressing well-defined patient needs and funding companies selected by them, for them. Jessica Lee: For MDC, this partnership offers the opportunity to take its Syndicate programme to the next level by enabling impact-driven start-ups to leverage grant funding to catalyse their research and set them on the pathway to success using well-defined patient needs as their guiding mission. Our mission is to bring new treatments to patients faster, and this partnership will enable us to do just that.
There are many social investors and funders out there. How did the two of you meet?Eleni Theodorou: We Share and MDC participated in last year’s Venture Philanthropy and Impact Investing Online Crash Course provided by the EVPA Training Academy. Through our discussions, we realised the potential of applying the We Share Ventures revolving funding model to medicines discovery. These exciting conversations led to the realisation that through collaboration We Share Ventures and MDC could help more innovators survive the ‘valley of death; support more solutions to address patient unmet needs and make philanthropic giving more dynamic by revolving the funding we provide. Creating impact is at the core of both of our organisations, and in this case, we realised we could affect real positive change by placing patients at the heart of our decision making.
When did you know that you would be a good match for each other?Jessica Lee and Eleni Theodorou: Our partnership was a natural fit; we are both not-for-profit organisations dedicated to driving social impact and supporting innovators in the early stage of their development. MDC’s expertise in patient-focused drug discovery is complemented by We Share’s expertise in social financing and social entrepreneurship. By bringing our skills and resources together, we can offer a new sustainable source of funding to the medicines discovery sector, giving entrepreneurs the chance to focus on creating new medicines that will positively impact the lives of patients.
What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome in setting up the partnership to get where you are now?Jessica Lee:Driving collaborative innovation and pushing boundaries together is not without its challenges. Key to the development of our partnership was the need for a thorough understanding of the medicines discovery start-up landscape. Medicines discovery is a highly specialised area, where it can take over 10 years for a new medicine to reach the market and where there is a real need for patient needs-driven financing. Addressing the needs of the medicines discovery sector required We Share to adapt their model; amending their traditional low-interest patient loan to a grant that is paid forward to the next generation of early-stage medicine discovery start-ups. Eleni Theodorou:Our common goal to impact the lives of more patients through financing early-stage medicine discovery helped us exchange knowledge, share resources and spark innovation. Bringing MDCs expertise in medicines discovery together with We Share Ventures’ agility and openness to innovation has created a new funding model which we hope can be the first step towards a revolving and sustainable way of funding early-stage impact-driven startups.
What tips would you give to other organisations in a similar situation on how to improve their business model to make a social impact?Eleni Theodorou: This collaboration has enabled genuine knowledge exchange and helped us to bolster our mutual expertise and we are poised to see what the future of this partnership will deliver, particularly as we accelerate our progress in the coming months. However, there are some key tips we would like to share with the EVPA community:
- Put the communities you wish to support at the core of your business model design. Assess the needs of your community and create programmes focused on those. When it comes to your direct beneficiaries, such as the medicine discovery start-ups, or the indirect beneficiaries, such as the patients, it is crucial to give them a voice; include them and let them shape your decision making.
- Ensure you fund the needs that cannot be supported with other resources, such as mentoring, access to networks and expertise etc. We strive to provide the tailored support that will help our start-ups make the most of their potential.
- Find allies that share your values and complement your abilities.
- Build a strong ecosystem of support and collaboration while staying agile and open to innovation.
- Put impact first, but ensure the financial model is robust and viable to help more innovators in the future.
- Embrace the Pay It Forward principle and dare to spark meaningful change.