From brilliant ideas to a successful biotech company

20 March 2020
What is more satisfying than developing an innovative medication, all the way from your initial basic science to a medical application? Academic discoveries that are translated to the clinic improve patients’ quality of life and add value to healthcare systems around the world. For us, this is the real meaning of ‘giving back to society’.

Since the very beginning of VIB, translation of scientific research into benefits for society is one of its foundational pillars. It’s VIB’s mission to ensure that our discoveries and inventions lead to impactful products and services for the public. VIB encourages its researchers to travel different roads to create value and impact, based on their scientific discoveries. Creating a start-up company is one of them. In 2015, after a significant period of strategic planning, VIB and Ghent University co-founded the biotech company Orionis Biosciences together with Boston-based scientist and serial entrepreneur Niko Kley. Several scientific innovations made in Jan’s lab were fundamental seed technology and intellectual property at the founding stage of Orionis. These included various molecular interaction and AcTakine technologies, with input from Niko Kley and Gilles Uzé (CNRS/Montpellier), respectively. AcTakines, short for Activity-on-Target Cytokines, resemble classical immunocytokines but employ modified cytokines with reduced binding affinity and activity for their cognate receptors, which, however, can be restored upon targeted cell interaction. In this manner off-target cell interactions, and potentially associated systemic toxicities that have hampered clinical applications of cytokines in the past, can be minimized. Realizing the potential of these discoveries and their applications to a broad range of diseases, including cancer, Jan teamed up with Griet and her colleagues from VIB’s Innovation & Business team, joined by Niko, to advance translation of these discoveries towards clinical applications.

The creation of Orionis would not have been possible without the experienced support and investor network of VIB’s New Venture team. By building trust over the years and establishing an excellent track record of spin-offs, especially for platform companies, investors see VIB as a reliable and well-respected counterparty that understands, the business aspects of investments. Orionis was in this respect a special case as the company has operations in Boston and Ghent and was initially largely financed by US-based investors, complemented with VIB-affiliated V-Bio Ventures.

After four years of taking a somewhat different than traditional approach to company building, Orionis
Biosciences has now emerged from stealth mode - along with a major deal announcement. We could never have exploited the full potential of our technologies if we had kept them in our academic labs. Orionis refocused, advanced, scaled, further expanded and integrated applications of these and other technologies. Since its inception, Orionis accessed over 20 million euro of venture capital to build a robust technology foundation, enable forging of partnerships and advance its product development efforts. While there was early proof-ofconcept for the AcTakine technology back in 2015, since then the technology has further evolved at Orionis and through a productive collaboration between Jan’s lab at VIB. An impressive intellectual property portfolio has been created, along with the advancement of preclinical development candidates and a unique pipeline of promising immunotherapy approaches.

Starting and growing a company is a challenging but rewarding long-term endeavor and not for the faint of heart. It requires full commitment, patience and perseverance. It is a fun rollercoaster though. Although the route of a startup might sound alluring, it also means making sacrifices​ and taking risks. The entrepreneurial route can put​ you at cross-roads of choices that can impact your academic career: from postponing publications to allow a strong IP portfolio build-up, to turning down certain industrial collaborations early on to not encumber your early product ideas or findings. For a while you might need to combine academic
and industrial positions, which requires a good strategy from the very beginning to overcome conflict of interest situations.​

Jan’s lab has a strong link to Orionis which is formalized under a sponsored R&D agreement, generating significant R&D income for the Center and allowing Orionis to tap into the expertise built over the years in Jan’s team, a win-win for both parties. On top of this, it is very rewarding to notice that former lab colleagues find their way to the new venture, bringing honed scientific expertise to the company and gaining valuable
industry skills along the way.

Orionis is well underway to bringing the promise of novel therapies, inspired by original discoveries made in Jan’s lab, to the clinic. Watch this space for more exciting news in the future.

Related VIBtimes articles on 'Science powers biotech'


Jan Tavernier is Principal investigator in the VIB-UGent
Center for Medical Biotechnology and full professor
at Ghent University. Griet Vanpoucke is Head of VIB’s
New Ventures team at VIB Headquarters.


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Lien Van Hoecke (VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology), Xavier Saelens (VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology) and Tim Van Acker (VIB Business Development Manager).