Talking investment with Octopus Ventures’ Uzma Choudry and what she’s looking for in a breakthrough technology.
Next week, the first Biohacking Congress will be held in London, bringing together famous biohackers, renowned scientists, healthcare professionals, researchers, authors and investors focused on helping us all live a longer and healthier life.
A key component of the event is a start-up competition, which is part of the Startup World Cup, a global competition with a grand prize of $1 million. Seed and Series A level start-ups from MedTech, digital health, biotech and healthcare will pitch to a panel of experts at Biohacking Congress, including Uzma Choudry, PhD, an investor at Octopus Ventures.
With more than £1 billion under management today, Octopus Ventures started out as a generalist Venture Capital (VC) firm, but in recent years has focused on three key pillars of investment: Deep Tech, Future of Money and Future of Health.
Uzma is focused on assessing investment opportunities, conducting preliminary due diligence and executing deals. Her experience straddles the Deep Tech and Future of Health Pods, and she is now focused on Frontier Technologies within health and biotech such as synthetic biology and nanotech, genomics, gene editing and computational biology. This includes platforms at the intersection of technology and biology, including human augmentation and neurotech.
“We’re starting to build more expertise in the frontier technologies within health and seeing a number of life sciences opportunities which fit in that bracket,” she says. “And that’s where we feel there’s an overlap between deep tech and health.”
“… we asked ourselves whether Longevity is a space we should be looking at? … We think it is because the areas that we want to look at are those where we think there is a large opportunity or big global challenges that we could be solving. Longevity certainly ticks that box …”
In terms of biohacking specifically, Choudry, with a PhD in synthetic biology and biophysics, has a keen personal interest. She points at the opportunity presented by advancements in the genomics space – initially around the ability to read the “biological” software (genome) through more cost-effective DNA sequencing technology, but further now in developments around gene editing tools, such as CRISPR-Cas3/9, which provide the ability to write and edit the software/genes, and opening up a massive opportunity.
“It’s quite exciting, seeing how over the last couple of decades we’ve honed the ability to read the genome, and the cost of DNA (the bio-code), sequencing and gene synthesis has come down,” she says. “Being able to hack biology at the software level, or essentially what we call DNA, that’s what I find really exciting – actually seeing the developments in the genomic space: the ability to read, but now also edit and write.”
Choudry points at companies like Ginkgo Bioworks, Zymergen and Locus Biosciences as being leaders among those trying to write or code life, but is also excited by developments closer to home, including Nemesis Bioscience, Folium Science, CC Bio, FabricNano, SNIPR Biome and Eligo Bioscience.
“Within the UK, we’re starting to see quite a lot of companies within the microbiome editing space, utilising CRISPR-Cas, which is exciting,” she says.
Despite her obvious excitement over the sector, Choudry is also conscious of the ethical questions raised by the prospect of gene editing and biohacking.
“If you look at it any sort of breakthrough technology that we’ve seen come out over the past few decades, even when they have exciting and beneficial use cases, those technologies often also have potential for more nefarious uses,” she says. “There are still quite a lot of ethical considerations around gene editing and how this should be regulated, how this should be monitored, and where you draw the line on things like this.”
Choudry is particularly concerned by human germline engineering, where the genome is edited through genetic alterations within reproductive cells, in such a way that the change is heritable.
“That’s an area I don’t think we should be taking lightly at all and something that I’m personally uncomfortable with,” she adds.
As far as her views on Longevity as a sector goes, Choudry has spent time with Juvenescence’s Jim Mellon and the people who manage his investment funds.
“There were interesting views on lifespan versus health span, and we asked ourselves whether Longevity is a space we should be looking at?” she says. “We think it is because the areas that we want to look at are those where we think there is a large opportunity or big global challenges that we could be solving. Longevity certainly ticks that box, the aging population is something that is at the front of our mind. Probably more so around health span rather than lifespan – how are these people able to keep good health into their later years. Those are some of the areas that we are looking at within our future of health team.”
What will Choudry be looking for from the pitching companies at Biohacking Congress?
“We’re always looking for exceptional teams and for frontier tech start-ups this also means a strong scientific team, because the IP is obviously very crucial,” she explains. “But also a team that is commercially stellar. We realise that early stage frontier tech companies are largely technical and there isn’t a requirement for a commercial team, but having good commercial oversight is super valuable for the business. Once these academic teams have sufficiently de-risked the technology and moving from the “R” of R&D to “D” and commercialisation, it is important to have a strong commercial team in place to drive the commercial strategy.”
Choudry also wants to see a demonstration of a clear understanding of the market and the opportunity. How big is the market? How can it be segmented? How easy or hard is it to get into the market? Which function of the business do you sell into and what’s the sales pitch in terms of ROIs for the customer? What are the other companies doing in this space? What does the go-to-market route look like? What does the distribution channel look like? What does the value chain look like?
“Strength of team and market opportunity (size, macros etc.) are the two the key aspects (among others) that we look for when we are assessing a business within the biohacking or synthetic biology space.”
When it comes to potential pitfalls for new companies in the biohacking area, Choudry is clear that other than commercialisation, things like ethics and regulations are areas that companies in the biohacking or synthetic biology space may have to deal with deal with.
“Consider how long it might take for you to go through regulations, where there might not be a framework because it’s a novel field, and what that means for you in terms of like commercialisation and go to market,” she says. “There might be new business models or new ways of monetising to consider. This is understanding how your business then grows at the different stages, how much capital you might need to raise and how you can grow into your valuation.”
Uzma Choudry and other investors will be at the first Biohacking Congress being held in London. Longevity.Technology readers can get a 50% discount off their tickets with the promo code: LongevityTechnology