Interview – NetScientific to reach market with high speed, low cost diagnostics

Analysis

Somewhere between a VC and a university spin-out incubator, but emphatically not either, NetScientific has an unusual model through which it encourages the development of new technologies. Now two very different patient monitoring modalities with which it has been involved are on the cusp of approval, and the company is entering the revenue-generating stage.

“We like to see that [target companies] have a proof of concept working. We like to see point of care diagnostics, which by definition means low cost, high speed, high performance instruments,” says Farad Azima, NetScientific’s chief executive.

In its early years, NetScientific helped establish other companies, incubating them and their products, some in the UK and some in the US. It has five core subsidiaries, focused mainly on diagnostic tests.

“In nearly all cases we have majority control,” Mr Azima tells EP Vantage. “The balance of the shares goes to the principal investigator and the universities. In some companies we may own 60%, in some 80%.”

After floating on the London exchange a year ago, however, NetScientific has branched into investing in more established companies. “These are no longer university spinouts – they are technologies with entrepreneurs behind them. We are moving away from the university spinouts model and into later stage technologies,” Mr Azima says.

“The newer situations we’re going into, we don’t necessarily have a controlling interest, as they are already existing companies. Some have quite a high valuation. We might secure 10% or 15% of the equity.”

Cost angle

He explains that as both an investor and an incubator, NetScientific seeks technologies whose concept is proven – but it also finds a cost-saving angle to be desirable. This has come in useful in the development of a telehealth platform made by NetScientific’s subsidiary WandaHealth. The National Institutes of Health has agreed to fund trials of the patient monitoring platform as it has the potential to save the healthcare system cash in the long run by helping patients avoid hospitalisation.

WandaHealth’s technology is designed to monitor patients with congestive heart failure at home, using biomarkers and physiological measures to assess a patient’s risk of heart attack or other crises.

“Most of the cost of healthcare is in chronic disease management – north of 70%. It’s a big burden,” Mr Azima says. The situation will get worse with the demographics of aging and the fact that in recent years patients are presenting with chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity at a younger age.

Though he states that getting European approval is “much, much easier” than persuading the FDA, Mr Azima says that NetScientific expects to get both US approval and CE marking for Wanda’s platform in the first quarter of next year. The system requires a premarket approval, he says. “There wasn’t a predicate and it’s been a very lengthy process.”

Quantitative and scientific

The other company NetScientific is ushering to market is Vortex BioSciences. Vortex makes a low-cost blood test that uses circulating tumour cells to diagnose cancer and monitor patient treatment. At the moment, Mr Azima says, patients have to wait for a number of weeks between the CT or other scans that are used to check tumour size, meaning there can be long periods when they are on an ineffective drug regimen.

Vortex’s technology can give a much more accurate picture of whether the drugs are working. “We can do that with a blood test every 72 hours, and discuss the efficacy and dose of the drug, whether it is the correct drug or not, by whether the tumour cell count is going up or down,” Mr Azima says.

European approval will come first for this product, with CE mark expected in 2015. The FDA approval process is to kick off next year, so it will be unlikely to reach the US for a couple of years after that.

NetScientific’s other portfolio companies are variously developing diagnostics for heart attack, liver disease, cystic fibrosis and COPD. Though “none of them is supremely ambitious,” these earlier-stage products are “coming along nicely”, according to Mr Azima.

“Historically medicine was qualitative and clinical. The medicine of tomorrow will be quantitative and scientific; in personalised medicine you need to have precise diagnostic measurements.”

NetScientific’s portfolio is intended to exploit demographic change and economic trends. It will need to keep the approvals coming if it is to move from being revenue-generating to being profitable.

To contact the writer of this story email Elizabeth Cairns in London at elizabethc@epvantage.com or follow @LizEPVantage on Twitter

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