September 25, 2020

“Covid-19 has made it obvious that investing in science is essential” | Innovation


Clara Campàs (1976, La Roca del Vallès, Barcelona) began as a researcher in hospital centers (in biochemistry applied to cancer). The discovery of a drug and its subsequent patent took her to the corporate world, hand in hand with Advancell, a biotechnology company that she managed to manage. Then she made the leap to the multinational Kern Pharma, where she was Director of Strategy and Development until 2018. That year, after receiving several job offers from investment funds, she decided to create her own: Asabys Partners.

“During my time in the world of pharmaceuticals I learned a lot. But I needed to be close to the most disruptive innovation, the most innovative science and the riskiest,” Campàs acknowledges in a video call. During those years I had remained in contact with the ecosystem entrepreneur, as mentor and as vice president of CataloniaBIO and member of Biocat’s board of directors, she was also a member of the HealthEquity Investment Committee, and this led her to launch her own firm together with her partner Josep Lluís Sanfeliu.

What does Asabys invest in?

Our focus is on therapies, whether in the form of a medicine, a device or a digital platform. New therapies are not just drugs, they are also mechanical, electronic and digital solutions. Digital health is a very broad concept where there are still questions, but digital therapy is giving very good results.

How much do they invest in those three types of therapies?

Each one takes a third of the fund. We already have 70 million euros, with room to increase capital to 85. The idea is to finance between 12 and 15 companies. So far we have done it in four and we hope to invest in at least another four by the end of the summer. We invest between three and six million per startup.

What criteria govern your investments?

Essentially three. The first thing is that there is good science or technology, that the working hypothesis is disruptive and powerful. The second is that there is a market and an unmet medical need is addressed. The third thing is that there is an investment case, options to recover the disbursement, either through an IPO or by selling the company or its assets. Another criterion is the team, although the funds are increasingly capable of providing teams when those who lead the project have not had the opportunity or simply do not want to become entrepreneurs.

How is Spain doing in scientific and technological transfer?

There has been an evolution, no doubt. A few years ago, technology transfer agencies did not exist. We are moving from coffee for everyone to being able to select the projects and centers that do it best. After the transfer comes valorization, and there are more and more initiatives aimed at turning these ideas into startups. There are also more investors in earlier stages, through tools such as crowdfunding, more specialized angel investors, valuation platforms that also have small funds, and the centers themselves, which try to promote these projects.

Not all science must be transferred, but basic science must also be funded. It is almost a responsibility of the researchers and centers themselves to ensure that when an investigation approaches something transferable, that transfer occurs successfully. If it is not brought to market, no one will ever benefit from it. Transfer is not just patenting: it is knowledge, it is getting the researchers to remain linked even if they do not run the new company, and that the research center remains committed to that startup. This dialogue with science is very important and must be continuous, it does not end the day you create the company. Nobody likes a large multinational company to come and take that patent or technology to the US Researchers and centers feel attacked when this happens.

What about Europe in terms of transfer?

We have a great pending issue of lack of private capital for this type of investment. When Europe is compared to the US, it is often superior in quality of scientific output. The problem is in making that take the form of products and economic activity, patents and jobs created. The differential factor with the US is private investment. Europe has been risk-averse in this regard for many years, although less and less.

Does it cost more to invest in health?

The health sector is high risk. Startups in this field are much more capital intensive and also in many cases they are companies that do not bill, so you are based on value expectations of that potentially very large market. In addition, the risk in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sector is very binary: a molecule works or not. In medical devices and in digital therapies, this is not the case, so we diversify the risk.

What is the role of the pharmaceutical industry?

15 years ago the multinationals in the sector had an army of researchers but, seeing that this was not working for them, they began to buy biotechnology companies when they were already very close to the market and the risk had been minimized. So they had to buy very expensive. They are now investing in earlier and earlier stages, even before clinical trials have started. Some have their own investment vehicles. It is significant that they are increasingly looking at startups. At the same time, the funds are fixed on science to be able to move it towards the development phase as soon as possible. Somehow the chain is meshing.

Has this changed the Covid-19?

With the pandemic, society has realized that investing in innovation and science is essential for everyone. It has become obvious. However, it is necessary to invest constantly, not just in a moment of awakening. I am not referring to public investment in science and technology, which is essential, but to private investment. You have to be able to respond to the challenges that come. On the other hand, private investment in health is acyclical, it does not depend on the Stock Market, so it begins to give a vision of security. It is being seen that investing in the private sector and in the health sector is a safer bet than in other sectors. In the last 20 years there has been a very clear trend to go from investing in the Stock Market to doing so in private markets. Venture capital has achieved returns equal to or greater than investment in listed companies. It is not only that there is a need for private investment to turn science into products, but it is also giving such good results that it is becoming more and more striking.

Is the ecosystem of biotech and health technologies in Spain?

Asabys invests 70% of the fund in Spain, and it is not by chance. Here is a great opportunity to invest in science. We have the advantage of having very good science and state-of-the-art hospitals. Barcelona is one of the five main poles of Europe in the healthcare ecosystem, and access to talent is very easy. The problem is the lack of specific talent when it comes to management. There is a lack of people capable of taking this science and transforming it into startups, but when we are able to fill that gap, the result is very good, with internationally competitive companies.

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