The 2021 EIT Health Catapult Winner

by Sven Verguts | March 9, 2022


The 2021 EIT Health Catapult

As part of its continued support for young biotech start-ups, Merck sponsors the EIT Health Catapult programme.

The programme is a unique competition and training programme that showcases biotech, medtech and digital health start-ups to leading experts and investors across Europe. The programme recognizes and awards the very best business concepts, fast-tracking start-ups to become world-leading companies.

Participants go through 3 selection rounds over the course of a year, receiving training and mentoring along the way.

The programme culminates in the final event, at the EIT Health Summit. Here the finalists in each category will compete for three prizes: €40,000, €20,00, and €10,000.

Merck not only supports this programme through its sponsorship, but also offers the biotech specific “Merck Best Emerging Biotech prize” during the programme semi-finals.

The Merck Prize

This prize offers one biotech startup the opportunity to take their first steps towards clinical manufacturing together with Merck.

During a visit to Merck’s MLAB™ facility, they will be able to experience first-hand what it takes to produce a biopharmaceutical, identify the challenges they face to reach this level and have the opportunity to tackle those challenges together with Merck’s experts to find the solutions that best fits their needs.

Once these technical hurdles have been overcome, the prize winner will also get the chance to consult with experts from the venture capital arm of Merck, M.Ventures, to discuss their next fundraising steps.

The Winner: Onena Medicines

In 2021, the winner of the Merck Best Emerging Biotech Prize during the 2021 EIT Health Catapult Programme was Onena Medicines, a start-up biotechnology company that was co-founded in 2019 by Neethan Lobo and Maider Zabala. It is a Stanford University spin-out company located in the heart of Basque Country in Gipuzkoa, Spain.

The company was born from discoveries that the duo made during their post-docs during intense investigation into mechanisms that make cancer resistant to current therapies. Onena Medicines has won numerous awards such as the Torbio Echevarria and Week INN Best New Company in Donostia and counts themselves an alumnus of prestigious accelerators like Stanford StartX, MassChallenge Boston and BIND 4.0. They attribute their success so far to the strength of their small but stellar international team of top-flight scientists.

The basic problem that Onena Medicines aims to solve is that there are no cancer stem cell specific drugs. Chemotherapy, a backbone in cancer treatment, often fails to destroy all malignant cells. The leftover cancer cells, called cancer stem cells, are responsible for treatment failure and cancer returning after remission. Onena Medicines makes antibodies that that stop cancer stem cell growth.

To achieve cancer stem cell eradication, the company makes neutralizing antibodies that neutralize the activity of so called Dual SMAD Inhibiting Proteins, or DSIPs. These DSIP proteins are a class of secreted proteins that constantly suppress external maturation signals that induce immature cells to “grow up and grow old”. By interfering with these circuits, cancer stem cells are forced to become non-lethal benign cancer cells.

To fully exploit the therapeutic potential of anti-DSIP therapeutics, Onena Medicines centers its drug discovery efforts around their Transferrable SMAD Sensor System platform, which both identifies new DSIP targets and rapidly triages neutralizing antibody candidates. Their first antibody drug, which neutralizes the secreted growth factors LEFTY1 and LEFTY2, has shown promise for the treatment of aggressive solid tumors such as glioblastoma multiforme and later stage colorectal cancer.

What’s next? / Participate yourself

Over the next months the Onena Medicines team will work closely with different Merck experts to tackle the challenges in developing their first antibody. By leveraging the expertise of Merck, they strive to bring the first drug of Onena Medicines one step closer to saving lives.

In the meantime, they will also continue the EIT Health Accelerator Programme as a final participant, with a pitch during the EIT Health Summit, held on the 24th & 25th of May at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.

If you would like to see Onena Medicines pitch, learn from the many expert talks, and network with the top of European biotech, you can register for the event here.

Or if you like the programme and would like to have a shot at the prizes yourself, apply for the 2022 EIT Health Catapult here before March 14th.

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