Industry Articles| Discovering Biotech Startups
We’re adding a branch to our Sponsor Atlas series, which will focus on young pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies that are in early stages or stealth mode. In the first edition of Sponsor Atlas: Discovering Biotech Startups, we’re looking at BlueSphere Bio, exploring the current affairs and future orientation of this emerging Pennsylvania - based stealth healthcare company. To accomplish this, we will give a business overview of their current operations, summarize their outsourcing needs, map out their drug development goals and decision makers, and highlight their current strategies for capturing innovation.
BlueSphere Bio is an immunotherapy startup that is the first translational science spinout from UPMC Enterprises, the commercialization arm of the widely known global healthcare provider, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Formerly known as TCXpress, Inc., BlueSphere Bio continues the development of novel therapeutics in the field of Cancer Immunotherapy using their proprietary TCXpress platform technology.
BlueSphere Bio does not currently have an operating website for the public, so some good old-fashioned research was needed until BlueSphere decides if and when to register for a public-facing website. The entity creation and registration document was filed on April 25th, 2018, and even though the current company address is protected through a registered agent service, we’re assuming the primary operation is most likely at the prior business location of TCXpress, Inc., which is 1067 Devon Rd., Pittsburgh, PA 15213.
BlueSphere Bio raised a Series A round of $10M in the 4Q of 2018, with UPMC Enterprises being the sole investor. The parent company defines itself as the commercialization arm of UPMC and specializes in growth capital, joint ventures, and co-development partnerships from around the world. UPMC Enterprises primarily invests in early stage companies, like BlueSphere Bio, and typically capitalizes on health care innovations like translational sciences, consumer health care products and technologically-savvy clinical solutions.
While there isn’t much online information about their current outsourcing needs, the recent Series A funding means that BlueSphere Bio still has a good chunk of money to throw around for drug discovery and for outsourcing development work for eventually producing new clinical trial materials. The company is very early in development and with the recent restructuring of TCXpress into BlueSphere Bio, we can definitely expect to see an increased need for outsourcing activities in the near future. They will be working through the usual steps for a while before reaching the IND stage with potential products, and we think business development teams in the realms of large molecule CMOs, gene therapy and genetic engineering CROs, preclinical CROs and analytical service providers should definitely have BlueSphere Bio on their radar for the next few years.
BlueSphere Bio's Pipeline and R&D Focus
BlueSphere Bio’s main goal is the development of novel therapeutics in the field of Cancer Immunotherapy. Their major areas of R&D are developing services for direct cloning, as well as providing medical treatment services, specifically, the administration of gene therapy to patients, which involves harvesting a patient’s cells, cloning their T-cell receptors from single cells, screening those receptors for desired specificities, transducing them into primary T-cells, and then re-administering the transduced T-cells back into the patient for therapeutic use.
Keeping that in mind, their laboratory staff will be responsible for designing and engineering novel T-cell receptor constructs and optimizing them to serve as candidates for further clinical development. Some of the ways this work will be accomplished is by establishing viral and non-viral technologies for the delivery of nucleic acids to human primary T-cells. Other paths to the IND stage will be collaborating with early discovery and development teams, and characterizing their novel constructs with in vitro and ex vivo biochemical and functional assays using T-cell lines and primary T-cells. BlueSphere’s scientists will be leading the development of engineered human primary T cells using CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technologies to suppress endogenous TCR expression and to increase effector functions of receptors selected by their proprietary TCXpress platform technology.
Some of the ways business development teams can get their foot in the door at this early stage would be to provide consultancy on T-cell immunology with emphasis into T-cell receptor signaling, and building on optimal structure and function relationships.
The key people at BlueSphere Bio are the same key people from the former company, TCXpress:
- Mark Jay Shlomchik, M.D. - an American immunologist currently UPMC Endowed Professor and Chair at the University of Pittsburgh. 
- Warren D. Shlomchik, M.D. - a professor of medicine and immunology at UPMC. He is director of Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplant and Cell Therapy and scientific director of the Hematopoietic Malignancy Program at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. 
- Jeanne Cunicelli - is EVP of UPMC Enterprises, and leads their efforts to commercialize immunotherapy and biomedical research that comes out of UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh. She is also managing director of Bay City Capital LLC, and serves on multiple boards for technology and pharmaceutical companies.
- C. Talbot Heppenstall, Jr. - has been the Treasurer of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) since 2003, and is also the President of UPMC Enterprises.
UPMC Enterprises has made a huge impact in building, implementing, and commercializing innovation in the healthcare industry. The medical center has already had a solid history of innovation, dating back over 20 years, but the business operations were recently formalized in 2014 through UPMC Enterprises. After a few short years, it’s now regarded as one of the most successful innovation engines in the country, launching multiple companies and spin-offs, like BlueSphere Bio.
Capitalizing on ventures have been very successful at UPMC for a number of reasons, mainly from their focus on technology in solving healthcare problems, and their specific innovation strategy developed from company leadership. In a recent discussion about UPMC’s successful approach to investing in innovation, Tal Heppenstall, president of UPMC Enterprises said, “We manage UPMC Enterprises as a pipeline, so essentially, we welcome all ideas and concepts. We see up to 40 [ideas] a week; we progress two to three a month [for projects in more advanced stages of development]. We have about 430 things in our pipeline today, and we're investing money in about 80 of them. We have 200 people who oversee those 80 opportunities.” 
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How can I find more stealth biotechs?
If you would like a simple solution for keeping an eye on stealth and early stage drug companies, like BlueSphere Bio, without relying on a database and generic lists of leads each week, we at Zymewire are here to help. Reach out today, and stay tuned for the next instalment of the Sponsor Atlas: Discovering Biotech Startups. If you enjoy these articles, please feel free to give them a share through the social links below!