Founder-CEO Interview Series

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M. Bilal Fares

Bilal Fares is co-founder and director of R&D at ND Biosciences, a spinoff from the EPFL that was founded to develop and preclinically validate next-generation therapeutics and biomarkers for neurodegenerative diseases.

Bilal completed his Ph.D. in biotechnology and bioengineering at the EPFL, where he developed the first preclinical model of Parkinson’s disease reproducing early stages of pathological protein aggregation in neurons.

Through experiences at prominent academic and industrial institutions across Switzerland, USA, and the UK, Bilal has over 10 years of experience in developing and managing international projects in the field of preclinical disease modelling and drug discovery for neurodegenerative diseases. Bilal is also experienced in managing different aspects of biotech formation, operation, and business development through his current role at ND Biosciences, and recently completed a selective MBA program from Quantic, USA.

Founder-CEO Interview Series

with M. Bilal Fares

Tell us about ND Biosciences.

ND Biosciences is a biotech that was founded to develop next-generation therapeutics and biomarkers for different neurodegenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, which remain with no cure to date. To do this, NDBiosciences is deploying a novel integrated suite of drug discovery platforms which, for the first time, is able to reproduce many molecular pathological features of different neurological diseases with much higher fidelity compared to previous models, and to reproduce different stages of disease progression in living neurons

Together with this approach, ND Biosciences is developing novel companion diagnostics that would allow measuring pathological species in biological fluids, and which would pave the way for early diagnosis and early intervention, and that would be used to monitor disease progression and test the efficacy of new therapies developed by ND Biosciences in clinical trials. 

All of the technologies and screening platforms that are being deployed at ND Biosciences, including protein engineering approaches, cellular disease models, antibodies and screening pipelines, were developed in the laboratory of Professor Hilal Lashuel at the EPFL, where I also did my PhD and part of my post-doctoral studies.  

How have you been funded so far?

The Lashuel lab has had long lasting relationships with several private foundations that fund research in neurodegenerative disease, and were familiar with the new technologies and discoveries emerging from the lab. Therefore, it was not very difficult for us to convince some of these foundations, such as Michael J. Fox Foundation, to support some of ND Biosciences’ research and development programs.

Over the past two years, we have received several research grants from these foundations to further develop our discovery and biomarker programs, and to use our unique capabilities to address some of the major technical challenges facing researchers in field of Parkinson’s research. In addition, as we were building our R&D platforms, ND Biosciences was able to secure several research contracts and collaborations with European and US Pharma on projects that are in line with our mission and programs, without losing focus on advancing our own R&D programs.

We are also fortunate to be part of the Lemanic start-up ecosystem which offers excellent financial support, training, mentoring  and support for start-ups of the Vaud region. So far, we have received support from the Foundation for Technological Innovation (FIT), from the Office for Economic Affairs and Innovation (SPEI), and from the Swiss Innovation Agency (Innosuisse), and we have been accepted as an incubated company at StartLab (Biopôle) since March 2020. 

Tell us more about your team. 

Our current team comprises 6 people with 35 years of combined experience in R&D for neurodegenerative diseases. The company was co-founded by Prof. Hilal Lashuel (CSO) and myself (director of R&D). Prof. Lashuel and myself have worked together for almost 10 years now, so we know each other very well and we know how to synergize and work effectively together.  

Prof. Lashuel is associate Professor at EPFL since 2005 and is recognized globally as one of the key opinion leaders in the field of neurodegenerative diseases, with >180 publications in major journals, several patents, and hundreds of invited lectures and more than 21000 citations. He was and remains actively engaged in the development of the company.

From my side, I bring experience in developing and managing international research projects in the field of neurodegeneration, and in developing preclinical models and assays for drug discovery. I also recently completed a selective MBA program which provided me with the knowhow on how to manage all aspects of biotech formation, operation, and business development, aspects that I was already learning hands-on at ND Biosciences.

Our biomarker and diagnostics programs are led by Dr. Lara Petricca who has over 10 years of industrial experience in biomarker discovery and assay development for neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease. In the lab, we have two talented research scientists that put exciting plans to action; Marylin Aebi and Dr. Gabriella Saro, who are leading our protein and cellular discovery programs, respectively.

Lastly, Nour Lashuel is our administrative coordinator that organizes all our processes. In addition, we typically have 1-2 interns throughout the year that rotate between different functions, and support us while building their skillset.

What is it like to be part of the StartLab and in the Biopôle area? What does this mean for a young company like yours?

StartLab has been the ideal venue for ND BioSciences to launch its activities and develop as an R&D biotech company. Since the first day, we felt part of a natural habitat that is designed to foster the growth of biotech companies of the region. StartLab has not only offered well-equipped laboratory space and world-class infrastructure, but has also placed us on the right track and connected us to a unique network of leading academic institutions, biotech companies and business experts.

This ecosystem allows us to easily interact, collaborate, learn and advance at a very quick pace. The CEO of Biopôle, Nasri Nahas, who is also our FIT mentor, is particularly very supportive and makes things happen to ensure success of all incubated companies at StartLab. 

Being part of this ecosystem is also particularly important because it places you in close contact with start-ups across the entire spectrum of development. Some are a couple years ahead of you, and successfully went through very similar processes and challenges as you are currently encountering. Others have just transformed into bigger companies that are now in the scale-up phase and are moving out, or opening remote locations.

You can easily interact with these people and learn from their first-hand experiences, and how they overcame different challenges under your same setting. Another unique factor for StartLab is its proximity to the University of Lausanne and to the EPFL, which allows you to interact and collaborate with leading academic groups from different fields, as well as with core-facility research platforms of these leading universities.

What has been some of the biggest challenges you have faced so far?

We have of course encountered many challenges, but we always try to find creative ways to overcome these and proceed towards our goals. One major challenge that we faced, also by being fortunate, is that since we were able to secure several research projects and grants from the get-go, we were under quite some pressure very early on to assemble an excellent team, build-up our infrastructure, and deliver to our commitments.

All of this while ensuring that we remain on track to achieve our R&D goals and milestones, and building all aspects of the business, including administrative, operational and financial. Thankfully though, in the end, I’m happy to say that we were able to deliver and complete all of our agreed projects, and on time, despite COVID-related lockdowns and delays. We were also able to secure new projects with our partners that build upon our findings and current programs.

Would you describe that as a highlight?

Yes I definitely would. It was not simple at all to get started and to complete several committed collaborative projects in parallel, all having tight deadlines and many milestones. Importantly, this was achieved on time, and with excellent scientific quality per the assessment of our project reviewers at the foundations that we worked with.

Also, this was done while advancing several other internal R&D programs in parallel, including setting up our screening and discovery platforms, kickstarting our  therapeutic pipelines, and establishing our biomarker programs by Lara. These achievements place the company in a unique position to secure strategic partnerships and to proceed to the next phase and seek investment to push our pipelines towards their ultimate goals.

Any lessons learned that you could share?

One lesson is the importance of agility, and to learn, refine and apply on-the-go. This was the main mode of action for everyone in the team, as we all came from highly-specialized backgrounds, but all had to extend our skillset and knowledge repertoire to be able to advance the evolving requirements of the business. In my case, I decided to embark on this journey with Hilal because I knew that there was a lot to be learned, and especially outside of my comfort zone. 

I believe that for scientific discoveries to be translated into valuable applications, entrepreneurs should be at the interface between science and business, as they would have the basic requirements from both ends of the spectrum to understand and put-together a clear vision on how to develop, manage and apply meaningful inventions.

As a research scientist by training, I had to learn and apply business-related aspects of science, including: how to pitch a scientific idea to partners and investors of different backgrounds; how to simplify science, while communicating its core value and application; how to forecast and manage financials and budgets for scientific projects; how to negotiate and put in place necessary agreements, licences and strategic partnerships; how to manage a diverse team of different levels and backgrounds.

All these are aspects that a typical scientist would normally not go through, and here the MBA that I accomplished on the side (during 2020 lockdowns) was very useful, as it provided me with a solid background and understanding of what it takes to build and manage different aspects of a business, and clarified business common terminology, principles and main frameworks. This now allows me now to speak and collaborate with business experts using their own language, and to practically apply the knowledge gained in the specific context of our R&D start-up on a daily basis.

Another important lesson, which I have learned working at the Lashuel lab, is that maintaining high standards, being self-critical, and investing in rigorous experimental approaches is also essential to success in industry. For us, this has enabled us to quickly gain credibility and establish important strategic partnerships at early stages of the development of ND Biosciences. 

What are you focusing on till the end of 2021?

We’re focusing on completing our preclinical proof-of-concept studies for our therapeutic and biomarker programs pipelines. We are in the process of screening a library of candidate molecules and antibodies through our different pre-clinical screening platforms, and we aim to move towards hit-to-lead development phase by the end of the year.

In parallel, we are working on completing the development of our first diagnostic assay that allows more sensitive measurement of disease-associated biomarkers in CSF and blood of patients. 

What is your hope for ND Biosciences?

My hope for ND Biosciences is to see it develop as we initially envisioned it, a key player that brings innovative solutions and transformative technologies that would accelerate the development of effective diagnostics and therapeutics for neurodegenerative diseases. Our aspiration and belief is that molecules which we identify and develop based on our preclinical models that accurately reproduce molecular features of these diseases would have higher chances to be effective in the clinic. 

We believe that we would be able to develop such molecules based on our deep understanding of disease pathology, and relying on a solid set of relevant preclinical validation data. At that stage, we aim to embark on strategic partnerships with key pharma to further develop these molecules for clinical testing and validation. 

What drives you? Why are you working in this field?

Following my master’s in molecular cancer biology, I decided to pursue a degree in biotechnology and bioengineering at the EPFL, as I was interested to understand how emerging biotechnologies could be developed and applied to solve important biological problems. At that stage, I shifted gears and focused on neuroscience because I was fascinated by the brain as the “last frontier in biology”, and wanted to learn and discover about the most complex and challenging organ of our body.

I decided to study neurodegenerative diseases since a couple of years earlier, my grandfather got diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. I remember realizing how fast the progression was. It was just mind-blowing and heart-breaking to see someone, who was so successful, gradually lose key abilities and competencies, and to learn that there are no therapeutic treatments for this disease, only mild management of symptoms.

Learning about how little we knew about the exact causes of this disease was a main factor that drove my curiosity and interest to study Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, and to try to make a difference. Fast-forward 10 years and history continues to repeat itself, as we still have no therapies, nor early biomarkers or preventive measures.

My father-in-law was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The difference now is that he knows that I’m active in this field, and therefore he’s always asking about what we are doing to change the status-quo, and when an effective therapy that stops disease progression will be developed and made available for patients like him.  

These are very difficult questions that drive every scientist to do their utmost. In my case, this has been a major motivation which drives me at ND Biosciences to ensure that every effort is exerted in the right direction, using the right models, and by performing difficult experiments and collaborating with the best in the field to obtain solid, relevant data. We hope that these efforts would bring us closer towards the eventual development of effective therapies for patients. 

Find out more about ND Biosciences here: https://nd-biosciences.com

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