Video interviewee: Dr. Steven Fang, Founder and CEO
Invitrocue is a life sciences company providing healthcare bio-analytics solutions for the pharmaceutical and medical industries. As its name suggests, the company specializes in in-vitro cell-based testing technologies and image analytics software for use in digital pathology.
Delivering important benefits to researchers, clinicians and patients
Founded in 2013 by Dr Steven Fang and Professor Hanry Yu, Invitrocue’s business model provides fee-for-service testing of new drugs, vaccines, therapeutics and cosmetics for biopharmaceutical clients. It also earns revenues from its digital pathology business, which scans and digitises physical tissue slides for pathologists around the world to access via an online portal, and analyses the slides via its proprietary image analysis software and algorithms.
Recently, InvitroCue entered the oncology (cancer) drug testing market. It has developed Onco-PDOTM, which stands for ‘oncology patient-derived organoid’. This offers 3D cell-based scaffolding technology that mimics human organ samples, alongside proprietary processes that enable the culturing of patient-derived cancer cells (organoids) in laboratories. These can be used for testing to support clinical decision-making against a panel of approved drugs and new drug candidates – an important enabler for ‘personalised medicine’.
This new platform helps pharmaceutical companies, medical researchers and academic institutions understand the impact of cancer treatments (both approved drugs and new drug candidates) prior to conducting time-consuming and expensive clinical trials. It also supports assessment of the effects of new and FDA-approved drugs on individuals before they are actually administered, reducing risk.
Developing asset awareness
The company’s core technology, consisting of three patent families, was originally spun out of Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) and developed in partnership with the National University of Singapore (NUS). Collaboration with leading biopharmaceutical clients and scientific collaborators remains an important aspect of Invitrocue’s activities.
Invitrocue also conducts in-house R&D, which will lead onto new patent applications – a route that is of considerable interest to the company, as a means of strengthening its negotiating position and “protecting itself from pharmaceutical companies.”
The company recently became listed on the Stock Exchange. As part of this process, it was important for all of its IP to be disclosed and explained, as part of the prospectus for investors. This awareness of the company’s asset value is also very important in internal decision-making and strategy development.
Developing a patent and business strategy
Companies often face challenges deciding when to file for patent protection: it needs to be early enough to provide the earliest possible date of protection over competitors, but not so early that you run out of money to support the application, or don’t have enough information to support the patent filing rules.
Invitrocue’s preferred option is now to file a provisional patent application when it has sufficient data, but before entering into any commercial negotiations, so that the company can prove its entitlement to the IP should any disagreement arise later. In essence, the patent application can ring fence the company’s ‘background IP’ brought to the table at the outset of any collaboration.
Invitrocue is actively considering alternative partnering and commercialisation options in order to ‘by-pass’ the difficult discussions it often has with pharma companies, who are proving possessive of any IP involving novel target discovery using Invitrocue’s platforms. Instead, in terms of consumer health, Invitrocue has focused on a service-based model, working directly with oncologists. It has gone as far as setting up its Chinese subsidiary, Invitrocue Suzhou, where the market for personalized medicine is large and it is easier for Invitrocue to exercise a greater degree of influence and control over sensitive matters such as publication timings.
Choosing what to file, and what to keep secret
Invitrocue has also developed a number of bio-analytical assays. The company has not routinely filed for patent protection for these assays, which they believe are “difficult to patent”; they also feel that the interpretation of the assays, rather than the assays themselves, are the most valuable element. They are acutely aware of the need to publish by academic collaborators, which makes it difficult to maintain the desired level of secrecy.
The solution the company has settled on is to exercise careful control over the data that is ultimately published in peer reviewed journals, to ensure that the most commercially sensitive elements are not disclosed. The company is acutely aware of the need to maintain secrecy, and whilst most staff have access to proprietary assays, there is a ‘black box’ known only to select members of staff where information regarding really sensitive material is kept – for example, the secret constituents of growth factors used to grow oncology tissue samples in proprietary oncology assays.