Founded in 2008, Sentinext is a Malaysian biotech company which focuses on building innovative vaccines to protect Asia populations against infectious viral diseases. Using its proprietary Virus-like particle (VLP technology), Sentinext’s trademark project is to build vaccines for Hand foot mouth disease (HFMD), a highly prevalence infection among children in Asia. We have had the opportunity to interact with its CEO and director, Dr Uwe Schlokat to seek his thought on several questions prior to BioPharma Asia conference in Singapore this 21-23 March.
Why did your team choose Malaysia as the destination to set up a company?
Schlokat: 2 main reasons. Firstly, we are encouraged by the Malaysian government which had recognized the enormous potential of the Biotech industry a while ago, and had started a major Biotech initiative fostering and facilitating the foundation of small Biotech companies. Secondly, the company was founded by Prof. Jane Cardosa, who has been our CSO ever since and is one of the most internationally renowned Malaysian scientists. She has been serving as an expert consultant to many international organizations including WHO and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Please tell us the most challenging aspect in running an innovative biotech company in Malaysia.
Schlokat: Building a biotech company in any country anew is always a challenge and it can only be accomplished by dedication, enthusiasm, commitment and support by the company’s team and investors. Sentinext has been very grateful for all the support it has received to date, and is proud to have built a very strong IP base for its proprietary technology and products derived therefrom.
To answer your question, first of all, finding senior experts with product development and commercialisation experience in biotech product development as a core team member is especially challenging despite the availability of excellent research scientists in the country. It is also sometimes challenging to import certain types of consumables and hardware in a timely manner. Longer term funding for R&D in the Biotech sector can also be a challenge. While our key investors MLSCF, MTDC, MAVCAP and AIM have been and are very supportive and dedicated, shareholders expect external, “major Western Venture Capital” organizations will get interested and involved within a short timeline. Very often, however, these funds come with a set of restrictions in terms of scope of products developed and the region for investment. As Malaysia has only recently been starting to build its biotech industry, companies have to compete with overseas biotech industry in more established and familiar territories, such as US/Europe, or China due to its enormous market potential.
On the topic related to “western funding”, one of the major challenges which we face is that our flagship Hand Foot Mouth Disease (HFMD) program is considered a regional indication instead of being treated as a global product. Despite its prevalence in Europe – although currently with less pathogenic viral strains than in Asia – and already occasional small outbreaks in the US, history has taught us that many viruses spread from its country of origin before it reaches other parts of the world. Some good examples are Swine or Avian influenza, and more recently Zika or Ebola. Usually the demand for a vaccine or a therapeutic product surges after an epidemic affects a significant western population with more resources to afford for treatments and cure. Therefore treatments for Asia-specific diseases typically take a much longer time from development to commercialisation.
We heard that your company has developed Hand, Foot Mouth disease vaccines and will enter into clinical trials shortly. Can you tell us more?
Schlokat: We have been focusing on the development of a Best-in-Class HFMD vaccine based on our most innovative technology. We have just completed the preclinical toxicity program with an excellent outcome showing high immunogenicity while cleanly maintaining its safety and tolerability of the treatment. As you know, our Virus like Particle (VLP) based vaccine basically consist of hollow shells of the viruses, but cannot replicate. Thus these particles are very safe. To test our theory, we will initiate our first in human (Phase 1) study in Australia at the first half of 2017.
Ultimately, our goal is to produce vaccines to protect from the majority of HFMD cases which include Enterovirus 71 and Coxsackievirus A16. These are very complex viruses, thus our dedicated R&D team on Penang Island in Malaysia has built a strong Intellectual Property portfolio to address several key challenges which we faced. These include strategies to correctly assemble these complex VLPs in yields appropriate for commercial manufacturing, and expansion of the versatility of the VLP technology to be used as the basis for our next vaccines.
What is your next project in Sentinext?
Schlokat: The next in line in our product portfolio is a Best-in-Class Polio Vaccine to address the limitations of currently available commercial vaccines. We are interested to invite partners to speak to us if they are interested in in-licensing any of our products or technology, for specific territories. Also, as we have initiated fund raising beyond our Phase I study, interested funding organizations, are very welcome to touch base with us.
What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs hoping to start a biotech company in Asia?
Schlokat: Aspiring entrepreneurs should explore the aforementioned challenges early and minimize their potential impact by performing appropriate risk management and contingency planning, and developing plans to best overcome these challenges. Doing excellent science of course is a prerequisite, and building good relationships with organisations able to provide grants – as in our case from Malaysian Biotech Corp and the Malaysian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – has been very helpful and supportive.
Want to meet Dr Uwe Schlokat to discuss partnership with Sentinext? Join us at BioPharma Asia Convention this 21-23 March in Singapore.