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Follow the science, end up in Estonia

In Estonia, scientists and investors from France, the United States, and local talents came together with a common mission: to make a breakthrough in Parkinson's disease treatment.

Argobio is a French startup studio that turns early-stage medical projects into successful biotechnology companies. With a focus on rare diseases, neurological diseases, oncology, and immunology, they set out in 2021 to scour Europe for the most promising and innovative projects in those areas.

One of them, chosen from an avalanche of nearly 600 projects reviewed, was Genecode, an Estonian-American drug development company on a mission to fight neurodegeneration. Nearly two years after Argobio’s investment of €2,5M for developing a way to slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease, Argobio Entrepreneur in Residence Yves Ribeill reflects on the progress made and what comes next (spoiler alert—it involves a grant of €16 million from the European Innovation Council). We caught him and Genecode CEO Paavo Pilv for a conversation about what makes a smart investment in the high-stakes world of curing diseases and changing lives.

Argobio Entrepreneur in Residence Yves Ribeill

Funding the early discovery stage is key 

Having started in the medical industry as a chemist about 40 years ago, Ribeill is just about as experienced as they come. A good few decades into his career, he found himself longing to work more in the discovery stage — the crucial, often unsung early work that is unavoidable for setting up potentially life-saving or at least life-changing advancements. After a long stint in the US, Ribeill decided it was time to come back to Europe and create a funding mechanism for the discovery stage, which was getting little attention from traditional venture capital.

That’s the drive Argobio was born from, a dedication to the very early work that starts at young companies or universities. In their search for such potential breakthroughs, Argobio assesses the assets, verifies the science, vets the principal investigator, and then provides funding until the project arrives at a less risky, more valuable stage for venture capital. Agnostic about where the science comes from as long as it’s solid, Argobio soon discovered Estonia — and Genecode. 

Genecode CEO Paavo Pilv

What makes a solid BioTech investment

While the IT world puts a lot of emphasis on speed, medical science operates on its own timescale, and the risks lurk around every corner. So how is one supposed to choose which projects are worth funding? The first thing Argobio looks for is alignment with their own priorities—work in oncology, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, etc. “There’s obviously, and unfortunately, a lot of demand for new products,” Ribeill says. “It was very clear that Parkinson’s disease was an unmet medical need. There are palliative solutions that exist, but there is no cure. So if we had to be ambitious, Parkinson’s disease was definitely a good target for us.”

 The second thing Argobio looks for — and found at Genecode — is the quality of the science, which relies heavily on the principal investigator. In the case of Genecode, this person is Mart Saarma. “He is well-known and has published a lot, so that gave instant credibility to the project. On top of that, he’s a very nice, charming guy,” Ribeill says with the conviction of someone who knows how often the crucial human element is underestimated in his line of work. “It’s very important,” he says, noting that communication can be the number one reason projects like this can fail. “I’ve worked with people who do not understand the process of bringing a compound to the market. Some of them don’t want to share. They forget that between their idea and the drug is about a billion-dollar investment. However, the BioTech industry is complex and needs a lot of sharing, trust, and communication. And all these boxes were ticked easily with Mart Saarma and Genecode.”

The third component of the winning formula, according to Ribeill, is finding financial groups — whether private, corporate, or governmental — that understand the risk, but are willing to participate in advancing these projects. In addition to support from Argobio, the European Innovation Council’s Accelerator programme has decided to support Genecode with a further €16 million, divided into a research grant of €1.7 million and €14.3 million in equity investments, to finance studies and production. “That’s also a positive result of cooperation with Argobio, although equity investment will be available if we will raise additional capital from professional investors and get approval from European Medicines Agency to start Phase I trials,” Pilv says, while Ribeill, in turn, closes the loop of gratitude by pointing out the support from EAS and Invest Estonia. “We are where we are now with the help of EAS, who were a part of making sure we could accomplish what we have.”

Follow the science — to the next Estonian unicorn?

Since the birth of Skype, there’s been a lot of focus in Estonia on the IT landscape, but Paavo Pilv believes that the next Estonian unicorn will come from DeepTech. It won’t be an easy road, of course. “There are so many ways that you can fail,” Yves Ribeill says. “But you have to have faith; you have to be convinced that you can bring solutions to people that are suffering from devastating diseases like Parkinson’s.”

Prof. Mart Saarma

We got lucky enough to catch Pilv and Ribeill on a particularly good day for Genecode and the fight against Parkinson’s. “Just yesterday, we selected a handful of compounds that need to go into further screening,” Ribeill says. “By the end of the year, that will go into preclinical studies — we need to check that we can make it in large quantities and that there is no toxicity that could be associated with it. That takes about 18 months to two years. And then ultimately, we’ll start clinical testing directly with patients and hopefully start to see positive results.”

Having brought the compound from early discovery to something that can enter preclinical studies in roughly two years, it’s safe to say that the ambitious goal of opening up a whole new page in Parkinson’s treatment is well underway — and then some. “Along the way, we realised that the protein we’re working on is also involved in other diseases,” Ribeill recounts. “It could also respond to the symptoms of other rare diseases. We are very focused on Parkinson’s, but we don’t want to miss the other opportunities that such a solution can bring for other patients.”

Would Argobio and Yves Ribeill consider making more investments in Estonian companies? “If there is good science — no hesitation,” Ribeill says. “We are driven by the quality of the science and the people behind it. I’ve seen how successful it can be when you have a scientific community of people who are working together to develop compounds. Where the science is being driven — Argobio wants to be part of that.”

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