Dr Luca Cassetta, co-founder of Macomics, describes his innovation journey and the lessons he had to learn when he started his own spinout company.
Dr Luca Cassetta’s innovation journey
I started my studies in Milan. I have always had a passion for chemistry and science since I was I child; I found myself mixing all the soap and detergents I found in the house to explore the resulting colors and chemical reactions. I was really happy, my mother not so much.
I decided to get a masters in Industrial Biotech, as I was fascinated by the idea of producing genetically modified bacteria to eat plastic or oil in the oceans, to use science to improve our daily life.
But during my studies I discovered another big passion: immunology. This led me to work in a lab which was focusing on the role of macrophages (a type of white blood cell) in the pathogenesis of Human Immunodeficiency Virus-1 (HIV-1), the virus responsible for the AIDS syndrome.
During that time we identified several molecules in macrophages that are responsible for HIV latency. These are now being explored in clinical trials and these studies allowed me to deeply investigate the biology of human macrophages and their fascinating impact in the physiology of the organism. These cells have multiple roles in homeostasis and in disease; they are very plastic and they can be influenced by the microenvironment they are living with, including the tumor niche.
After obtaining my PhD I decided to move to New York thanks to a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellowship and I joined the lab of Prof Jeffrey Pollard, pioneer of the study of Tumor Associated Macrophages (TAMs).
Here we combined our expertise and we started to study human TAMs in solid tumors; we faced multiple challenges, both technical and scientific, because we were among the first academic groups trying to profile human TAMs.
In the meantime, Prof. Pollard decided to move his lab to Edinburgh and I had to choose, either stay in New York or follow him; I decided to follow and to continue our studies at the University of Edinburgh.
Sure enough, this was the right move. Here, together with the rest of our team and using the incredible facilities at the University of Edinburgh, we successfully profiled TAMs and identified several targets.
During this period we also started discussions with Edinburgh Innovations about the possibility of creating a commercial route around these targets. This path was totally new to me and initially it was hard to understand the mindset and the mechanisms behind this type of operation.
I immediately had my first lesson: protect your Intellectual Property! Do not share confidential info which will be part of your Company IP as it will no longer belong to you. This means I couldn’t present papers at conferences or publish any articles until we had created a Company. It was really tough, but worth it.
The second lesson was when I was asked to prepare a pitch for potential investors – the feedback was really harsh; too many slides, too complicated, too much academic language.
I very quickly understood that I needed to speak to my audience; the key messages need to be up front and the slides need to be easy to read and understandable, in case you need to send them to investors in advance. Be clear, get to the point, do not oversell, do not overcomplicate!
The third lesson was the difference between the expectation and reality: the idea of the company was always there, but the reality of creating a company was quite different involving shares, negotiations, lawyers, plans, due diligence and a very rigorous process to evaluate the business plan. These are all aspects of company formation which need to be considered and understood. They take time, patience and a degree of flexibility.
Ultimately this journey has taken me from mixing soaps and detergents to creating a company that could make a significant difference to the way we treat cancers. My journey has been hard work, some luck and getting out of my comfort zone. But, because of Macomics, my research will have a huge impact on patient care. I think that’s what we all want – to make a positive impact, in my case from bench to bedside.