From little things, big things grow
It may not look like much from the outside, but there are trillions of viruses, fungi and bacteria that make up the gut microbiome. And for one Brisbane business, those microscopic organisms present infinite possibilities.
Blake Wills is the CEO of Microba, a microbial genomics company that utilises advanced metagenomic sequencing and cutting-edge technology to give consumers a deeper understanding of their gut health.
Here, he explains how the humble microbiome could shape the future of Brisbane’s biotech industry.
It all started with Brisbane research.
Our Co-founders, Professors Philip Hugenholtz and Gene Tyson, are world leaders in microbiome research. They hail from The University of Queensland originally, where they advanced their research prior to being involved in the inception of Microba. Professor Tyson is now at the Queensland University of Technology heading their microbiome research. The majority of our foundational team are locals from right here in Brisbane. As CEO, I’m also a Brisbane local, having studied and spent many of my years in business here.
Microba’s foundational team consisted of eight experts across areas such as science, finance, research and sales. The company has grown rapidly over the last two years, and we now have 40 full-time staff in our Brisbane headquarters.
We recognised the value of microbial genomic technology early on, as we observed the increase in research papers being published on the gut microbiome and the growing interest from the public and healthcare industries. We saw an opportunity to help advance our understanding of gut health, as well as potentially help change the lives of many suffering from gut-related health issues such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Since then, we’ve been very fortunate with our investor base. The company has received the backing of reputable and highly-engaged investors who are primarily based in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Our investors are a mix of high-net-worth individuals and several of Australia's well-known institutional investors.
Publicly listing the company is a possibility – it’s a significant decision for any company to undertake, and it is something that we may consider in the future when the timing is right.
What is microbial genomics?
In simple terms, we use the DNA of bacteria to measure which bacteria are present in the gut and to determine their functional properties. More specifically, microbial genomics is the analysis of the DNA of microorganisms. We do not use marker genes – we look at the entire DNA profile.
This is important when looking at bacteria in the human gut, because it lets us be much more accurate in our analysis. The technology we use – shotgun metagenomics – has changed the industry, and we are the current world leader in the space. Our metagenomics technology looks at all of the genes in a stool sample and provides insight into which species are present, what their functional potential is and how diverse a person’s gut bacteria is.
Our ultimate goal is to develop diagnostics and therapeutics based on the gut microbiome to solve unmet clinical needs. This could lead to life-changing assistance for people around the world, and innovative solutions for healthcare professionals.
Using de-identified data from consumers who opt-in to our research program, we’re building a robust database of metagenomic gut microbiome samples. As this database grows, our research team will identify unique patterns of specific microorganisms and gene abundances indicative of different health conditions using advanced machine-learning approaches. This data-driven approach allows us to identify promising therapeutic leads and to develop non-invasive diagnostic tests.
Most other competitors in the microbiome therapeutics space use the strategy of screening random bacterial strains, as opposed to a data-directed approach. Since our launch in July 2018, we have identified over 500 new bacterial species, as well as strong signals that link specific newly-discovered species to various diseases.
We’re in the process of isolating, culturing and screening these species for their potential use as therapeutics, and we expect to have our first lead drug candidate at preclinical stage by mid-2020.
Ultimately, we do hope to see gut microbiome analysis as a key part of routine clinical care. It would be great to one day see a blood test, gut microbiome analysis and other routine tests included in a regular physical.
The impact of COVID-19
COVID 19 is an enormous challenge to the health system, our economy and the businesses that operate within it.
It has been pleasing to see the strong response from federal and state government with meaningful support initiatives, however this does not completely mitigate the real impact on business income and the resulting cash flow impact.
At Microba, we have taken a view that this business hibernation period is an opportunity to invest in a deep product innovation cycle. We have reduced our spend on sales and marketing and are focussing our efforts on optimising existing products and even building new ones. In summary, we need to be accepting of the economic realities and focus on the variables within our control.
Breaking ground in Brisbane
Last October, we were honoured to receive the Lord Mayor’s Business Award for Product Innovation in front of a crowd of our fellow Brisbane businessmen and women at Brisbane City Hall. We were pleased to have our innovation and work recognised by the judges, and we are very grateful to the Lord Mayor and Brisbane City Council for taking the time to acknowledge businesses in Brisbane.
Brisbane is a breeding ground for innovation, and it’s our hope that Brisbane will become a hub for microbiome research. The city is home to some of the country’s leading universities, and so many exceptional scientific – and business – minds. And with the continued increase of interest in the human gut microbiome and other microbiomes, we definitely expect that more research groups will start to focus on these areas.
Our Co-founders are helping to make this happen with their work at two of the state’s leading tertiary institutions. Professor Philip Hugenholtz is the longtime Director of the Australian Centre for Ecogenomics at The University of Queensland, and Professor Gene Tyson is heading up microbiome-focused research at the Queensland University of Technology, where he’ll establish a framework for world-leading microbiome course content for budding microbiologists.
We’re proud to have our roots here in Brisbane, and to be doing work that will make an impact globally.