The Startup Interview: Parkure
Lysimachos Zografos is a man on a mission to make the world a better place. He’s determined not to be classed as an entrepreneur, nor does he want to be classed as a researcher. Instead, he wants to be seen as someone who is doing what they think best. In his case, he’s searching for a cure to Parkinson’s disease with his startup, Parkure. I met him in his office and laboratory for a chat about science, learning to build a business and his qualms surrounding the term ‘entrepreneurship’.
I’ve walked past Lysimachos’ office building nearly every day for the past three years with very little idea of what takes place inside. I had always thought that the building was like every other on George Square — a series of lecture theatres and seminar rooms — but I’m wrong. Lysimachos greets me at the entrance to the Hugh Robson Building and shows me to his office on the third floor, squashed between a number of medical laboratories. “Pull up a chair,” he says, pointing to one of the desk chairs usually occupied by his co-workers as he places a long application form he’s been working on in one of the many folders above his desk. I’m not a scientist and have very little understanding of Parkinson’s disease so I conclude this would be a good place to start our interview. “Would you tell me a little about your project?” I ask him. “What we want to do is discover a cure for Parkinson’s by identifying drugs that stop the progression of the disease,” Lysimachos says, his right arm resting on a stack of notebooks he’s got on his desk. “Up to now, the available drugs for Parkinson’s just treat the symptoms so what we want to do is find drugs which actually stop the progression of the disease within the cells, which kills a specific type of nerve cells in your brain. Despite being quite technical, traditional drug discovery approaches have not worked so far.”
“And how have you been conducting your research so far?” I ask, keen to reveal a little about the process for those of us completely unaware. “In a nutshell, we have fruit flies which are genetically engineered and express the human cause for the disease and, because of a well-established similarity of the nervous systems on a molecular basis, they also develop the disease and symptoms as well.” I’m just about hanging on as Lysimachos’ continues his explanation. “Because they’re really cheap — they’re not mice and we don’t need special licenses for them — we can have them in really large numbers and split them half and half. We treat half with one candidate drug and the other we don’t and we can measure the results. If we see a reversal of the symptoms as time passes, that drug becomes interesting and we can look at it in more depth.”
Interested in why Lysimachos chose to research cures for Parkinson’s, I ask him what inspired him. “It wasn’t a personal connection,” he says. In fact, Parkure stems from his PhD research which looked at the similarities in mice, flies and humans at the molecular level, after which he worked for a contract research company (and a University Spinout) which developed models of human diseases which allowed for drugs to be tested on flies. While at the company, Lysimachos developed a successful model for Parkinsons’ disease: “It started working really, really well and we put a lot of time and effort into it. It went from something that we developed as a service to something that would stand alone. Instead of pharmaceutical companies coming in with their own candidate [drugs], we got to a point where we started to discover our own candidates.”
Parkure formed as a spinout of the company Lysimachos worked for, taking the service he’d initially created and turning it into a standalone piece of research. Given a lack of ability to screen millions of compounds, the company has instead focused on drugs designed for other purposes and whether they have potential to contribute to a cure for Parkinsons’. “A good example of drug repurposing is viagra,” Lysimachos tells me. “Viagra was developed for angina originally and when they were doing the clinical trials, they noticed the other effect and decided they could use it for that as well.”
“Drug discovery is possibly the worst thing, I can’t think of a worse thing to be raising money for […] The reality is that such an investment is very risky although the need to discover drugs remains the same.”
Without prompt, Lysimachos turns to tell me about the business-side of Parkure. “Drug discovery is possibly the worst thing, I can’t think of a worse thing to be raising money for,” he says with complete honesty. “The reasons are really simple. The returns are decades from when you put money in, there’ll always be another Venture Capitalist investing money and reducing your share to nothing and it is really risky as well.” He’s doing a great job at selling me a share in his firm then. “The reality is that such an investment is very risky although the need to discover drugs remains the same.”
As a result, Lysimachos and Parkure have opted for a slightly different than normal route to fund their research. “We’ve applied for all the funding we could and, at the same time, we’ve started an equity crowd funding campaign, leveraged on the fact that we’re all credible researchers, we’re focused on one disease and the opportunity to empower individuals in the fight to beat a disease, a risk many others won’t take.” Lysimachos highlights one researcher in particular (and, in fairness to him, probably the only example I would have been able to relate to), Ron James, the CEO of the company which cloned Dolly the Sheep. “I think we’re the first company to equity crowdfund for biomedical research in the UK. We’re just £250 away from our target right now,” he says.
“I don’t identify with the term entrepreneur if I’m honest. So I’m just someone trying to do things which are meaningful.”
I turn the focus of our conversation away from Parkure for a bit and focus more on entrepreneurship. “How would you define yourself?” I ask, interested in whether he relates more with the term entrepreneur, scientist or researcher. “I don’t identify with the term entrepreneur if I’m honest,” he says. “I used to be a researcher, but I genuinely want to do things that matter and things that have a positive impact on other people. So I’m just someone trying to do things which are meaningful.” It’s a refreshing and surprising answer, especially from someone who’s thin grey jumper and skinny black trousers had me convinced that the term entrepreneur would be a perfect match. He goes on, however, saying that “If I identify with part of the entrepreneur identities, it is the interest in learning new skills, acquiring new skills by doing, etc.”
As Parkure is another startup to have been helped on its way by LAUNCH.ed, an incubation unit at the University of Edinburgh, I ask Lysimachos what role he feels such organisations play in encouraging and promoting entrepreneurship. “What I found the hardest at the beginning is that a lot of these things can be really dasling at the beginning. I still remember the first time I saw a cashflow forecast — it made sense but it still gave me a headache. In terms of LAUNCH.ed, they help you through that initial dazzle and shock of stepping into the real world. Don’t forget that quite a lot of us, especially the technical types, do not know how to operate in the real world outwith the university. To have to deal with an angel syndicate of Scottish Enterprise — they help with those things.” His view opens up a new perspective to me which I haven’t considered before. So far, all of The Startup Interviews have focused on the hurdles faced by startups we might come across in the real world on a day-to-day basis but entrepreneurship offers very different hurdles within the world of academia.
“What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?” I ask Lysimachos. After a good ten seconds of silence, he responds: “I’ve had a lot of good advice. A good piece of advice is to remember who you’re talking to when talking about your business. Investors are not interested in how it works. Learn to talk the talk based on who you are talking to.” It’s really good advice which we often forget in the age of high-tech startups but he has a second piece of advice he wishes to recall: “You’ll get a lot of advice — some of it is wrong, some of it is right, some of it is not applicable, etc but you have to make the decisions at the end of the day.”
“So what do you think of the common definition for entrepreneurship and the idea that it is taking risk for financial gain?” I ask. “I have an issue with the time — I don’t have a personal issue with people who define themselves as such — but I think it is a bit of a fad term as a result of a new form of economy where resources are scarce, the economy isn’t as good as it used to be and people have to sort themselves out,” he says, his arms crossed in front of him as he leans forward in his chair. “So, in that sense, I think the term has been heavily used in the past few years to hype up those who have started their own businesses to try and pay their rent, etc. On the other hand, however, these are people who maybe had the courage or out of necessity took the decision to leave a safety zone — a management job, accountant job, etc — and took it a step further.”
With one in five hundred of us suffering from Parkinson’s, I wonder whether Lysimachos can shed any light on when we might see a cure for Parkinson’s in the future. “That’s a bit of a tricky question,” he starts. “It is one of the diseases which we will have to solve. We are getting to the point where we can deal with a lot of disseases which is resulting in people living longer. So, in the same way that cancer appeared when we started living longer because our cells couldn’t deal with the polution and other environmental factors, nurogenerative and degenerative diseases, which normally appear later in life, will start becoming a bigger problem. So, I wouldn’t consider it to be impossible that we might be nearing a cure in the next twenty to twenty-five years. We’ll certainly have better ways of treating the symptoms.” I can tell that Lysimachos is treading carefully — he doesn’t want to give anyone false hope and has made me well aware of the lengthy processes involved in researching a cure to such a major disease.
I reach the end of my questions so Lysimachos takes me for a brief tour of his laboratory to allow me to take some photographs — although I forgot my memory card which didn’t help here — before we pack up and head out into the darkness at the end of the workday. It’ll be interesting to see how Lysimachos’ research pans out in the coming years because, as he said himself, the project is just beginning.