Hooke Bio founder is eyeing another multi-million euro biotech success

26 May 2015

Professor Mark Davies, founder, Hooke Bio

Having sold Stokes Bio for US$44m and paved the way for a spinout called GenCell to sell for US$150m, University of Limerick professor Mark Davies is planning a similar feat with his new start-up Hooke Bio.

Let’s be honest. Most of us would probably hang up our boots if we struck gold with a start-up or won a couple of million in the lottery. But not Mark Davies, he just keeps going.

“I am terrified of retiring. I work all the time. I work seven days a week. If you ask me why I just don’t know – but I love it and find it so interesting to do.”

Davies, who came top UL 25 years ago to lecture, is exactly the kind of inspiration the academic world needs – showing how it is possible to balance a fulfilling academic career with an entrepreneur’s nose for opportunity.

Davies, along with fellow mechanical engineer and research colleague Dr Tara Dalton, founded Stokes Bio in 2006 to provide genetic analysis systems for the agri-food industry.

The technology, built around newly-invented micro-fluidic systems to enable rapid genetic analysis, quickly attracted venture capital funding.

Stokes Bio was sold in 2010 to a US company called Life Technologies, which was then acquired by Thermo Fisher for US$13.6bn in 2015.

Primary research can achieve massive outcomes

Focused and passionate about their work, Davies and Dalton quietly returned to their primary research careers after the Stokes sale.

GenCell, a spinout of Stokes Bio led by one of Davies’ former students Dr Kieran Curran, which enabled the processing of DNA data at unprecedented speeds, was sold to Becton Dickinson in recent months for US$150m.

These two successful start-ups will now be followed by Hooke Bio, which was named after the renowned 17th century scientist Robert Hooke, who was the first to see and name a cell.

Davies has a formidable international reputation in the field of engineering and was recently made a Fellow of the US National Academy of Inventors, which includes 21 Nobel Laureates in its membership. As well as this, Hooke Bio has already filed five patents for its newly-invented technologies.

Backed already by Enterprise Ireland, Hooke will use micro-fluidic engineering technologies to explore and test the future feasibility of novel drug combinations.

This will enable the fast analysis of pharmacological compounds, including their correlation to known disease profiles.

“I think the first thing to note is that Stokes and GenCell have been very successful over the last five years and in some ways they are very similar companies; in both cases headed by mechanical engineers and the majority of their work is in engineering, but they work very closely with a good number of biologists as well.

“Specifically Hooke is focusing on drug discovery. If you take 100 FDA-approved drugs in a combination of three that gives you around 4.5m assays that need to be tested. What we have done is we have designed and built a piece of equipment that is about a foot in diameter but takes about two days to set up for a run but that can carry out the rapid testing of those 4.5m assays. Nobody can do anything like this at all.”

Davies believes that Hooke has the potential to eclipse both Stokes Bio and GenCell in terms of market size.

He says he isn’t distracted by the current debate about primary versus applied research. “I stay out of those things. I don’t know anyone in my field who is driven by money. People just love doing what they do and if you are successful, yes, you can make a load of money. The measure of success is really how good your idea is, how good an application it is, and, yes, that can only be measured by money.”

The mid-west is Ireland’s biotech Silicon Valley

Having major successes like the sale of Stokes and GenCell for US$44m and US$150m respectively is just as big as any successful sale of a software company in Dublin, for example, but no one seems to be talking up the Limerick region’s potential.

Davies agrees and says there is definitely a seam of talent in the mid-west region that could lead to further pharma and biotech related start-up success stories and wealth creation.

“I’ve been here for 25 years and the reason I’ve stayed at UL so long is because the engineering students are so very, very good. And why that is I have no idea.

“I have continued to teach at the university. After selling Stokes I took a few years off and after the earn-out I started thinking about teaching again.”

Davies admits it wasn’t easy to adjust after selling Stokes and returning to the academic world. “All of the patents were sold and whatever I was going to do had to be completely different. It was hard. I had no students, no ideas and it was tough to get started again, but now things are going well.

“I invest mainly in Hooke Bio and I am careful the way I invest and because Hooke is going so well that is my primary focus.”

Davies says patents have been filed for the new company but how the technology works is a closely guarded secret. “The best way to describe it is we are using micro-fluidic techniques to test millions of different things.

“It’s actually very simple how it works, but I’m quite keen to stay fairly tight lipped about it.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years