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In Mission Bay, San Francisco, the Bayer pharmaceutical research team runs an incubator space, called the “CoLaborator” that provides offices, labs, infrastructure, and interaction to promising startups. One of them is Xcell Biosciences, whose “Avatar” cell control systems might bring a shift in cancer research and therapy.  Xcell Biosciences in San Francisco, CA describes what inspires them, the focus of their start-up and the impact they hope to bring to drug development.

The CoLaborator is a unique incubator space for life science start-ups or more mature companies whose technology platforms, drug targets or drug candidates may align with Bayer’s interests in health care. The environment fosters opportunities for idea exchange by bringing together researchers covering topics in oncology, cardiovascular disease and digital solutions to drug discovery. Xcell’s focus was a good fit for Bayer. After moving in to the CoLaborator, the local Bayer team introduced Xcell to Bayer’s Head of Global Biomarker Discovery at the CoLaborator, Thomas Krahn, who sent six patient samples for Xcell to try and grow very rare tumor cells. To Xcell’s dismay, they were only able to grow cells from four samples and felt they had blown it. They presented the data to the Bayer researcher who chuckled and revealed to them that he had added in two negative controls to test them! 

This opened a whole new world to Xcell Biosciences, says co-founder and CEO Brian Feth: “Bayer scientists occupy another floor in the building and they rent two floors to selected start-ups. In our case, this resulted in a wealth of experience in drug development. If you are isolated from the pharmaceutical business, you do not understand nearly as much about your customers and drug development. The scientists gave us valuable insight by interacting in the space.” 

The first result of this scientific interaction was a primary cell incubation system, which Xcell named “Avatar.” Its technology allows pharmaceutical companies to create patient avatars – versions of a real life person in cell form – to develop drugs, study their performance and match them to the individual cancer type.  Bayer purchased one of the first “Avatar” cell incubators made to use it in its internal research projects. 

3 questions to Brian Feth  

Xcell CEO talks about his CoLaborator experience
Brian Feth
Xcell CEO

1 Brian, what is it like to work in the CoLaborator space?

“It is great to be with other startups to share experience – successes, benefits, progress, and also challenges and failures. You realize that they are not uniquely yours. That gives comfort. And another thing: Bayer fosters an inspiring environment, yet they do not try to control it. That is unique. There are a lot of accelerators and incubators that are different. Bayer makes a good partner: open, collaborative, and with engagement. “ 

2 What difference did the CoLaborator make to your business success?

“We are living with an information-overkill, so people look for signs that you do well: that you are a reasonable risk; that you are fun to work with. Being selected for the space, co-presenting at scientific congresses, and advancing well with stronger cooperation resulting from the process ...  all of this gives a startup the visibility and credibility you need. It’s the kind of thing investors look for and love. And, so do potential employees.” 

3 Where do you stand today?

“Our first product is on the market for purchase. Our business has grown from two people in late 2013 to around 15 people today, including a small commercial team to market the “Avatar.” The proof of concept is there. We are now building a second product that will help in immunotherapy and cell therapy development and manufacturing applications. “