A fighting chance:
Professors Resia Pretorius, Willie Perold and Anna-Mart Engelbrecht are using technology to combat disease while creating opportunities for young engineers and scientists
With more than 70% of deaths worldwide caused by non-communicable, inflammation-related diseases such as cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s, BioCODE Technologies is leading the charge towards a future where the best cure lies in prevention.
In doing so, the biotech startup from Stellenbosch is developing smart sensing solutions for early disease detection. This sees the team combining concepts from the field of engineering, physics, biochemistry and physiology to create innovative solutions that aim to prevent the development of late-stage illnesses, while at the same time giving young people in science and engineering an opportunity to explore their ideas and create the next generation of life-changing technologies.
The company traces its origins to 2017, when professors Resia Pretorius, Willie Perold and Anna-Mart Engelbrecht were conducting research at Stellenbosch University.
“We were all working in different fields at the time,” says Prof Resia. “I was in the Physiology Department, conducting research into blood biomarkers – specifically how they can help medical professionals identify inflammation-related diseases like diabetes, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and others at their earliest developmental stages.”
Also in the Physiology department was Prof Anna-Mart: “Although my focus area was – and still is – cancer as well as cardiovascular disease, specifically chemical resistance and the side effects of chemotherapy.”
“On the other hand, I was in the Engineering Department,” says Prof Willie. “We were working on high-speed, superconducting circuits, but I gradually changed my attention to nano-generators. These are scaffolds of incredibly small wires that can generate an electric charge when disturbed. With a student of mine, we realised that if we added a bait of sorts for bacteria, we could trigger a signal that would alert us to their presence. This is what set off the idea for a biosensor.”
Through mutual interest and frequent interactions, the three professors quickly discovered a shared desire to extend the reach of their research and to make a greater impact on the world around them. As such, they started thinking about possible ways in which they could collaborate, with the idea of an inflammation-detecting nano-sensor being the perfect starting point.
As Prof Willie puts it: “This presented an opportunity that would blend all three of our research areas. And the wonderful thing about these biosensors is that they are multi-disciplinary in nature; you can’t use them to their full capability without the input and guidance of experts in other fields.”
Setting science in motion
The trio soon began working on various ways in which to apply the biosensors, with projects launched in partnership with Tygerberg Hospital looking into their use in combating Tuberculosis and HIV, as well as plant pathology, including the Panama Disease which affects banana cultivation around the world.
“There is so much potential, so we thought it made sense to formalise our collaboration under one banner, which is what would eventually lead to BioCODE,” says Prof Willie.
Biocode develops point-of-care smart sensing solutions that detect novel circulating inflammatory molecules in the blood present during the early stages of disease.
It was around this time that the team started speaking with Innovus – Stellenbosch University’s technology transfer company – and it was suggested that they start filing patents for their collaborations.
“We began by submitting the ideas that were formulated in partnership with our Master’s students,” recalls Prof Resia. “This we did until 2019, when there were rumours that the University Technology Fund would be issuing seed funding for some university companies. We were still very much in the pre-prototype and development phase of our biosensors at the time and didn’t think we would be successful – but felt it couldn’t hurt and applied anyway.”
To their surprise, the professors’ application was successful, and they became the first recipients of the Fund’s latest financing.
“However, we soon learnt that, to accept the funding, we had to be a formal company!” explains Prof Resia. “So, in a matter of a few hours we asked whether everyone was in and BioCODE was established with the three of us as directors. It was a very fast process, but so worth it.”
A pipeline of talent and innovation
Since then, BioCODE has been awarded two pre-seed funding rounds, which allowed the team to continue its research into biosensors as well as hire additional staff members.
“The best part about this is that our new colleagues are Master’s degree students from Stellenbosch University,” says Prof Anna-Mart.
Prof Willie adds: “Our secondary aim with BioCODE is to give our students a space and opportunity to explore their passions and ideas. All of us have big research groups which can feed into the company and essentially, all the great and innovative ideas come from our students. Our goal is to incorporate them into BioCODE, thereby creating a pipeline for innovation while securing a platform for young scientists and engineers.”
To this end, BioCODE is seeking to employ as many young and gifted minds in the field of biotech, engineering and physiology-related fields.
“Even with a Master’s or PhD degree, it’s very tough for many of these young people to find work in South Africa,” explains Prof Resia. “There just aren’t enough companies in the country to provide enough employment opportunities to all the students. This way, we’re also helping retain the skills in South Africa.”
Prof Anna-Mart concludes: “It’s incredibly inspiring to see how our students – many of whom we’ve taught since undergraduate level – grow as academics and professionals. To see them so passionate and enthused about their ideas and projects, it’s one of the most gratifying things in the world.”
To find out more about BioCODE, go to https://www.biocode.co.za