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CASE STUDY: Scientist, Analyst, Entrepreneur

“I didn’t really set out to run my own business,” Dr Stephen Osborne, MD of East Sussex Enterprise Hub client Pastel Bioscience explains. “I thought I had a great idea and I wanted to develop it. I started the business to support the idea, rather than the other way round.”


If you think this seems a bit unusual then perhaps it is. But Dr Osborne is unusual, and his company too. Pastel Bioscience has developed what it claims is revolutionary technology that will help pharmaceutical companies discover the next generation of drugs. The technology works by allowing the accurate identification of “biomarkers” associated with the early (sometimes very early) stages of disease. It could provide much more than a set of advanced health ‘warning lights’ however, complex combinations of proteins could be indicative of health risks many years before they become acute, or even noticeable by current means.  

One developing area is ‘personalised medicine’, where the technology could allow a doctor to screen a blood sample for protein biomarkers. The results could give accurate predictions about the diseases you are likely to develop in the future, allowing your doctor to prescribe (or just as likely proscribe) for ailments you don’t even have yet.  


The human body contains between 20 and 30 thousand proteins. Their study and use, is a young but fast-developing area of science called “proteomics” [see inset]. When you begin to develop a disease, the levels of at least some of these proteins will change. These patterns of protein level change – biomarkers – are reliably indicative of a particular disease, if you can identify them.  

This, however, is where it gets a bit sticky, as Dr Osborne explains. “Unfortunately, the available technology doesn’t allow you to look at all the 30,000 proteins in the body; the best it can do is give a snapshot of particular groups of proteins, which might not give you a reliable diagnosis for a particular disease. The technology that Pastel is developing will allow a test to identify all of the proteins within diseased cells, so it will give you the best biomarkers for that particular disease. The instrumentation and the reagents Pastel are developing will be used by the pharmaceutical industry to discover the biomarkers for a particular disease. Once they’ve discovered this, they can develop a test format that’s easy, fast and accurate enough to be used at a GP’s surgery, for example.”  

The impact, if everything goes to plan, could be enormous. Where biomarkers are particularly useful is in the area of early detection. Up to now detection of serious chronic illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and of some cancers has been difficult, but the use of multiple protein biomarkers would allow doctors to identify the onset of these diseases very early. Early intervention means a much better prognosis for the patient (and the likelihood of a much cheaper treatment regime for the NHS).  


Initially the Hub involvement with Pastel was limited to giving the company access to market research that they would not otherwise have been able to afford, but recently Jim Christy at the East Sussex Hub involved Pastel with an Enterprise Hub Network scheme that is being piloted called “Hub Intervention Managers”. This puts a temporary team of experienced business people around an entrepreneur to strengthen the commercial proposition. “It’s been quite an eye opener,” says Dr Osborne, “Obviously it’s not guaranteed that we’ll raise the finance we’re looking for, but I think the Hub Intervention Managers scheme has improved our chances, and we’ve learned a lot.”  

East Sussex Enterprise Hub Director, Jim Christy, commented, “We helped Stephen with patent searches through the British Library’s Business and Intellectual Property Centre as well as sourcing market research reports. We worked with Pastel on its successful PoCKeT proof of concept funding application to Finance South East, securing the company £50,000, and signed the business up  to our Intervention Management Programme,  and we fully expect this will accelerate his routes to market.”


Graduating in Biotechnology from the University of London, Stephen Osborne went on to complete a PhD, then worked in a biotech start-up, and for seven years for a European diagnostics company. In 1997 his career took an unexpected turn when he was headhunted back to the UK to join a City stockbroker as an analyst, specialising in the biotech and healthcare sectors. “It’s proven to be an invaluable experience - but I’m a scientist at heart. Back in 2000 I had an idea – I’d just written it down, literally, on a piece of paper. I knew it was a good idea, I thought it could be groundbreaking, and I knew I couldn’t develop it working as an analyst.”  

Starting a business just to run with an unproven idea in a new technology area might seem a bit risky, but Stephen thinks there was no other way. “As a scientist I wanted to develop this idea, but as a businessman I had to decide how to do it. I could have talked to the big pharmaceutical companies, but with my background as a financial analyst I knew that these sorts of ideas – very early stage ideas – just aren’t taken up by big business. So I had to run with it myself.” So Dr Osborne quit his well paid job and spent the next two years writing a business plan, registering patents, and “at the end of the dotcom boom,” he says ruefully, he set about raising finance. The timing proved crucial – though not in a good way.  

“Whereas I’d initially hoped to raise a million pounds or so to set up some dedicated labs, I wasn’t able to do that as (in the post-dotcom period) I could only raise £250,000.”  


That’s still pretty impressive in the ‘hangover’ period of the early 2000s, but it did mean that Pastel had to scale back its ambitions. Dr Osborne eventually settled on the University of Sussex – it had a very good protein engineering group and the University agreed to give him space within a lab and access to the instrumentation at minimal cost. In return they took a part-equity in the company – in effect Pastel span into the University!  

The future is all about realisation. “We’ve got proof of principle that the technology works, so the challenge at the moment is to scale up. I would like to raise £3-5 million but again it could be difficult. That would fund the company for about three to four years.”  

Unfortunately for Dr Osborne, that will mean more time away from the lab, “I’m a scientist and I’d like to be in the lab all time, but I know that to keep the company going forward I’ve got to put my marketing hat on, my CEO hat on and sell the company to the Venture Capitalists.  

 “Knowing how to get the balance between doing the research and selling the company is the key; effectively I’ve been researching that at the same time as researching the technology.”  


Proteomics is the large-scale study of proteins, particularly their abundances, distribution, structures and functions. The term “proteomics” was coined to make an analogy with genomics, the study of the genes. The word “proteome” is a portmanteau of “protein” and “genome”.

Proteomics is considered the next step in the study of biological systems, after genomics. It is much more complicated than genomics, mostly because while an organism’s genome is constant, a proteome differs from cell to cell and constantly changes through its biochemical interactions with the genome and the environment. One organism has radically different protein expression in different parts of its body, different stages of its life cycle and different environmental conditions.

Scientists are very interested in proteomics because it gives a much better understanding of an organism than genomics. Since proteins play a central role in the life of an organism, proteomics is instrumental in the discovery of biomarkers, such as those markers that indicate a particular disease.

Author: Enterprise Hub Director - Jim Christy

Created Date: 17-12-2007


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