Meet Labway, a startup specializing in sea cucumber nutrients

November 02, 2018 17:18
Labway’s co-founder Victor Sit (inset, left), and the company’s scientific director Dr Alice Chan (right).  The startup aims to develop the health nutrients from sea cucumber, and commercialize various research projects into products to the market. Photo:

Hong Kong serves as an important gateway for distribution of seafood products into China and the surrounding region. In particular, the city is a major player in handling the distribution and other transactions related to sea cucumber.

Founded in 2016, Labway, a Hong Kong-based biotechnology startup, aims to explore and develop the health nutrients from sea cucumber, in order to analyze the anti-resistance ingredients and medicinal value.

Labway’s co-founder Victor Sit, and the company’s scientific director, Dr Alice Chan, recently sat down with the Hong Kong Economic Journal, to share their views on how the firm thrives with its research and development (R&D) capability.

Excerpts from an interview:

HKEJ: How do you go about your R&D work on exploring the nutrients from sea cucumber?

Sit: Our mission at Labway is to develop the healthy nutrients from sea cucumber in a sustainable manner and bring it to customers. The company's Marine Molecule Research (MMR) platform is dedicated to extracting ingredients from bioactive molecules from marine organisms, and testing their utility and effectiveness in treating human disease and sickness we see today.

As a biotechnology startup, our target is to establish cooperation with pharmaceutical companies, in order the share the huge R&D and production cost. As we know, pharmaceutical companies generally do not handle the whole process from R&D to production, they will generally look for biotech companies with products before clinical trials.

For projects they are interested in, the pharmaceutical firms would attempt to acquire and bring the firms' projects and technologies to clinical trials, followed by commercialization.

Chan: We mainly conduct simple anti-oxidation experiments in the Science Park by isolating, extracting and purifying useful biomolecules in sea cucumbers, and then we take the samples to the research institutes of the University of Hong Kong and other partner universities to test the anti-ageing function.

If the product passes the test, we would then focus on studies on specific biomolecules. Finally, after we confirm the efficacy and safety of the drug, we would apply for US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) certification.

HKEJ: In addition to scientific research and products, the company has also put an emphasis on conservation. Can you talk a little about that?

Chan: Medical research around the world shows overwhelming evidence that saponins extracted from sea cucumber combat certain diseases. We are still only scratching the surface of the numerous medical qualities hidden in these sea creatures. But we should proceed with care, as it may attract lot of hunting activities, posing a threat to biodiversity, which we want to avoid.

We currently consider two solutions on sustainable development: first, when we discover specific active compounds, we can use synthetic methods to develop drugs; second, we can carry out indoor artificial propagation, which is beneficial not only to marine organisms, but also facilitate the extraction.

HKEJ: For your company, what is the commercialization strategy for the products and drugs which have passed clinical tests?

Sit: For a biotech startup, marine molecular research makes for a kind of a high-risk project. But we have a moderately risky, yet high-reward, platform called “Labway Brand”, to commercialize various research projects.

Sea Cucumber Capsule is the company's first commercialized healthcare product. Many people have learned that sea cucumber is good for the human body, but the cooking process is complicated and time-consuming. Consumers need to intake the nutrients from sea cucumbers regularly in order to get the nutrients effective, and capsules are a right fit for them.

HKEJ: We have learned that you have invested a few million dollars. Would you now consider applying for government funding or seek other financing?

Sit: As a biotech startup, the government provides a lot of support and funding. But we faced many difficulties in recruiting talents. We received many applications, but experts with relevant knowledge may not be interested in marine life research.

The government funding is sufficient for us to maintain cash flow. However, the subsidy will not be approved until the completion of the research. This adds more cash pressure for us at the initial stage of research.

In later stages, government funding support may not be available for the company’s spending on developing new products, and for procuring machines and equipment, as well as for marketing and other expenses. Hence, seeking other financing may be the only way.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov 2

Translation by Ben Ng with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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