Bosnian microbiologist Jelena Vulevic and Greek biotechnologist George Tzortzis are exploiting nearly 40 years of combined research, development and commercial knowledge with their new startup venture Vemico.
They are creating biologic therapies for immune mediated diseases and disorders such as: metabolic diseases, brain disorders, inflammatory diseases, skin health and immune wellness.
The formidable pair met in 1999 while studying for their PHD’s at the University of Reading. The two first worked together when they joined a collaborative project with Clasado BioSciences, which led to the development of the well-recognised novel second-generation prebiotic supplement Bimuno.
Vulevic followed her passion for research and stayed at the university, researching within the field of the microbiome and immune health, for over a decade, while Tzortzis went on to join Clasado as R&D Manager.
It was in 2009, when Vulevic gave birth to her daughter who had Down Syndrome, that she realised she wouldn’t have the time, nor the money, to continue to devote her life to research. so in 2011, she joined the Clasado team, firstly as medical liaison, and eventually as Head of R&D.
Vulevic and Tzortzis often discussed their idea for their own startup venture.
She explains how their idea evolved: “The microbiome is very difficult to control as each individual's microbiome is unique. So one big problem most microbiome focused products have is they won’t be able to work the same for every individual.
“We realised this was an issue and we talked about what we might be able to create if we focus, not on modulating the microbiome, but on utilising our knowledge of the microbiome to create an entirely new solution."
They began by working out what the science has proven thus far.
“One of the things that bacteria do successfully, is they interact with the immune system and can significantly affect our immune system – that’s well established knowledge. We also know that by modulating the immune system we can affect any organ in the body, so we decided to develop a product in this field.
“We decided to work out what kinds of molecules bacteria produce and which react with the body without the need to modulate the microbiome.
“We realised if we could decipher this, then instead of putting bacteria into the body and hoping it will modulate the microbiome, we can take bacteria out the human, give the bacteria the conditions they need to produce certain molecules, then put these molecules into the body in the form of powders or capsules – therefore bypassing the need to modify the microbiota."
It was Tzortzis who made the initial jump to create a new business. He left his role as Chief Scientific & Innovation Officer at Clasado in 2017, incorporated the company, and did the primary research to check they had a strong concept.
Vulevic joined the venture full time, last July, to help apply for funding. They soon received investment before going into an accelerator programme which ran until Christmas 2019.
They decided to first create an innovation for skin health.
“We knew that the anti-ageing market was huge and it’s well established that by reducing inflammation in the gut we can slow down the ageing process and the development of wrinkles.”
They decided to brand their skin-health focused innovations 'The Y-Collection' due to the fact the bifidobacterial strain used in the products looks like a ‘Y’.
“Y-Skin consists of fibre-like compounds that have been extracted from Bifidobacteria, and redesigned to safely and effectively restore balance and homeostasis. These natural compounds act as signals, mimicking the gut microbiome-immune system interactions, in order to modulate interaction and reduce the overall inflammatory load of our body to promote health and glowing skin.”
From January 2020, they were set to run ‘full steam ahead’ with the Y-Collection, and they started selling direct to consumers online and building a strong following in London.
But, of course, they were steaming straight into the global pandemic.
“It was all going well - we launched our first product in March. Then the pandemic happened and we had to put a pause on all our sales and marketing efforts.
"Now, as we start to come out of the lockdown, we are able to start pushing forward again.
Vulevic says as their expertise lie in research and development, they will continue to develop products aimed at the prevention and management of a range of health issues, with the ultimate plan to eventually move into the pharmaceuticals space, as they see a big opportunity for their research in the treatment of viruses and diseases.
While they concentrate on the R&D, the duo are looking to work alongside other large firms to ensure the commercial success of their products.
Vulevic has had a difficult road to where she is today. In 1992, during a time of conflict in Bosnia, while trying to travel from Bosnia to Milan for her studies she suffered a combination of unfortunate events which left her stranded, with little money and no connection with her family. She found her only hope was a gifted one-way ticket to London. She arrived in the country without belongings, or money, or the ability to speak the language.
From there, she set out on a two year struggle to find a university who would accept her.
“I wrote letters to universities every few weeks but I didn’t have any documents and had no money to pay for the studies. Eventually, an admission tutor at Kings College agreed to meet me and offered me a place."
In order to fund the studies, Vulevic worked in bars and restaurants every night, around her full-time studies, for almost 10 years, until she graduated with both a BSc in Biology and an MSc in Nutrition.
Although the research avenue didn’t exist at the time, Vulevic was fascinated by the microbiome’s influence on different areas of health and she wrote her final year thesis on the influence of microbiota in Ulcerative Colitis.
The paper won the best and most innovative writing award. She then won a scholarship from the World Cancer Research Foundation and did a PhD in negative influence of gut microbiota and diet through the formation of carcinogens relevant to colorectal carcinogenesis.