Yorkshire ‘special’ company is using stem cell technology to treat deafness, which could save the country billions

Founded in 2018 in Yorkshire, Rinri Therapeutics may have a solution to the problem of untreated hearing loss which is costing the UK economy a staggering £25.5billion a year.

The University of Sheffield-based company is developing the world’s first regenerative cell therapy for sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL), the most common form of deafness for which there are currently no approved pharmacological treatments.

Based on stem cell research, its treatment aims to reverse SNHL by repairing the damaged cell structure of the inner ear. And according to the company, this technology “has the potential to address huge unmet needs globally and help alleviate the UK’s socio-economic and health burdens”.

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The company, whose founder, Professor Marcelo Rivolta, is a recognized world leader in sensory stem cell biology, is just one of many companies in Yorkshire and the Far North doing groundbreaking, world-class work. in the field of health or science.

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The universities of Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield have hosted 38 Nobel laureates and are said to produce nearly 10% of all patents and a fifth of all intellectual property licenses filed by higher education institutions in the UK.

But unlike the Golden Triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London in the South East, there is no investment offering ready to turn today’s pioneering ideas into tomorrow’s leading companies. .

To put the numbers into context in 2019, universities across the North received just £22m in early stage private venture capital funding, representing a meager 1.8% of the total distributed this year- the. Oxford, Cambridge and London received £900m, or 90% of the total.

Northern Gritstone, a new investment company based in the North, has been created to tackle this problem. Founded by the universities of Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield, it is supported by influential figures such as former Treasury minister Lord Jim O’Neill, one of the architects of the Northern Powerhouse concept alongside George Osborne.

The company, which aims to become one of the most prolific investors in university spin-outs and IP-rich companies in the UK, is currently in the process of raising what it hopes will be funding. of £500million from sources including the North’s wealthiest people, big business and the region’s pension funds.

It says it will be underpinned by the principle of “profit with purpose”, which means that its investment activities will have the dual objectives of generating attractive returns for its shareholders, as well as having a positive, societal and wider economy.

And Duncan Johnson, the former head of the private equity arm of Caledonia Investments who is now Northern Gritstone’s first managing director, said his aim was to tackle what he described as “totally and totally unequal.

He says The Northern Agenda Podcast that Northern Gritstone’s goal is “remarkably simple”. He says: “The science and innovation being generated in the North of England is absolutely world class.

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“And you talk to anybody in Oxford, Cambridge, London or any other academic institution in the UK and they’ll tell you that some of the best science happens in the north of England. And the statistics prove it. Qu ‘is it ‘not having access to it, it’s the funding that deserves it.”

Describing Rinri Therapeutics’ success in finding a cure for deafness as “really quite special”, he adds: “It is well developed and we would be looking to fund it with a number of other investors in this next round of funding.”

A Rinri spokeswoman said the company was “incredibly proud of our Nordic history and roots”. She added: “There is a huge amount of healthcare innovation to champion in the North of England and we are delighted to be part of it.”

Opteran Technologies is another fascinating University of Sheffield spin-out. Mr Johnson described how his technology ‘takes the way bee brains work, maneuvers and processes information and puts it into a little piece of artificial intelligence brain that can run drones’.

Already attracting interest on the West Coast of the United States, he says the company “has the absolute potential to be a world-class company”.

Duncan Johnson, CEO of Northern Gritstone
Duncan Johnson, CEO of Northern Gritstone

Mr Johnson himself has been a private market investor for nearly 25 years, but changed his mind at the age of 50 when his children left for college.

“I decided I wanted to do something else that had what I call fundamental impact,” he says. “I wanted to use my skills as a support and business developer to do something that would actually create jobs, create wealth, impact leveling.”

His company’s motto is “profit with a purpose”, specifically creating skilled, well-paying jobs in the North and improving the productivity gap between North and South that has plagued the country for decades.

“I don’t want to use words like I’m embarrassed, but I think I was a bit embarrassed that finance just got very southern-focused,” he said. “It’s totally skewed in the South of England and yet some of the biggest things are happening in the North.”

His current task is to raise up to half a billion pounds to invest in start-up companies, meaning he has been in talks with pension funds in West Yorkshire, Merseyside and Greater Manchester as well than with big companies like global investment manager M&G.

Lord Jim O'Neill
Lord Jim O’Neill

“Then there are a number of wealthy people who come from the North and who have earned substantial sums,” he adds. “And they want to find ways to reinvest that money in the north of England.

“And that’s been a really fertile area for us. And I haven’t had a single conversation with this type of person who isn’t completely behind Northern Gritstone and we’re successful in what we’re trying to do. And that has been really encouraging. So from that group of people we can raise the kind of money we’re talking about.”

The UK government is finally looking to tackle the problem of concentrating innovation investment in the South East, as it has announced a 40% increase in research and development funding for the North.

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And Mr Johnson said government officials are beating the drum for Northern Gritstone in talks around the world aimed at boosting foreign investment in the UK.

But how did the UK economy become so unbalanced in the first place? Mr Johnson believes the rift between the capital and the rest of the UK has widened in recent years due to its status as a major center and part of an international economy.

“And as it has become more concentrated, the disparity between the South East and London and the rest of the UK has been exacerbated,” he says. “There are loads of people who work in finance in London, for better or for worse, who will never have gone to the north of England, they will never have come looking for opportunities. It’s really quite criminal.

“But that’s what happened. And I think that’s reinforced by the fact that London is a global city. And I think one of the things we need to do is make sure the Northern Powerhouse itself becoming a global epicenter for innovation and science, is referred to in the same way as Silicon Valley.

“That’s what we really need to do is kind of change the way we talk about it, change that ambition, because I think that’s what we need to reverse.”

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