Medical business

Dr Nicolaas Duneas and Nuno Pires from Altis Biologics
SAB - Nuno & Nic holding up OBM boxes - cropped.jpg

Two SA scientists won the Innovation Prize for Africa by inventing the world’s first injectable regenerating bone graft substitute.

According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation of South Africa (NOFSA), osteoporosis is on the rise in Africa, especially among African women, due to urbanisation and a general lack of awareness, among other factors; figure-conscious females keep an increasingly watchful eye on their weight, impacting negatively on the density of their bones and increasing their risk of contracting bone diseases.

The African Innovation Foundation has named South Africans Dr Nicolaas Duneas and Nuno Pires, from Altis Biologics, as the winners, selected from more than 700 applications from 42 African countries, of the Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA) 2014 at an awards ceremony hosted by the Foundation in collaboration with the Federal Government of Nigeria.

Duneas and Peres have received US$100 000 for the Altis Osteogenic Bone Matrix (Altis OBMTM), the first injectable porcine-derived bone matrix product (BMP) medical device in the world – an innovative product for the treatment of bone injuries and voids through the use of a regenerative biological implant.

Before the Altis OBM was invented, patients with serious bone trauma or degradation would have had to endure the removal of bone tissue from their own hips or from deceased donors in the hopes of undergoing successful bone crafting surgery – both very invasive methods. The injection of OBM leads to the rapid, safe and effective healing of problematic bone injuries, leading to the complete and natural restoration of the bone, including the bone marrow. OBM is the only bone graft substitute containing naturally extracted bone growth proteins that co-operate with high efficacy and are sourced from mammals, making it cost-effective to produce.

“This year’s Innovation Prize for Africa winners showcase that Africans can find solutions to African challenges,” said Jean-Claude Bastos de Morais, founder of the African Innovation Foundation and the IPA. “We encourage partners from both the public and the private sectors to coherently work together to support African innovation.”

Winners were selected by a skilled panel of jurors based on the marketability, originality, scalability, social impact and business potential of their respective innovations. They are provided with unrestricted funds in recognition of their achievements and are free to use the prize to take their innovations to the next level.

Being founded by the African Innovation Foundation, the IPA is focused on building Africa’s capacity by investing in homegrown innovation. The prize mobilises leaders from all sectors – private sector, donors and government – to promote and invest in African development through innovation. The foundation believes the best solutions to the challenges Africans face on a daily basis can and will come from Africans themselves.

The duo told Opportunity in an exclusive interview that this award highlights the high level of innovativeness in South Africa, and stimulates business interest and investment in the process of innovation and commercialisation. “Aspiring young innovators and university professors are now stimulated to look into possible opportunities within their domains for the innovation process.”

Asked whether they expected to be nominated and win the award, Pires says the competition was fierce, as the IPA isn’t limited to the private sector but also includes applications for universities and research councils. “So naturally, we were immensely proud to have been selected in the top 10 finalists, and there is no explaining the honour we feel having been chosen as the eventual overall winner.”

Duneas, who discovered the concept of synergy among growth factors during his PhD work, then following the initial success for the novel high-yield purification of bone morphogenetic protein-complex from human donor bone in the period 1999–2002, founded Altis Biologics and raised the necessary capital to develop Altis OBM from source material that was available in abundance, namely porcine bone.

“The initial idea arose in 1999 when I initiated a privately funded project to develop human-derived bone growth factors from human donor. In this period, we designed and tested a new process for the high-yield purification of bone morphogenetic protein-complex, and it worked.

“Human donor tissue is, however, very scarce and the human tissue industry is also a not-for-profit industry. For this reason, Altis licensed the use of its technology to a human tissue bank that we helped set up in collaboration with a SA university and not-for-profit human allograft distributor. It was therefore economically unfeasible to pursue a business that relied on human donor tissue, but then I partnered with Nuno and a business plan was developed to apply the technology and attempt to develop a porcine (pig) derived product containing bone morphogenetic protein-complex. After many years of development and trials, Altis Osteogenic Bone Matrix was created,” Duneas says.

According to Pires, their biggest challenge was to raise sufficient capital to undertake the manufacturing and clinical development of the Osteogenic Bone Matrix. “Most universities in SA have antiquated policies and procedures for commercialising their research, and lack official structures to co-operate with their star scientists who have technological entrepreneurial abilities. This leads to a lack of interest, motivation and drive for the scientists’ innovations, leading ultimately to failure.

“Additionally, there isn’t a single venture capital (VC) fund in the country that provides funding for early-stage biotech innovation. The closest that SA has to a private VC fund is the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) VC fund, and even they tread lightly when it comes to the biotech sector. That means bio-entrepreneurs are only left with government as a source of funds. Fortunately, the government does have some funding available for innovative projects. Unfortunately, the time for a funding decision to be made, the quantum of funding available, and the often complicated and ever-changing policies of these government funds make walking this path a very daunting one for experienced bioentrepreneurs, not to mention for those who have just decided to become bioentrepreneurs or have very little capital-raising experience,” says Pires.

Pauline Mujawamariya & Lindsay King

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