Miroslav Gasparek

You can never predict where inspiration will come from. For Miroslav, it struck during one of the first lectures of his MEng Biomedical Engineering degree at Imperial. Today, he runs Sensible Biotechnologies, developing mRNA technology that aims to tackle diseases in a scalable and cost-effective way.

Miroslav standing with his arms crossed in his lab. He is wearing a white lab coat with his company name on it. The lab is illuminated with blue lighting and a colleague works in the background.
Portrait headshot of Miroslav, he is smiling and looking away from the camera, wearing a navy checked suit and standing against a brick wall that is photogenically blurred

Professor Jimmy Moore, Chair in Medical Device Design, in the Department of Bioengineering, introduced Miroslav to the idea that it is not enough to make an invention if it is going to stay unexploited on your lab bench - it has to be approved, manufactured and taken out to the market. It’s only then that you will be able to help people and have an impact.

For a young man who grew up in Nosice, a small Slovak village of only 400 people, this was a premise that really resonated, Miroslav recalls: “I didn’t have a notion of entrepreneurship, I’d never heard of a ‘startup’ before and, at that point, the concept of a venture capitalist was way beyond my frame of reference.”

I had finished high school with top grades and a strong desire to learn more, but I hadn’t looked at life beyond learning and research. The idea that I could be involved not only in the development of a new product but in its commercialisation as well was entirely new to me, but I really liked it.

Miroslav didn’t have a specific idea of how he should apply that advice there and then, he just knew - in his own words - that he "wanted to do something big to help people", to be involved in something that could have a major impact on humankind.

Building on firm foundations

Despite a temptation to run off and set up a company immediately, Miroslav appreciated that this ambition needed to be rooted in his own ability to drive the science forward.

His commitment to research led to an internship at Imperial with Professor Reiko Tanaka and two internships in California: firstly, at Caltech with Professor Richard Murray, followed by research at Stanford University with Professor Drew Endy, where he developed an interest in synthetic biology, systems biology and control theory.

Imperial provided an amazing catalyst but, for someone from a village of 400 people, living in London was a massive change. Miroslav worked hard to embrace the culture. He also admits to being that one student who always wanted to speak to lecturers at the end of classes.

He completed his MEng with a first class degree, before followoing his appetite further research and pursuing a PhD in Engineering Science at the University of Oxford under the supervision of Professor Antonis Papachristodoulou and Professor Harrison Steel.

Moving to Oxford and out of London was something of a relief. He recalls the move fondly:

Oxford was captivating. It was a smaller city and of course the architecture gives it a magical quality. My ambition to be an entrepreneur was already forming in my mind, and I felt this might be the last opportunity I had to take life at a gentler pace.

The unexpected impact of COVID-19

The first lockdown happened just six months after Miroslav’s arrival in Oxford. The pandemic presented an array of challenges for many people; however, for a biomedical engineer with an interest in synthetic gene circuits, nonlinear systems, and optimal control, it also offered a unique opportunity.

A major consideration of the public discourse during the pandemic encompassed the development of a vaccine to combat the disease. Notably, this focused on the development of mRNA technology. Not only was the rollout of the vaccines a game-changer in saving lives, reducing the impact of COVID-19 on sufferers and enabling countries to open up again, but it also introduced a radical approach to combatting the virus.

The technology behind mRNA was not new. It had been under research for decades, but it was still a niche area. The speed at which the vaccines were being developed for COVID-19 – taking less than 12 months – changed all that. Miroslav spotted an opportunity not being addressed.

If you want to make a vaccine fast, at scale and cheaply – then you need to find a new way to do it. The approach was, necessarily, very tunnel visioned. It delivered the results that were needed at the time. But there was so much more potential in mRNA technology – extending well beyond COVID-19 vaccines. And as we were talking to the leading scientists, it was becoming clear that we need a new method to make “better mRNA” in a less expensive way if this molecule is to be used for treatment of other diseases.
Miroslav wearing a checked suit, with a pink handkerchief in the front pocket. He is standing in the archway of an oxford university building. the sky is blue and he looks out into the distance

Appreciating the science behind the idea

Miroslav outlines the science in very basic terms: “Our cells have proteins which recognise harmful bacteria, microbes and toxins (known as pathogens) when they enter a cell. They actually identify a subset of the pathogen’s overall structure, called an antigen. Once detected, the proteins alert the immune system to release antibodies which can combat and neutralise the invasive threat."

“Because COVID-19 was a new virus, cell proteins didn’t have any pre-existing knowledge and didn’t recognise the threat to trigger the release of antibodies. However, proteins can also act as pathogens.”

“The mRNA is a molecule which holds a code – a bit like a recipe – which, once you inject it into a cell, instructs the body to construct a protein that matches the structure of an antigen. It’s not the same as creating a complete pathogen (with the obvious danger that presents), but this smaller subset is enough to trigger a response from the immune system. It acts like a training exercise. It means that, if the body gets the disease for real, the immune system is already prepared and can automatically release the antibodies to combat it.”

This introduction of mRNA molecules underpinned the approach used by the COVID-19 vaccination programmes, to train the body to recognise this new virus.

However, the potential of mRNA technology is far greater – imagine we could deliver instructions to the human body for making any missing or non-functional protein in the human body – or instructions to battle diseases as deadly as cancer. This could allow us to make new cell therapies, gene therapies, or even novel cancer medicines.

Inspired by discussions with their mentors and advisors, Miro and his co-founder and Sensible's Chief Scientific Officer realised that to accomplish any of this, manufacturing of mRNA must be radically improved.

In 2021, they established Sensible Biotechnologies to build the next-generation platform for production of mRNA in the living cells. Their goal is not only to produce mRNA with properties that will enable the development of new medicines in a number of areas, but also to accomplish that in a scalable, accessible and cost-effective way. The company has been moving fast. So far, they have raised millions of pounds in funding, closing a strategic partnership with Ginkgo Bioworks, the global leader in synthetic biology, and have built a team of scientific advisors that includes global leaders in the mRNA industry, synthetic biology and therapeutics development.

Our objective is to develop the world’s first cell-based platform to deliver high-quality and accessible mRNA medicines to millions of patients faster. We also want to be a fundamental part of critical biomanufacturing infrastructure and increase global biosecurity.
Miroslav walking down an illuminated stairwell. The walls are bright yellow. He wears a collared overcoat over his checked suit and his walking towards the camera
Miroslav smiling and chatting in a doorway with two female colleagues. He has his arms crossed against his chest

The Slovak connection

Miroslav and Marian joined forces during their time at Oxford: “I can’t even remember how we met,” Miro admits: “but then again there really weren’t that many Slovaks interested in life science in Oxford and we sort of gravitated together. Now we have an international team spanning colleagues with eight different nationalities, based in Oxford, UK and Bratislava, Slovakia.”

“It's special for us having an office in Bratislava. The life sciences industry is not well established in Slovakia. I hope that by building a successful life sciences enterprise with operations in Slovakia, we can contribute to driving our biotechnology industry forward.”

Miroslav is passionate about the proliferation of life sciences entrepreneurship, which is why he co-founded the world’s largest non-profit organisation focused on helping students to build biotech startups.

“Slovakia has played an important part in my progress. Growing up here has shaped how I view the business and the world more broadly. I trace it back to my relationship with my grandmother, she had four siblings and minimal formal education, but she - and my parents, Miroslav Sr. and Marta - taught me that I should always adhere to the core values and morals in life, to be an honest person and to work hard."

My parents were both first-generation college students and my sister is a doctor – medicine was the career I had planned for myself initially. But I stopped to consider what really drove me. I love so many things - biology, naturally, but also maths, physics, quantitative science, cosmology and more. I wanted to do something that was interdisciplinary. Rather than helping patients individually, I also wanted to create solutions that could have reach.

In hindsight, bioscience’s gain could be considered a loss for physics.

Miroslav explains: “The exploration of space has been a fascination of mine since I was young but appears to be a well-trodden path. There is still a lot to discover, but compared to what we know about putting rockets in the sky or probes on Mars, the functioning of the human body seems to be a much bigger mystery."

For me, the decoding and recoding of human physiology is the new frontier - full of wonder, challenge and opportunity, and exploring the body fascinates me more than the puzzles of the cosmos. If we can succeed in this field, I'd like to think we can leave a major positive impact on humanity.

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Miroslav wearing a navy checked suit, he leans casually against a desk and smirks at the camera

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