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Startup Spotlight: With A Mission To Develop Efficient Antigen Tests, Kazakhstan-Headquartered Arlan Biotech Makes Its Way To The UAE Arlan BioTech utilizes artificial intelligence and machine learning to create a predictive model for nanobody sequences, which are highly specific to selected proteins.

By Aalia Mehreen Ahmed Edited by Aby Thomas

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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Arlan BioTech
Bolat Sultankulov, co-founder and CEO of Arlan BioTech

This article is part of an ongoing series covering startups that have been a part of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Innovation Fund (MBRIF) accelerator program.

Not too long ago, when healthcare systems across the globe were grappling with an overwhelming number of COVID-19 cases, the rapid antigen test emerged as a time-saving and cost-effective alternative. It was in the midst of this pandemic that Kazakhstan-based biotech startup, Arlan BioTech, was conceptualized with a mission to develop efficient antigen tests.

Headed by Bolat Sultankulov (founder and CEO) and Dauken Seitkali (co-founder and CTO), Arlan BioTech has developed these treatments using a very specific core specimen: nanobodies, which are small antibody fragments derived from the antibodies found in animals such as camels, llamas, and alpacas. A structural difference between traditional antibodies -such as those found in humans and other mammals- and nanobodies means that the latter offers favorable traits such as small size, cost-effective production, and good tissue permeability, which in turn make them an ideal candidate for antiviral treatments. "Recognizing the potential impact of pandemics and the need for locally produced test systems, we as founders -who are also scientists- saw nanobodies as a promising tool," Sultankulov explains. "Nanobodies offer ease of manufacturing without the need for complex infrastructure. Our journey thus began with a commitment to connect with scientists globally. Collaborating with a group from the University of Zurich, we gained access to nanobodies that allowed us to develop a cost-effective antigen test."

Arlan BioTech's official launch took place in 2021, but by then the startup had already faced its first steep challenge in creating a usable antigen test: the coronavirus' variant, Omicron. "The arrival of the Omicron variant rendered our initial test system obsolete, prompting us to pivot and develop nanobodies targeting more conservative sequences that remain consistent across variants," Sultankulov recalls. "Despite raising US$100,000, the rapid emergence of new variants highlighted the urgency of finding a better, faster, and more cost-effective approach to developing nanobodies. Leveraging my background in biomedical engineering and a Ph.D., coupled with a passion for coding, I delved into the realm of artificial intelligence (AI). Recognizing that AI's main challenge is the availability of high-quality data, we decided to generate our own synthetic data. Confirming the suitability of our synthetic data for machine learning (ML), we embarked on the development of our generative AI. This marked a pivotal moment for Arlan Biotech, as we aimed to revolutionize the field of antibody and nanobody discovery."

Dauken Seitkali and Bolat Sultankulov, co-founders, Arlan BioTech. Source: Arlan BiotTech

Arlan BioTech has thus now taken on the form of a platform that utilizes AI and ML to create a predictive model for nanobody sequences (the specific genetic sequences encoding nanobodies), which are highly specific to selected proteins. Using such an approach, the startup hopes to be able to apply its tests within the realms of in vitro diagnostics (IVD), which is the process of performing diagnostic tests on samples of bodily fluids such as blood, urine, or tissue outside the body, as well as chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) therapy, a form of immunotherapy used to treat certain types of cancer. "Our commitment to innovation, coupled with the resilience to adapt in the face of challenges, has propelled us to the forefront of biotechnology, where we continue to push the boundaries of what's possible in the fight against infectious diseases," Sultankulov adds.

Having thus successfully developed a nanobody-based COVID-19 antigen test, Sultankulov and his team have since gone on to decide on a clear product strategy for the future: synthetic nanobody-based lateral flow assay (LFA) antigen testing, which refers to a rapid diagnostic test commonly used for infectious diseases. And having kickstarted work in this arena already, Sultankulov -who is a self-admitted "serial bioentrepreneur" with academic qualifications and work experience across different areas of genetics and biotechnology- shares that his startup has crossed significant tunring points along the way. "As an AI team, Arlan Biotech has achieved the milestone of becoming a revenue-generating company- this speaks to the successful integration and market acceptance of its generative AI technology in the biotech sector," Sultankulov adds. "We have also initiated several pilot projects in collaboration with renowned institutions such as Harvard Medical School, University of Brussels, and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. These collaborations signify recognition and endorsement from esteemed organizations in the scientific community."

Source: Arlan BiotTech

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But that isn't all there is to the startup's business and revenue models. For starters, Sultankulov points out that Arlan BioTech's quest for constant innovation has meant a complete commitment to generating assets using mainly in-house resources. "Our main goal is B2B software-as-a-service (SaaS), and to commercialize our solution and bring it to market, we have devised a comprehensive go-to-market strategy that encompasses multiple aspects," the founder elaborates. "The first of this includes leveraging our expertise in synthetic biology, AI-based nanobody generation, and recombinant protein production to create a robust and diverse library of nanobodies. These assets serve as the foundation for our platform and enable us to offer a wide range of nanobody-based products and services. We are already working on the development of different LFA assays. We also recognize the value of strategic partnerships in expanding our market reach, and accelerating adoption of our technology. Partnerships with key industry players and academics can take the form of licensing agreements, joint research projects, or distribution partnerships, enabling us to extend our market presence and access new customer segments."

But while Arlan BioTech's focus will remain on its own contributions toward nanobody-based therapeutics, the startup is also creating avenues that can lead to more synergistic innovations within the biotech industry as a whole. "In addition to our platform offering, we will provide services to meet the specific needs of our customers," Sultankulov explains. "This includes offering access to our SaaS platform, which allows researchers to design and optimize nanobodies tailored to their specific targets. We can also provide custom nanobody production services for research laboratories and industry partners that require specialized nanobodies for their applications. And alongside our service offerings, we will also sell our nanobodies as standalone products to research laboratories worldwide. These nanobodies will be available for purchase, allowing researchers to directly access and utilize our high-quality, validated nanobodies for their own experiments and studies."

The Arlan BiotTech team. Source: Arlan BiotTech

Having thus mapped out the Arlan BioTech model, Sultankulov already has "ambitious milestones" in mind for his startup over the next couple of years. "We want to become a top-five AI company for nanobodies," he declares. "Our primary objective is to further advance and refine our AI/ML model for nanobody selection, positioning it as one of the most sophisticated and reliable platforms in the industry. By harnessing cutting-edge AI technology, our aim is to optimize nanobody development, transforming the landscape of nanobody research and development. Arlan Biotech aspires to be recognized among the top five global companies for AI-driven nanobody innovation, offering unparalleled solutions to researchers and biopharmaceutical entities."

Now, one might wonder where Sultankulov's confidence in his startup's potential stems from. As it turns out, the co-founder has done his due diligence, and he is vividly certain of where Arlan BioTech stands in comparison to other similar solutions in the market. "Our main competitors in the field include EVQLV, Antiverse, Nabla Bio, DenovAI, and BigHat Biosciences," Sultankulov reveals. "While these companies primarily focus on antibody design, our unique focus lies in the development of nanobodies. Nanobodies have gained significant popularity as versatile tools for diagnostics, imaging, and therapeutics. Leveraging our extensive experience in recombinant protein production and small-scale manufacturing of IVD products, we not only aim to provide a SaaS platform, but also offer our nanobodies as a tangible product to research laboratories worldwide. This dual approach sets us apart in the market, allowing us to cater to the specific needs of both academic and industry customers."

As the startup now makes its way from Kazakhstan towards other parts of the world -with the GCC and the US markets being priority at this stage- Sultankulov and his team have found much needed assistance in navigating the UAE's business landscape with their participation in the MBRIF Innovation Accelerator Program. "The MBRIF is the Y-combinator of the Middle East," Sultankulov says. "Arlan Biotech's acceptance into MBRIF program is a significant accomplishment. This recognition not only validates the innovative nature of the company's work, but also provides financial support and credibility, reinforcing the importance of its products in the market."

As for the road ahead, Sultankulov's plans exhibit the same enthusiasm and confidence that has been evident throughout this interview. "By pursuing our visionary goals, Arlan Biotech aims to make substantial contributions to the biotechnology sector, establishing itself as a pivotal player in the nanobody and AI-driven research and development landscape," he declares. "Our dedication to driving innovation, delivering cutting-edge solutions, and positively impacting healthcare and research advancements is unwavering. We look forward to not only shaping the future of our organization but also contributing meaningfully to the progress of biotechnology, both in the UAE, and on a global scale."

Related: Startup Spotlight: HealthStay Aims To Tap Into The UAE's Burgeoning Medical Tourism Industry
Aalia Mehreen Ahmed

Features Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East

Aalia Mehreen Ahmed is the Features Editor at Entrepreneur Middle East.

She is an MBA (Finance) graduate with past experience in the corporate sector, and was also co-founder of CyberSWIFTT- an anti-cyberbullying campaign that ran from 2017-2018 as part of the e7: Daughters of the Emirates program.

Ahmed is particularly keen on writing stories involving people-centric leadership, female-owned startups, and entrepreneurs who've beaten significant odds to realize their goals.

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