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Business & Economy

XR Therapeutics & Northern Accelerator: Progress through partnership

The best business endeavours are the ones built on strong foundations, where growth pillars of ambition and innovation stand next to experience and pragmatism. And when XR Therapeutics’ academic founders sought support to spin out of Newcastle University, to take its next generation cognitive behavioural therapy to market, they found the right platform to do so. Through Northern Accelerator, which marries business leaders with world-class research from the region’s universities to transform academic ventures into commercial entities, they utilised a host of measures that included the support enterprise’s flagship Executives into Business programme to source a chief executive. Here, Steven Hugill speaks to Billy Webber, the man identified to take on that role, and Northern Accelerator project lead Lizzie Withington, to find out more.

A day in the office; a ride on the bus; a walk in the park – ordinary pursuits many of us take for granted without a moment’s hesitation.

But what of the people whose daily practices are not so set, whose social anxieties mean their everyday routine carries an entirely different meaning?

A good number use traditional, discourse- based cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

The landscape, though, is changing, with technological advances introducing next generation treatments.

And at the vanguard of such progress is Gateshead-based XR Therapeutics.

Using an innovative model that combines approaches from CBT and gradual exposure in a virtual environment, it rebuilds patients’ confidence and independence.

Through an immersive studio, and a cinema-style screen and surround sound, the Newcastle University spin-out guides adults and children – a number of whom are autistic – around tailored virtual reality environments.

Supported by expert mental health practitioners, participants explore highly- detailed, multi-changeable scenes that replicate anxiety-inducing locations and situations in their respective lives.

“Instead of talking about coping in the real-world, we physically show people environments to help them do so,” says chief executive Billy Webber, who joined the business a year ago.

He continues:“These settings are highly personalised, and our technology means we can affect change in them to suit a person’s progress.

“There is nothing we can’t do.

“For example, if someone is anxious around a certain animal, we can work with them to build their confidence ahead of introducing the animal to the scene.

“If the anxiety is around public transport, we can recreate things like the Tyne and Wear Metro or a service bus.

“And if it is around returning to public places following the pandemic, we can recreate an employers’ office – moving from car park to reception and desk – or the journey to the hospital and its waiting rooms.

“We also ensure the people supporting each individual – parents, carers, family members or friends – can watch and hear every aspect of therapy, which helps further increase real-world translation,” says Billy of the business, which was co-founded by Professor Jeremy Parr, Dr Morag Maskey and Dr Barry Ingham.

He adds:“And our treatment is much quicker than normal CBT sessions.

“They tend to run over ten to 12 weeks, whereas we provide four sessions over as little as one week – and while it is shorter, it is literally life-changing.”

A significant factor in the progress – and ongoing growth – of the company is Northern Accelerator.

Backed by the European Regional Development Fund and Research England’s Connecting Capability Fund, the collaborative scheme marries business leaders with world-class research from the region’s five universities – Durham, Newcastle, Northumbria, Sunderland and Teesside – to transform academic ventures into commercial entities.

To date, the programme has helped create 35 spin-outs and placed 34 executives, with the region’s spin-outs raising more than £100 million investment in the last five years.

As well as operating an Ideas Impact Hub to develop academics’ entrepreneurial skills, the programme also offers pre-incorporation funding to develop proofs of concept and seed funding, both of which XR Therapeutics was able to access early in its spin-out journey.

It also delivers the flagship Executives into Business programme, which was integral in XR Therapeutics recruiting Billy last year, bringing the two together after matching his extensive commercial background with the firm’s inventive healthcare blueprint.

And the impact has been immediate.

Having guided XR Therapeutics to £530,000 investment – which included around £180,000 from Innovate UK to help over-50s overcome social anxieties – and funding from Northern Accelerator’s Seed Investment Fund, Billy has also overseen the arrival of Dr Maskey, who left a role with Newcastle University to join the business as its chief scientific officer.

And he is now progressing plans to introduce the company’s therapy to 11 per cent of the UK’s NHS trusts within the next five years, and place its immersive studio model across the country’s major cities.

Billy, who was previously chief operating officer at Sunderland Software City, says: “Executives into Business really moves a venture forward, from the research phase into a whole new realm.

“I’ve been able to combine XR Therapeutics’ academic and research background with my own business acumen, my understanding of how private companies operate, and the pace and drive needed in the commercial world, to deliver significant progress.

“And it opens everybody’s eyes to new possibilities; Morag joining us full-time is real testament to our potential.

“We want to make our therapy as accessible to as many people as possible – and being part of Northern Accelerator will only help us do that.”

Billy’s positivity is echoed by Lizzie Withington, who, as Newcastle University’s project lead on Northern Accelerator, heads the process of matching businesses with commercial leaders.

She says:“Our universities are home to world-leading research, and Northern Accelerator is a real catalyst in ensuring that is translated into real-world innovation which boosts the region’s economic and employment landscapes.

“And Executives into Business is a very exciting part of the programme.

“By uniting talented and experienced executives with academic research, it fuels the growth of a spin-out, turning it into a business that quickly makes a real difference to the marketplace,” says Lizzie, who is also Newcastle University’s company creation manager.

She adds: “We have recruited a pool of experienced business leaders, who we match to spin-outs to ensure they have a foundation for successful initial launch, through to subsequent growth and expansion.

“Each of our spin-outs has grown and thrived through the pairing of academic excellence with an experienced executive.Our focus now is to ensure we keep growing our pool of business people, attracting executives who are excited to get involved with the early stage, hi-tech spin-out opportunities.We encourage anybody who has great experience and drive to get in touch with us.

“It’s great to be part of a project that makes such a significant – and tangible – difference to regional and national economic growth.”