A chemical approach to solving biological questions
Bastienne Wentzel

UbiQ was founded in 2010 as a spin-off of the Ovaa-lab at the Netherlands Cancer Institute. The small company develops reagents for ubiquitin research and is involved occasionally in drug discovery projects, says co-founder Farid El Oualid. "Our mission is ultimately to help patients. With UbiQ, we aim to explore all possible drug targets using our technology, and to facilitate others to do their research by providing reagents."

A pile of FedEx envelopes is stacked on a desk in the small UbiQ office. The company has just moved to the shiny new, fully sustainable Matrix One building at the premises of the Amsterdam Science Park. One envelope is filled with a sample and ready to be sent. "Yes, we do this ourselves." smiles Farid El Oualid, co-founder and CSO of UbiQ.
El Oualid runs the spin-off company co-founded by Huib Ovaa, with Alfred Nijkerk. Nijkerk is responsible for the business and financial part of UbiQ, and has a solid background in pharmacuetical industry and as an entrepeneur in life sciences. El Oualid carries out the labwork including proof-of-concept experiments and synthesising reagents. There is no other permanent staff on the team. Another smile: "Yes I answer the phone for UbiQ as well. I found that our customers appreciate it to get a quick solution to their questions." On top of this El Oualid is a senior postdoc at the Netherlands Cancer Institute (NKI).

An omnipresent protein
Ubiquitine is a small signalling protein found in most tissues of eukaryotic organisms. Binding of ubiquitin to another protein can have many effects from changing its activity or interactions to marking it for degradation.
To investigate the function of ubiquitine, reagents are needed. This can be anything from a fluorescent probe to inhibitors of ubiquitin activating enzymes and also ubiquitin-like proteins, chains or ubiquinated peptides. Using technologies developed by Huib Ovaa and Farid El Oualid, UbiQ has taken a chemical approach to developing these reagents to solve biological questions.
Originally, all work was done at the Ovaa-lab which was part of the NKI in Amsterdam at the time. In 2016, the Ovaa-lab moved to the LUMC in Leiden, which led to a natural way for Huib Ovaa to concentrate more on his research and less on the company. "Huib was an academic scholar at heart," El Oualid says. "We also felt it was sensible to separate commercial and academic activities to prevent any conflict of interest." El Oualid and Nijkerk continued to run the company on a daily basis with regular work discussions with the Ovaa-group, NKI and many others. "Huib's passing has left a big mark on us and the research community, but fortunately UbiQ was able to continue to run as before," says El Oualid.

Helping others help patients
The mission and vision of UbiQ hasn't changed much over time, says El Oualid. The core of the work is designing and synthesising reagents for others to use. "Our strength lies in these basics and in the fact that we can provide solid, freeze-dried samples of our proteins, so our customers don't have to worry about storage and stability."
The second part of the company strategy is drug discovery, from concept or idea and innovation to designing reagents critical for the drug discovery process. "Drug discovery projects are not always successful but we learn a lot about the process of drug discovery." In the near future, UbiQ will continue to work on the reagents that are more elusive and have not been developed yet, says El Oualid. "The challenge is larger but if we succeed the step forward for the drug discovery community worldwide will be significant."

This article was published in ICI Bulletin 15, June 2023.