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Researcher voices: The thrills and skills of becoming an entrepreneur

by Rupal Mistry | Research Feature

2 November 2020

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Monika Gullerova: “I saw an opportunity to develop my research idea to have real-world impact”

Photo of Monika Gullerova

My team at the University of Oxford are investigating the role of RNA in the cellular processes that detect and repair damaged DNA. We hope that a better understanding of the DNA damage response (DDR) will ultimately help to prevent and treat a range of diseases including cancer.

A couple of years ago, I was considering a project for a new DPhil student in my lab when I was struck by a new idea: “Wouldn’t it be great if we had small-molecule compounds that could simulate the behaviour of cells which are naturally developed to efficiently repair damaged DNA? And if possible, to apply such molecules to trick cancer cells into self-destruction?”

I’m a scientist first and foremost, not a businesswoman. But I saw an opportunity to extend my basic research idea and turn it into something that could have real-world impact.

Immediately from the start, I noticed many fundamental differences between basic research and developing a potential translational spin-out. Academic research is led by data and my own scientific curiosity, whereas developing a spin-out was a far more focused and targeted process. Even if your idea has the potential to expand, investors need quick commercial success before exploring further avenues.

Adapting to this new way of working was initially challenging. At first, I found it hard to accept that I would gradually lose influence over the commercial and strategic decision-making, which eventually falls under the control of the investor. On the other hand, working with my industry partners was a collaborative and enjoyable experience and I received ongoing support from Oxford University Innovation and Cancer Research UK.

Although I have never felt that being a woman has affected my work or my opportunities, science can be tough for women. The presence of women in science is improving, and there are more women in higher academic positions now than in the past. The team in the industry company I have partnered with is led by a woman, which I find highly motivating. Despite this, when I transitioned into the business world, I was surprised to see how heavily it is dominated by men. The investors I dealt with were helpful and supportive, yet during every presentation, on every committee, it was rare to see a woman. This wasn’t challenging in a practical sense, but it was something I became quite conscious of.

If you’re an entrepreneur contemplating translational opportunities, I would recommend that you have a firm grasp of your idea – investors challenge every detail. So, research thoroughly and know your idea inside out. Also, if your spin-out complements your research that’s a bonus. My core research goes hand-in-hand with the spin-out I am developing, so the company can benefit from the research as it develops in the lab. My journey is still ongoing, and it has been a steep learning curve, but I’m glad I decided to commercialise my idea so that it may one day have a real-world impact.

Monika is an associate professor in experimental pathology and Lee Placito Fellow in Medicine at Wadham College at the University of Oxford and a CRUK Senior Research Fellow. Previously she was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oxford.

Jason Mellad: “An entrepreneur has to embrace the unknown”

I am the co-founder and CEO of Start Codon, an initiative that supports teams across the globe to translate their research ideas by offering seed funding and providing guidance and access to an extensive network of partners.

I am from Louisiana in the US and I moved to the UK to do my PhD in cardiovascular medicine at the University of Cambridge. Before Start Codon, I was a scientist working in academia, but then I moved into the business world, eventually working my way up to become the CEO of Cambridge Epigenetix. Then I co-founded Start Codon and I have been working here for almost two years.

When I decided I wanted to create my own company, I took advantage of various societies available to me, and joined competitions and networking events as much as possible. I would approach speakers at conferences and other events to build up my network.

An entrepreneur has to embrace the unknown. I enjoy starting new projects and thrive off the thrill that a new opportunity can present. While embarking on this entrepreneurship journey was a natural step for me, developing my idea into a successful business was more of a challenge. So I decided to put together a team to help me drive it forward. A good team can lift you up through challenges, educate you and complement your skillset. I always tell people that you don’t have to do it all yourself, there are many people who are willing to help if you ask.

As a son of immigrants, being African Caribbean and openly gay, I have had my fair share of challenges. I was often reminded of the fact that I was Black, and it was instilled in me from a young age that I would have to work twice as hard to get half as far. Even now people think I’m serving canapés at events. Sometimes I’ve brought them food, but then I tell them that I’m actually the keynote speaker and it’s always fun to see the look on their faces.

The world is different from what it was yesterday, and diversity is improving in business. I am grateful for all my experiences and the opportunities I’ve had, which have built my character and resilience. I have been really lucky to have several mentors who have supported me on my journey, including my parents. That’s why my mission is to give people their chance through Start Codon and help them take the leap to becoming an entrepreneur.

Jason is the CEO and co-founder of Start Codon, a Cambridge-based start-up accelerator. Previously, he was CEO of Cambridge Epigenetix and business development manager for Horizon Discovery’s diagnostics division. He also served as a technology transfer associate at Cambridge Enterprise, the technology transfer office of the University of Cambridge.

Myriam Ouberai: “I was confident our technology would make a difference to patients, so I took the leap”

I am the founder and CEO of Spirea, a spin-out from the University of Cambridge. Spirea is a biotech company that develops antibody-drug conjugates that target and kill cancer cells.

Following a PhD in chemistry in France, I came to Cambridge as a post-doctoral scientist. I have worked on various projects with biomedical applications, including a technology to deliver high doses of antibiotics against tuberculosis. This technology was patented, and the experience of developing it led me to realise my interest in commercialising research and technologies.

The idea for Spirea was conceived in a collaborative environment. I am a chemist by training, and I was working alongside biologists and medical students. We were all aware of the need to find an effective way of delivering drugs to cells to treat cancer and certain infectious diseases as many other drugs have failed in clinical trials. This is why I applied to Innovate UK to develop a technology for use in oncology. I was confident that our technology would make a difference to patients, so I took the leap and started a spin-out.

Initially, I didn’t know where to begin, but then I got involved in several entrepreneurship programmes in Cambridge, including the Postdoc Business Plan Competition hosted by Cambridge Enterprise, and the Ignite and Accelerate Cambridge programmes hosted by the Cambridge Judge Business School. I also attended numerous networking events about venture creation aimed at scientists with potential business ideas. These initiatives helped me build my network, meet like-minded people and begin my journey to develop Spirea.

The road was not always straightforward, and I had doubts about my ability to create a successful start-up. I thought, “I’m just a scientist – understanding and applying research in a real-life situation is highly challenging”. People often asked me if I was sure about setting up a company, saying that it was a risky career move. Perhaps it has been harder because I am a woman and not a UK national. But I gave it my all whatever the circumstance.

I pushed passed my hesitations and other people’s questions. I knew I had a good idea and that Cambridge was the right place for me. Upon receiving Innovate UK funding in 2018, I knew I had made the right decision.

It’s easy to overthink and doubt yourself but if you have a good idea that you believe will have an impact, then you should go for it. I recommend reaching out to as many people as you can and to seek advice from people who have done it before. It’s what I did, and it worked.

Myriam is the founder and CEO of Spirea, a spin-out from the University of Cambridge. Previously, she was a senior postdoctoral research associate at the University of Cambridge. In 2018, Myriam was selected as one of 50 Movers and Shakers in BioBusiness by UK biotech platform BioBeat.

Debora Lucarelli: “Talking to people is essential in this field”

I am the CEO of Enhanc3D Genomics, a spin-out from the Babraham Institute in Cambridge. Enhanc3D Genomics uses a disruptive technology to profile DNA and look at regulatory elements in cells to identify targets for immune-oncology therapies.

I’ve developed several platforms for new technologies in the biotech industry including Oxford Nanopore and Cambridge Epigenetix. I enjoyed working in research, but I was frustrated to see how only certain ideas would be taken forward and how long it took for an idea to have an impact. I decided to take control and reached out to Jason Mellad from Start Codon. Jason introduced me to Peter Fraser, Stefan Schoenfelder and Mikhail Spivakov. Together, we launched a new genomic platform.

I have never felt that being a woman has impacted my career, however my career did slow down when I had two children. I took 18 months off work, but I have no regrets. When you are older and look back on your life, no one will question the few years you took off to have a family or pursue another life goal, like living in another country. I believe in doing what makes you happy and I am always encouraging my team to take the time they need to follow their dreams, even if it takes them away from their work.

Talking to people is essential in this field. People will listen to you if you give them a chance. Most of my friends are scientists; I don’t know many bankers, investors or businesspeople. So, I talked to my neighbours and my husband’s friends and asked for introductions. I also joined many forums and networks such as Meetup groups, where like-minded people discussed a topic in a pub. I also attended conferences and networking events hosted by big pharma.

Communication is important, and I recommend talking to as many people as you can. You might not have a strong business skillset but being able to convincingly explain why your idea is worth pursing will take you far. Through perseverance, I eventually made the connections I needed, and Enhanc3D Genomics was born.

Debora is the CEO of Enhanc3D Genomics, a spin-out from the Babraham Institute in Cambridge. Previously, she was director of biomarker discovery at Cambridge Epigenetix and was head of laboratory at the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge.

Anna Perdrix Rosell: “I started a biotech start-up during my PhD because we were sure our idea would have an impact”

While completing my PhD at the Francis Crick Institute, I co-founded a biotech start-up called Sixfold Bioscience. We had an idea that we knew would have an impact for people with cancer. We were too impatient to wait, so we made the leap to create our own start-up. Through Sixfold Bioscience, we hope to address a real-life challenge of delivering drugs to cancer cells.

I have always been keen to learn and improve my skillset as much as possible. My business idea gave me the opportunity to dive into the business world. I quickly had to learn how to fundraise, understand IP, build a team and much more. I knew I would have to become competent in a lot of new things if I wanted to make this journey, but I was interested in all of it.

Every day, I face new challenges and I have to be creative in how to address them effectively. It’s what makes my job interesting and different. Our initial challenges were obtaining funding and finding a base for the lab. We headed to the US and managed to secure investment from the accelerator Y Combinator and then raised a seed round of funding on the back of that. Soon after, we found lab space for our 10-people team in the Translation and Innovation Hub in White City, London. Slowly but surely, things started to fall into place.

It has been hard work to get this far and it will be hard work to keep the momentum going. I always tell people who want to start their own company that they need to be ready for what it will take. The responsibilities increase exponentially. Before you know it, you have a team joining you on the journey and your decisions have an impact beyond yourself. You have to be prepared for things like that.

While it shouldn’t matter, being a young entrepreneur brought challenges I have had to navigate. You can be easily overlooked when you are in the early stages of your career. To me, the important thing is to critically evaluate what you know and what you’re good at. It’s important to surround yourself with people who can complement you – that’s why we’ve worked hard to create the right team with skillsets that complement each other. Self-awareness is not something that comes with age, but something you can work on and that enables you to improve yourself.

Anna Perdrix Rosell is the co-founder and managing director of Sixfold Bioscience. She is a Royal Academy of Engineering SME Leader, an advisory board member of the EPSRC-funded Portabolomics consortium and has been listed on Forbes 30 Under 30 in Science and Healthcare, Maserati’s Top 100 British Entrepreneurs and The Observer’s rising stars of science.

Cancer Research UK’s Entrepreneurial Programmes Initiative aims to develop and nurture an entrepreneurial culture amongst cancer researchers in the UK. Our entrepreneurial programme will show you how to build a business, connect you to a network of like-minded people and help you find the right advice and support, when you need it.
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