How to start a business in genomics


Genomics is rife with opportunities for commercial success. New technologies and ideas are just waiting to be transformed into successful companies and cutting-edge products. But how do you take the leap from laboratory researcher to entrepreneur?

How to start a business in genomics: panel, Hana Janebdar, Rob Greenwood, Abel Ureta-Vidal and Patrick ShortTo find out, the Entrepreneurial Postdocs of Cambridge (EPOC) gathered four genomics and bioinformatics company founders who have all taken different routes from academia into business at a seminar here at the BioData Innovation Centre on the Wellcome Genome Campus:

They answered our questions about what it’s really like to start a business in genomics and shared what they have learned along the way. Here, we have condensed their discussion down into 10 useful tips for getting started.


1. Challenge your ideas

So, you have a great technology, or maybe just a great idea, and you think you can make it into a business. How do you know if it can actually make money?

‘I think it’s around identifying the core question or core assumption and figuring out whether you’re right or wrong’ says Patrick Short of Sano Genetics, whose company provides a platform for people with rare diseases to get their genomes sequenced for free in order to be able to better understand their conditions and find the possible ways to manage them. ‘The questions for us were around what would motivate people to participate in research. And on the researcher side, is there a demand for purchasing free kits on the behalf of the participants?’

Talk to your potential customers and – more importantly – listen to what they’re saying!  Discover their genuine needs and problems, and work on developing your technology to solve them. Then when you go to market, people will want to buy what you are selling.

2. Pick co-founders that complement your abilities

Choosing the right co-founders can help you build a business that not only does fantastic science but is also a commercial success.

When Lee Harland founded SciBite, he based the company on his pioneering work in artificial intelligence and data management within the Life Sciences. The commercial and financial side of the business was something that he felt he needed support with, so he partnered with Rob Greenwood, who brought his experience of global sales and operations’ management within the Life Sciences sector to help SciBite raise capital and grow.

3. Be careful who you listen to

Once you have decided to take the leap and start a company, you will probably find yourself drowning in advice and information about what you ‘should’ be doing. But all of our panellists’ companies started and grew in different ways, proving there is no single path to success.

4. Prepare to change directions

Expect your business model to evolve as you scale and grow. When Abel Ureta-Vidal started Eagle Genomics, they were a consultancy offering data analysis. But Abel soon realised that consultancies can be challenging to grow, so they pivoted towards developing software to meet their customers’ demands.

Juno Bio had a similar transformation. ‘Our business model evolved not because we were growing, but because we were trying to survive,’ says co-founder Hana Janebdar.

‘Deciding on your business model is really like just doing a bunch of experiments. You have a hypothesis; you test it out. It either works, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, it evolves into another version.’

5. Finding the money

There are lots of options for finding money to develop your technology, from venture capitalists to angel investors, alliances, accelerators, start-up challenges and grants. There are even investors out there who will back you even if your idea is not fully formed, such as Entrepreneur First.

For example, right now there are a lot of start-ups working on ways to grow ‘clean meat’ in the lab. These technologies are at a very early stage, and it’s not clear what their final products will be or who their customers are, but they are attracting plenty of funding.

6. Figure out the required balance between ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ science early

Digital companies can get off the ground in any location – including your bedroom or local coffee shop – but ‘wet’ lab-based technologies need facilities.

If you are currently working as a post-doc or PhD, it may be worth talking to your supervisor or about getting started with early experiments.

Another option is to apply to join an accelerator, incubator, or alliance to access wet lab space and support. The Illumina accelerator program and Pistoia Alliance are great examples of organisations that will help you get started.

7. You don’t have to move to Silicon Valley

Many budding entrepreneurs see Silicon Valley or Boston as the only places to launch a tech business because of the availability of funding and an established infrastructure that supports early businesses. But this isn’t a hard and fast rule.

‘What we’re seeing a lot these days is that companies will go to the Valley, stay there for three or four months to raise their money, and then set up their technical teams outside in Cambridge, London or wherever they’re from,’ says Hana Janebdar.

There is plenty of funding, great science, and talented people in major cities like Cambridge, London, Oxford, Paris, Berlin and Shanghai. Look out for opportunities in other European countries with fast-growing biotech sectors, such as Spain, the Netherlands and Denmark.

8. The rules might change mid-game

Genomics is still an emerging business area, with many companies straddling the fast-growing space encompassing healthcare, technology and wellness. As a result, legislators are struggling to keep up and regulation is still developing.

For example, in 2015, anyone in could set up a microbiome analysis company to sell to US customers, but laboratories must now be CLIA certified by the Government in order to accept human samples for diagnostic testing.

Regulation is becoming a bigger priority for genomics and will continue to get tighter as the sector grows. It’s essential to consider which rules are relevant to you, and how they might change in the future.

9. Your product might be worth more than you think

As a scientist, it can be hard to judge how much your ideas or technology are worth. Your cutting-edge science may feel so straightforward and familiar that there is a risk of under-valuing it.

It’s a good idea to go back to the original problem your technology is aiming to solve and ask how much the current situation is costing your customers in terms of money and staff-hours. For example, being able to run an experiment twice as fast represents a major saving in terms of costs and time.

Eagle Genomics’ Abel Ureta-Vidal also has some wise words for negotiating a price: ‘If you say the price and they don’t blink, it’s not high enough.’

10. Sell, sell, sell

Once you’ve developed a product, you need to sell it! Our panel recommended making the first sales yourself, as you’re the person who cares the most and knows the story inside out. If you need contacts at big companies to arrange sales meetings, look to your professional network or organisations like Plug and Play, who can connect you with the right people to talk to.

Rather than trying to sell the specifics of the technology, which may be bewildering without a lot of background explanation, focus on the value that your technology can deliver to your customer. Tell them how your company and your technology can help them achieve their scientific goals, save money and improve the lives of their users or patients.

Finally, what was clear from the discussion is that the most important thing to remember about starting a company is that you’re embarking on a personal journey. There are many different ways to run a successful business, but it’s worth taking the time and effort to build the one that works best for you.

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