A personal account of making the leap from research to starting a tech company…how I managed to commercialise my invention...and how the startup world looks through a scientist’s eyes
This post is about my career and experiences as a research postdoc, followed by my decision to pursue the dream of running my own business and how that worked out. If you want the short version – just watch the video below!
In this post, I’m going to try and give a quick overview of the last 5 years; so it’s going to be necessarily brief on individual events! I’m hoping to follow this up with a series of smaller, individual posts, discussing in more detail some of the issues I experienced and which should hopefully provide more context for this post.
Every startup journey is different and I don’t think mine is any more representative than anyone else’s. That said, I hope this post is instructive and maybe (if I’m lucky) this will be a fun read for anyone thinking of taking the same leap.
My Background in Research: Cancer, Biopharma and a host of others
In June 1996, I had just finished a 4-year degree program in biotechnology and I was looking at opportunities to do a PhD. A senior postdoc who was interviewing me gave me some great advice: “Don’t do one”. Given that I went ahead and completed a PhD. (with her as my supervisor), why do I think that was good advice today? Because the kind of single-minded attitude that accepts advice like that and thinks (“I’m gonna do one anyway”) has just the type of bloody-minded determination to get them through the tough times that every PhD. student experiences.
I think that advice is good to give to budding entrepreneurs as well: “don’t do it”, because it’s more difficult than probably anything else you’ll ever do; it’s fantastic and heart-breaking and exciting and lonely, all in equal measure, and the ones that hear that advice and plough ahead regardless are the ones who are more likely to succeed.
I initially started out as a cancer researcher at the National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology (NICB), located in Dublin City University (DCU). However, over several years, I moved away from cancer and branched more into biopharmaceutical research, particularly working in collaboration with Wyeth Biopharma (now Pfizer), where we focused on improving their cell line development processes.
Biopharmaceuticals are drugs that are manufactured from living cells that are grown in large vats – the majority of cells used are from the Ovary of a Chinese Hamster isolated in the 1950s (no joke) and improving the productivity of this “CHO” cell is the overall goal.
Biopharma has a large presence in Ireland, with companies like Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Biomarin and Sanofi Genzyme all having extensive operations. The sector is vital for the Irish economy, making up ~50% of Irish exports per annum and is expected to grow to $386.9 billion by the end of 2019, making it the fastest growing sector in Ireland .
We conducted this research principally as part of an 8-year research program with Pfizer (initially Wyeth Biopharma), which was funded to the tune of over €6M by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and involved Pfizer’s Bio-Manufacturing Sciences Group at Grange Castle, Clondalkin and their Bioprocess R&D Group, located in Andover, an hour’s drive north of Boston, USA.
One of the most interesting bioinformatics projects I worked on for Pfizer was developing a predictive model of productivity for their CHO cell lines, which we published in 2011 in the academic Journal of Biotechnology ("Predicting cell-specific productivity from CHO gene expression"). This was what we could call a “dimension reduction” problem – where you have lots of data points (in this case, gene expression data) that you’re trying to link to a single parameter (in this case “productivity”). Using a combination of the microarrays and our bioinformatics techniques, we could predict how productive a cell line was going to be to within 4 pg units (out of a typical range of 1-50 pg/cell/day).
This was early-stage stuff; we didn’t see this translated into being used for selecting individual cells for cell line development, but it did provide some proof of an important concept - that we could predict, at an early point, which individual cells were likely to exhibit the desired characteristics for a good-quality bioprocess – the emphasis being that these should be the ones to be taken further to eventually deliver a product that would be used as a medical product.
Stage 2: Escaping the Ivory Tower!
This “predictive-productivity” study got me thinking; what other possibilities could this type of “big data-small predictions” be used for? (if a picture of Brad Pitt doesn't keep you interested, I don't know what will....)
My combined interests of sports and statistics led me inexorably to books like “Soccernomics”, “The Numbers Game” and the peerless “Moneyball” and from that to my own “eureka!” moment (for my more sensitive readers, no baths were involved…) - I could use my bioinformatics skills to build a predictive model for football players, by using player performance information already collected by sports data firms.
Thus was born the “Beat Your Manager! Fantasy Football” game, which I pitched (in early 2012) to Enterprise Ireland, who were running a new Entrepreneur Development programme (called New Frontiers), in tandem with DCU’s Technology Transfer office Invent and Dundalk Institute of Technology. They loved the idea and accepted me onto the program, beginning in March 2012.
It was under New Frontiers that I had my 2nd major insight: by tracking user activity, the game would be the first product to deliver real-time consumer information on what fans are thinking about the live game (or “fanalytics”).
With this, I felt I had a new business model; instead of trying to make money from game users, I would sell their behavioral data (most popular lineups, substitutions, formations, etc.) to key stakeholders in the sports industry; including broadcasters, betting companies, clubs/franchises, sporting associations, sportswear companies and drinks companies.
When I started New Frontiers, I had to leave my job to work on the business full-time. During this stage (and until the course finished in Feb. 2013), my main business location was in Invent's startup incubator space. As a combination, I can’t speak highly enough of E.I., the New Frontiers program or Invent. On a simple level, just being given the time and space to develop your business idea and your confidence in a new endeavor was critical. Making a jump like this is so daunting; having sound supports, good advice and realistic criticism is vital to making your dreams a reality.
I started my company (“Beat Your Manager! Fantasy Games Ltd.”) in Sept.2012 and successfully received Feasibility funding from Fingal County Enterprise Board (CEB) to develop the scoring algorithms and a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), which included a “Fanalytics Dashboard” for analysing fan data. I hired the excellent software application & development company NearForm to develop the game as a web-hosted smartphone app which we launched for testing.
On the back of the MVP test, I successfully achieved €50,000 Competitive Start seed funding from Enterprise Ireland; this put me squarely on E.I. commercialisation route as a pre-HPSU (High Potential Start Up).
This allowed me (with NearForm again doing the coding) to develop and launch an improved version of the Game (ver1.0) for iPhone, Android and web, as well as an updated Dashboard for the following 2013/4 English Premier League season.
With assistance from the games marketing company ScragglyDogGames, the launch was well-covered in the regular media, with very supportive reviews from Silicon Republic, RTE News and The Irish Examiner, as well as a host of games-related media outlets.
With the Game operational, I expanded the userbase to over 15,000 registered players and attracted the national radio station NewstalkFM as a broadcast partner, as well as 14 fan websites (including EPL Index, Chelsea in America and LFC Daytrippers), with a combined total of 1 million (monthly) website visitors.
Additionally, former Ireland/USA Rugby coach Eddie O’Sullivan joined my company’s advisory board and I also recruited a full-time Chief Technical Officer (CTO) to oversee product development and improve the company website (which was initially built by a family friend). I also received additional mentorship from Dublin Business Innovation Centre (DBIC) under their “Client Assistance Program for Early-Stage Business Startups and Developing Businesses”:
The Game was also a runner-up in the 2013 AIB Jumpstart competition, Vodafone Startup Awards 2013 and The Irish Times 2013 FUSION program. In Dec. 2013, the game was also profiled on George Hook’s “Kickstart Your Business” radio show – you can listen to a recording of the interview here:
Stage 3: The Road Back
To cut a very long story short; after that, not a lot happened for a long time. I struggled to find a paying customer and without a defined income, I didn’t feel I could reasonably approach VCs for investment. I operated the game until the end of May 2014 and then had to shut it down. I continued to seek commercial clients, as well as contracts for other sports events (the game format works for any team-based sport) and I kept in touch with a few of the venture capital funds that had expressed an interest, but in the absence of a compelling source of revenue, I didn’t feel ready to take the business to a stage where I was willing to ask for investment.
While I was pursuing my startup business, I also completed a Graduate Certificate in Digital Marketing with DCU Business School, my first formal business qualification. I had additionally received lots of training during the 15months of the New Frontiers program (topics covered included: Building an Investible Team, Business Models, Business Planning, Business Valuation, Competitor Analysis, Customer Acquisition Techniques, Customer Development, Financial Basics and Key Metrics, Intellectual property, Legal Issues, Market Research, Market Validation, Negotiating, Presentation Skills, Pricing, Product Design & Development, Marketing Plans, Route to market, Sales Leads Generation and Sales Process).
My new qualification and training (as well as the experience of trying to get a startup business off the ground) gave me a very different perspective on research – I now started to look at science much more from a commercial standpoint; examining its utility and I became interested in the best way to translate basic research into usuable commercial products.
By January 2015, I had returned to the NICB part-time as a senior researcher, with a renewed focus on research projects and industrial collaborations that had a specific commercial element. I felt that over the previous 2.5 years, I had developed immeasurably as a scientist and had acquired business insights that I would have been unlikely to have attained if I had just progressed on a standard postdoc career path.
The first big change I helped implement was the redevelopment of the NICB’s website, incorporating a blog (that you’re reading right now) and also the creation of a range of social media assets (Twitter, Youtube, Linkedin, Google Plus, Flickr) which are aimed to help spread the message of the NICB’s activities, mission and values.
The projects I am engaged on have also tended to be more commercially-focused: for example we are developing a new Conditioned Medium (CM)-based growth supplement for cloning of CHO cells for production of biopharmaceuticals – I can’t think of a better example of coming full circle!
I’m also working on promoting sales of NICB’s flagship hybridoma media product Briclone as well as developing a serum-free version, so as to access customers/markets that demand animal-free products.
I’m also commercialising NICB’s really exciting microRNA technology DECOY-7, which has application in improving upstream cell line development for biopharmaceutical production.
So, it’s all going well right now – even my startup has had a happy ending, as my game was recently (end Jan. 2017) licensed by the sports marketing company Sportego, who will operate the product (with a commercial partner) as a fantasy game for the 2017/8 English Premier League season.
Sportego are a Kilkenny-based fan engagement startup that specialises in sports analytics and social media activation for clubs, fans and sponsors with a client base that includes the SSE Airtricity League, British & Irish Lions, Bournemouth FC and West Bromwich Albion FC. They were previously profiled in Silicon Republic, SportTechie and StartUs magazine and their prospects have undergone a huge upward trajectory, as more recent reviews in The Irish Independent, Silicon Republic and Sport for Business demonstrate.
I’m delighted to be working with them and I hope that there’s a bright future for the game yet – watch this space!
When I think back over the last 5 years of my life and career, I can't but be reminded of the T. S. Eliot line: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time".
And maybe I don't really agree with the advice I gave in the beginning of this post; if you have a business idea, even if its not in the area you usually work, and you really feel passionately about it; DO try to make it happen. The journey will be long and challenging, there'll be times you'll feel on top of the world and others when you'll wish you'd never taken that first step. The future will be risky and the road unclear.
But, most likely, the experience will be worth the sacrifice and you'll never be the same person again.
Update: This blog post was profiled in an article in the Irish Times Innovation section on Apr. 27th 2017