Climbing Everest: From Zero to One with a Life Science Startup
by Thomas Vanderstichele, Managing Director at the Science Entrepreneur Club
I spoke to Dr George Frodsham, founder and CEO of MediSieve, a startup seeking to revolutionise the treatment of blood-borne diseases with a novel magnetic blood filtration technology. He described his journey from a back-of-an-envelope idea to a £1.56m grant from Innovate UK, compared building a life science startup to scaling Mount Everest and offered some advice for those attempting the climb.
How did MediSieve start?
If you want to have an impact on the world then starting a company is one of the best ways to do it. If you think of all the truly world- or life-changing things that have happened to the human race, many of them have been done through business one way or another.
I would say I wanted to start a company from day one. During my masters, I had the idea of using magnets to remove bad cells from people’s blood to treat conditions. We regularly treat diseases, for example cancer or appendicitis, by surgically removing harmful tissue. Building a device which could remove specific cells in the bloodstream rather than whole tissues seemed a logical next step.
I convinced Professor Quentin Pankhurst, an expert in the clinical applications of magnets, to supervise my master’s research project in this area and this led to a PhD in the same field. By the end of my PhD I had a very basic prototype made and some data showing that it could work.
Why did you do a PhD instead of starting the company immediately?
Because it was the right option. At that point all I had was a crazy idea and I knew that I would need extensive resources to generate the proof of concept data. A university was the only option I had. Also Quentin, the expert in the field whom I had found during my masters, was willing to support and fund me to continue developing the technology. The idea turned out to be a lot more complex than when it was first drawn on the back of an envelope and needed to be carefully figured out. The decision was a no-brainer.
Where did you go after your PhD?
I managed to secure my first grant, which supported some final experiments and included a scholarship from the University to extend my PhD by a few months to investigate the commercial side of the idea. While I was doing this I managed to get a scholarship to the Entrepreneurship Summer School programme at the London Business School to help me launch the company. But the big breakthrough was winning an Enterprise Fellowship from the Royal Society of Edinburgh because it led to me getting a year’s salary and an injection of £10,000 into the company.
Six months later I had successfully spun out the company, signed the agreements with the University and taken control of the intellectual property. That was the day the company became something real rather than just something on paper.
What advice would you give to people starting a life science company?
Starting a life science company is difficult. The technology has a long route to market and the industry is very complex. The task in front of you can seem mountainous. I like to think of it like scaling Everest. To do that you first have to get to base camp, and getting to base camp is a ten-day walk. Only then, when you are at the base of the mountain, can you attempt to scale it.
You have to be incredibly pro-active in the beginning. You will never solve any of your problems from your bedroom. Speaking to people is probably the most important thing. Speak to as many people as possible, get as much advice as possible, and apply to every startup competition available. At MediSieve, the smallest grant we won was around £5,000 and the biggest was recently awarded at just under £1 million, and we have had everything in-between. This was all non-dilutive funding from charities and government grants, making it even better.
Some people say fail fast and fail cheap. If it is not going to work just stop and try something else. But I hate this advice because at the same time those same people say never give up. It is one or the other and the decision is yours. It might not work no matter what you do, but it definitely won’t work if you’re not determined.
Do you have any advice for approaching investors?
Firstly, communication is incredibly important and you have to practice it like anything else. Pitching to the fiftieth investor will be better than the first. Learn how to communicate your idea in a very clear manner. This is where I think most people struggle early on. Drip feed information to investors to keep them interested. Your first sentence to investors has to get them excited and explain what you do. The best thing is an investor who comes back for more information.
Follow up with an executive summary and then if they are still interested, your slide deck. Do not hand out your ten-page business plan in your first meeting. Try to gauge the interest of an investor early in the process. It is very frustrating when investors drag you along for a long time and it ends up being a no. When rejections inevitably occur, try not to be disheartened. Even if you are lucky, you will get nine nos for every yes.
Finally, remember that they are judging you more than they are judging the business. People often say they invest in people not businesses and that is, to a large degree, true.
How can we do more to encourage scientists to start companies?
It is about educating people about entrepreneurship and showing what is possible through success stories. There have been some really positive developments since I started out. But for some reason, people are really scared of starting a company. It is seen as jumping off a cliff, implying that everything goes horribly wrong. You are throwing your life away. You will lose your house. But this really is not true most of the time. Starting a company just means registering it online, opening a website and starting to talk to people. It actually does not cost anything much except time.
Then there is this negative image of the entrepreneur as someone who works 24/7 and has sacrificed their life to their company. Of course it is a big burden and does take a lot of work but it is not the only thing I have been doing with my life. There is an end to the work day and outside of work I have a life.
People are also scared of failure, but what is good is that we already have a positive culture that tolerates failure. What if I fail? Well who cares? At least you tried and have learnt something along the way.
What are the next big steps going forward for you?
Base camp is behind us. We just won two big grants and some equity investment. The team is set to double in size this quarter, and we are moving into larger offices and lab facilities. I think we have a clear understanding of what investors will want in the next round and we want to make the transition from startup to a real company with much more significant investment.
The Science Entrepreneur Club (SEC) is a non-profit organisation of curious minds that aims to explore and unite the life science ecosystem by educating, inspiring and connecting. We give scientific entrepreneurs a network and a platform to showcase their innovative technologies, find investors and accelerate their company.