When Prof Stefan Przyborski started ReInnervate, a spin-out company from his employer, Durham University, he realised that he’d have to become a salesman, too. The products? Cell culture technologies – and himself.
‘So you had to be “bold and get in front of people?’
‘Exactly! – But in a professional way, of course.’ Of course. Is there any other way to raise millions to support business development?
After a bit of communication tag I’m interviewing Stefan Przyborski, Professor of Cell Technology at Durham University and founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Reinnervate, on his mobile phone while he is driving to his next meeting. You get the feeling talking to Stefan that his life moves very fast, there’s lots going on and the pressure is not for sissies – and he likes it that way.
The conversation has turned to money, as it invariably does with business, more specifically to raising grants, loans and capital in the early days. Reinnervate was born as a spin-out from Durham University in 2002, on the back of new research into cell culture technology. While the field was nothing new, Stefan’s ability to offer quick, easy and relatively cheap cell products for 3D cell culture certainly was. He knew he was on to a winner and in the early days chose to lead the spin-out himself, rather than remain within academia.
Understanding the significance of Stefan’s work and valuing his on-going association with the university, Durham allowed him to buy out his time at an 80/20 split, spending one day a week undertaking academic work and leaving him four days to run the business. ‘But actually, it all rolls into the same thing seven days a week due to the nature of the research and work,’ acknowledges Stefan. ‘And the benefit of having that relationship enables me to recruit people from within the university, and have access to their facilities under a formal commercial agreement. It’s a good working model and everyone wins.’
The initial discoveries and research was done within the university using a council research grant. Stefan quickly got to grips with the funding options available and received Smart R&D Grants from the then Regional Development Agency. Then, in 2006, he got his break when he received a large commercial loan from CELS for about £400k. ‘With that the company was able to hire professional consultants and together we created a sound business proposition to raise venture capital from NStar Venture Capital.’ The company has since repeatedly raised money from NStar and high net worth people to the tune of about £8 million to enable building the business as it is today.
‘It all comes down to the individuals,’ believes Stefan. ‘When you’re looking for money you have to be very proactive, to be able to stand in front of people – some of whom you’d rather not ask – and to bring your technology and product to their attention. It means you have to be “out there”. You have to be bold!’
It’s not every academic that can be so bold, and wants to leave the relative comfort and safety of academia for the big, bad world of commerce. Stefan had no such qualms. ‘To really develop the business idea fully as a separate commercial entity it meant that I had to split my time from the university and be independent – to become completely involved in the business.’ Completely involved has meant working long days, nights and weekends, and travelling.
But Stefan clearly doesn’t regret his decision – his enthusiasm for the company is very apparent:
Let me tell you what we do. We develop technologies that are very simple but effective and can be used routinely to enhance the growth of cells in the lab. For example, cells naturally grow in three dimensions rather than the traditional two dimensions, which means that companies can obtain much more value from their cell-based assays than they could before. Previously, 3D cells weren’t readily available in an easy to use format. All that’s changing. Our trick is technology that allows you to do it easily and cost effectively.”
Reinnervate now manufactures and distributes two product ranges globally from their state of the art development and production facility in Sedgefield, County Durham: alvetex® 3D cell culture products that can provide more predictive and biologically relevant models; while ec23® offers stem cell and neurobiology researchers a stable, more potent alternative to ATRA.
The company has set up a network of 17 distributors worldwide, and recently signed Fisher Scientific – one of the largest scientific suppliers and research companies in the world – as their global distributor. The next goal? ‘Ultimately, our strategy is to partner with a big cell culture supply company so they will acquire Reinnervate. But to do that we must build value into the business through sales and development, partnering with other companies, and co-developing our technology.’
With 25 employees and a collaboration agreement with the university for eight people, mostly PhD students doing research that uses the technology developed in the business, the company has come a long way. And so has Stefan. ‘I had to learn a lot on the run. Looking back, the two main things I’d tell anyone thinking of starting a spin-out company are: raising a bigger lump sum of money upfront would have been helpful, as continually raising money in chunks took more time and effort and diluted the impact of what could be achieved more quickly; and be prepared to let things go and share with other people, not to control everything in the company. Initially I was the only person involved. Then it grew and we had a CEO and a Chairman, and I was no longer in control. I found that hard at first, but you have to trust others to make the right decisions. I learn a great deal from these people because they’ve got skills that I don’t have, particularly in the commercial and marketing side of the company. But also, there’s just not enough time to do it all yourself.
And as if on cue, Stefan arrives at his meeting before the interview is over. ‘Sorry, I’m busy for the rest of the day and tomorrow I’m in Germany. I could look at it over the weekend, though…’
Professor Stefan Przyborski is the founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Reinnervate, a biotechnology company founded in 2002 as a spinout from Durham University UK. The company is developing new and innovative ways to manage the growth and function of cultured cells. Its enabling technologies have multiple applications and will be particularly relevant to the control of cell differentiation and function in vitro. Professor Przyborski also holds an academic position as Professor in Cell Technology at Durham University. He has over 20 years experience in cell biology with specific interests in cell culture technology, neuroscience and stem cell research. In recent years he has developed a multi-disciplinary approach through collaborative projects with physical scientists to develop novel ways of solving biological problems. He has formed alliances with pharmaceutical and biotech companies, has published over 80 scientific papers and has filed several patents.