What does it take to resist convention, and start up a business straight out of uni? Victor Dillard, an MPhil Bioscience Enterprise graduate of Cambridge University, turned down two job offers with a prestigious pharmaceutical giant to start up his own enterprise; Desktop Genetics. Based at the East London Google Campus, Victor and co-founders Riley Doyle and Edward Perello are developing AutoCloneTM, a bioinformatics software platform for genetic engineering.
Victor has a varied background, having studied Chemical Engineering at Imperial College and worked at L’Oreal, Procter & Gamble, GSK and Flagship Ventures. He also has a t-shirt stating not the usual ‘Keep Calm, and Carry On’ but ‘Get Excited, and Make Things’.
Could you tell us more about how AutoCloneTM works?
Our core technology is a DNA search engine. A researcher can upload DNA sequences in their lab, input the sequence they want to make, and the software will search through all combinatorial assemblies of the DNA in our database to generate a cloning protocol for the desired sequence. On the back of this DNA search engine, modules and apps can be developed for biotech researchers and companies to create DNA molecules for metabolic engineering, antibody production and so on, or to design PCR primers or plasmids, for example.
How did the idea for your business come about?
Through experience. There is a lot of waste that happens during the molecular cloning process. Not material waste, but in terms of design strategy and man-hours. You’d be surprised how much you can recycle. If someone wants to clone a specific DNA into a vector, and the plasmid already exists in someone else’s freezer, the best way to clone is to not clone at all but rather open a freezer and use it.
At what point did your business plan really transition from being a theoretical idea to ‘real world’ business action?
Winning the Cambridge University Entrepreneurs (CUE) competition was the turning point for us. Submitting our plan actually felt like an academic exercise, whilst of course we hoped our idea would become real. Winning the prize money was the only way we could actually apply our idea to the commercial world.
How has Desktop Genetics evolved since winning the CUE competition?
We have spent our time developing the product, and are currently undergoing a beta test phase so we can expand the functionality of the software. Part of a Technology Strategy Board grant we were awarded has been dedicated to experimentally validating the algorithms we develop. To increase the value of our product, we want to collate sufficient experimental data backing the software, to help to elucidate the questions that prospective users may have, to know what works well, and what doesn’t.
Given your background is not in computer programming, how did you go about building a business product outside your area of expertise?
We took the time and space to develop the computer technology ourselves. We knew what we wanted from a scientific point of view, and all three of us having some form of biological background, it was easy to learn computer code to write the software – the other way around might not have been the same! However, as we have grown, we’ve boosted our expertise with contractors and, increasingly, full time developers to bring our vision to life.
Do you feel the bioinformatics market is partially limited by free, accessible tools on the web?
People will pay for great software. There are great free software tools and little apps that can transcribe RNA into DNA or design PCR primers, often developed by talented PhD students or Post-docs with limited time, resource and software expertise. We fully support this kind of work, but also see that a lot is poorly maintained, rapidly becoming “abandonware”.
However, a paid-for tool will be maintained, de-bugged, and can offer services on top of the prime purpose of the tool. Every day we ask ‘what is it that we are selling?’ and ‘how can we make the tool impact on research?’. We are designing our product around the people who will be using it. Where you can deliver added value, people will pay.
Nonetheless, there are a lot of options in software commercialization. You could create a freeware tool that generates valuable data, and consider ways to make money from that data. There are lots of different ways of selling software, for example, you can buy an app for free and make a purchase within that same app. The decision depends on your users and customers.
In August, Desktop Genetics secured £375,000 in funding. How will this investment be put to use?
Our fundraising has been critical, not just in monetary value, but also in terms of adding experienced investors to our Board. It really helps to have heavyweights backing you. These people believe in us, they believe in AutoClone, and we’re using that momentum to bring our technology to scientists, expand the team, hire people and setting up deals. We also get a kick out of creating jobs for the UK economy!
What inspired you to become an entrepreneur in biotech?
I have always wanted to run a company. During the time I was studying at Imperial College, Genzyme were acquired by drug giant Sanofi-Aventis for over $20 billion. It was at this point that I realised and understood you can do start-ups in biotech, and became increasingly excited about the biotech scene. During my MPhil in Bioscience Enterprise, I was reading business news every day, talking to people in the industry and really understanding the market. Being an entrepreneur is extremely rewarding, you have the freedom to learn like at university.
What would you say are the personal qualities needed to take a science idea and commercialise it?
You need enthusiasm, excitement and energy. I actually have a t-shirt my brother gave me, which says ‘Get Excited, and Make Things’. Perseverance is also important. When we entered the Cambridge University Entrepreneurs competition, we lost the first two stages of the three stage competition. The way it works is that you can submit a business plan at any of the stages. So we undertook more market research, worked hard and refined our original business plan. We realised we needed to focus, focus, focus. By persevering and doing just that, we attracted investors and users, eventually winning the final £7,500 prize.
Would you say that chance or luck can have a role in setting up a business?
I wouldn’t so much call this chance, but with insight, we took a last minute gamble and reshuffled an entire presentation we had been working on for three months, the night before delivering it at a prestigious business event. I also think that when you work hard, luck comes to you. It sounds cheesy, but the quote ‘ chance favours the prepared mind’ is very true. There might be some chance event that represents an incredible opportunity, but you need to be prepared to see it and seize it!
Do you have any particular advice for others considering biotech enterprise?
I would say to focus, focus, focus. Make a list of the top 5 things that you need to do each day. It sounds obvious, but it is hard to implement. Not because of laziness, but because of energy. Energy is our own worst enemy. You tend to bounce around everywhere, but you need to focus to survive.
You also need to get over an initial barrier. Parents often want to see you come out of university and work for a big company or institution; they don’t want to see you come out of university to sit on a sofa with a laptop. But if you really want to do this, it’s best to do it at an early stage, when you have very little responsibilities such as a family and a mortgage. University is a great place for students to explore their ideas, speak to a lot of people and network. Family and friends want you to succeed, it’s suprising what networks suddenly open up to you.
To find out more about what it’s like to initiate a start-up at university, see The Startup Codon series, written by DeskGen co-founder and colleague Edward Perello.