Founder & CEO of BioMavericks;
Postdoctoral Research Associate
at The University of Cambridge
by the p2i Network
Dr Andrew Guo
It would be great if initially, you could give us a snapshot of your entrepreneurial venture and what it brings to the world. What problem are you solving, and what solution are you providing?
“I set up our startup business, BioMavericks, in the middle of 2020. We focus on detecting cancers earlier than current tests can using single cell technology. We are developing a multi-cancer early detection platform that can not only identify cancers earlier than current tests, but also provide new insights into their clinical implications, which ultimately leads to personalised medicine. We do this by combining liquid biopsy and advanced single cell technology.
Unlike other companies who focus on detecting biological markers that are usually detected at a very late stage of cancers, and also vary due to the individual differences, we focus on the transcriptomic features of the circulating tumour cells (CTCs) and their immune compartments in early cancer patients at single-cell resolution. In the last couple of months, we established a collaboration with a professor at UCL and began using the resources at MedCity in London, which is a small grant to start with. We also established our team with two co-founders and also one intern student at Cambridge University.”
How did you come up with your initial idea and has it changed compared to what your venture does now?
“Yes, it's changed dramatically. At the beginning, we believed that we needed to focus on one specific type of cell in the blood, which is the strength of the single cell technology. However, after discussing with quite a lot of professors and also experts at Manchester University and other universities, we believe that these types of cells will only occur at a very late stage of the disease rather than at the early stage.
So rather than focus on one particular cell type, we focus on generating the unique transcriptomic profile of immuno cell types in the blood and in the cancer tissue of the patient. This enables us to identify specific biomarkers, which we detect with high sensitivity and specificity. Our solution can provide new information on the molecular characteristics of cancer cells and infer tumour locations and metastasis sites.
Therefore, in that sense we changed dramatically, but we still focus on cancer - either the diagnosis of cancer or the research into cancer.”
Why is it the right time for this problem to be solved?
“Now is the right time because we believe that the advancements of the technology - the next generation sequencing and liquid based biopsy is now at a very low cost and fast turnaround. Also the high volume of the sequencing information will help interpret the data from the multi-omics that we generate.”
Who does your team consist of and how did you create your team (co-founder and first employees)?
“I met my first co-founder a couple years ago when we were still at Cambridge University and that co-founder, Cathay Gu, already had a very strong business mindset because she had previous start-up experience of her own. She joined our team alongside an intern student who is at the department of cancer genetics at University of Cambridge, and who is kindly willing to help. We have a collaborator at UCL we met during one of the sessions at MedCity who provided us with the funds - we have a shared interest in pancreatic cancer. We have two advisors which we met during the business plan competition - both of them are from Addenbrooke’s University Hospital. We also have one mentor at the Cambridge Judge Business School who we met during our time as part of the Accelerate Cambridge program.”
Is there a recent achievement you are especially proud of?
“The collaborative funds approved at MedCity is the most exciting thing we achieved during the last year of the start-up. As a very early stage company, it was obvious that we had quite a lot of difficulties at the beginning. However one of the founders still believed that our thinking of using the single cell technology in the cancer diagnosis has potential value, so we got a grant at Med City to initiate our collaboration with UCL.”
What has been the biggest challenge you faced and how have you or are you overcoming this challenge?
“I think the biggest challenge I face is actually the fact that people come and go. At the beginning there were four people and now we have two or three; because people believe that it's too early to tell if we will succeed, and they may have different opinions. So I have to talk to different people and participate in a variety of events to meet new people.”
Did you always know that you wanted to start a venture?
“No, not until we registered the company. Before that, we just kept an open mind and to see whether or not we wanted to establish the company.”
In your opinion, what are the similarities and differences between researchers in Academia and researchers turned start up founders?
“I think the similarities between research and business is that they both require strong interest and determination. But there are differences because for the business parts, you need to think more comprehensively and not only focus on the science or technology. You have to learn to make decisions which are not just purely about the scientific advancements. You also need to focus on the market, the business opportunities and especially the customer needs. That is obviously not required when doing research.”
What were the skills you already had as a researcher that helped you with your journey and what skills did you/do you need to learn?
“I think the scientific and technical skills help me with my business greatly, but in business we cannot just say: “when you have the technology, you have everything”. You need to have quite a lot of support for the business side, for example the market analysis, the sales traction and many other aspects.”
Can you list a few aspects (mindset, skills and competencies) you have observed in yourself after participating in the p2i opportunities, and how has this has helped you in your entrepreneurial ventures?
“The p2i course really helped initiate our start-up business, starting from scratch - initial ideas all the way to real payments from customers and funders. For the mindset, I would say that determination really helps to start a business. Also, learning how to confront problems, to approach different people, with different skills/experience - which I never did during my postdoc research. As for the skills part, I think it has been learning to talk to different people and to gather a lot of resources which are critical for the business opportunity.
I think I still need to learn quite a lot. There are differences between how it is described in books and the p2i online course, and the reality. For example, seeking a collaboration is never as easy as the guidelines lay out. It is actually about the interaction between you and the collaborator, and the collaborator’s needs, which reflects the difference between the theoretical and the practical aspects I think.”
Did you think that the p2i online course helped you with the business plan competition?
“Yes definitely, because before we joined the business plan competition we didn’t actually have a very clear idea of what we needed to put into the business plan. Thanks to this online course, we found a way to fill in the blanks of the business plan. During the business plan competition process, whenever we found it difficult, we actually approached different people to get answers. This allowed us to improve our business in the process of the preparation.”
What/who gave you the confidence to start a venture?
“The confidence was the support from our co-founder. The scientific readiness also gave me the confidence of starting up this business.”
Would you recommend engaging in entrepreneurial activities to other researchers? Can you explain why?
“Yes, I believe it is a great idea and a good opportunity to broaden their horizon of thinking widely - not only about the research - but also the thinking about whether their research can be translated to applications in the clinic or applications in other real world settings.”
What would you say to postdocs who want to pursue an academic career and perceive entrepreneurial activities as a shift away from their academic goals?
“I would say keeping an open mind is very critical because you never know what the future might bring.”
Did you have a supportive PI while you were starting your venture or did they need to be convinced that this would be a great opportunity for you, them and the research team? If they were hesitant, how did you convince them?
“Well not at the beginning, but by the end I involved my PI in the process. I believe there were quite a lot of failing points which made my PI more uncomfortable, so we had to find ways to solve each one of the problems ourselves at the beginning. In the end, of course, we needed the support from our PI.”
What do you consider as key messages or takeaways from the p2i course/event for postdocs wishing to start their own venture?
“I think the most important information from the p2i course is actually all the basics in business which gave me a broad picture of what’s involved in starting a business and what’s required from me to create the start up. A critical mindset for creating a start-up business is also essential because when we do research in the lab, it kind of depends on ourselves alone, but in business it's actually about teamwork. It's not about individual researchers. Of course, there are major contributors, but they need to work together properly and to share ideas between each other.”
What are the top skills you would encourage a new founder to develop?
“I think the top skills to develop should be related to business and finance. Most postdocs heavily focus on the science aspects. The science is very important and it serves as the heart of a technology startup business, but without any other support to develop the business side it's just a piece of science or technology; it will not be brought to the market and to the end users. Founders also need to be involved in the financing/funding side so that they can move quickly.”
Is there anything you would have done differently in hindsight?
“I think that if we could have had more time to develop our technology then it would be a higher technical readiness level, allowing us to get more funds. Also, we believe that there are quite a lot of resources we need but we cannot secure, simply because we are at a very early stage.
For example we have a lack of people, professional expertise and, most importantly, the financing. So if we were able to secure more resources to start with, we would be further ahead.”
Is there any advice / parting pearls of wisdom you would give to someone at the beginning of their journey?
“The most important thing is to really keep an open mind because you never know whether, for example, you are suitable for starting a business or staying in academia. It's actually about the plasticity of people to be able to focus on different things I think.
When you're a founder you cannot just give up easily. I think determination is another great skill which helps when you come across any adversities that your start-up business brings.”
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