Interview with Vivienne Williams
This interview is reproduced from the original in Technology Ireland on 05/06/ 2009.
When she is not busy growing a company, Vivienne Williams likes to rock climb. After a full day at Cellix Ltd, she can often be spotted shinning up the climbing wall at Trinity College Dublin’s gym. It’s a healthy outlet from the sheer hard graft of building the university spin out, which makes test systems to mimic human veins in the lab.
Strategic commercial thinking has converted what began as an academic project into a business employing nine people. And with strong footholds in the market — several major pharmaceutical companies around the world now use their products — Cellix is on the ascent.
It all started back in 1999 when Williams began postgraduate research in microfluidics at Trinity with physicist Prof Igor Shvets and clinician Prof Dermot Kelleher. Growing up in Riverchapel in Wexford, Williams had harboured a passion for chemistry, physics and maths, and after a primary degree in experimental physics, research was an obvious path. But soon after she started the collaborative project in Trinity, the commercial potential of the “vein on a chip” started to shine through.
The Science Bit
“In a nutshell, we mimic human capillaries in plastic. So it’s like taking a blood vessel on a micro-scale from your arm, putting it under a microscope and looking at how cells flow and how they interact with the wall of the capillary,” explains Williams when we met at Cellix headquarters on the St James’s Hospital campus. “Traditionally, a lot of these experiments would have been done in bigger, bulkier settings or with animal models. But this is a very simple, robust, in vitro test that can replace those kids of experiments. And after about a year and a half, we though we might be able to make a go of this from a commercialisation point of view.”
So, in 2001, Williams and fellow Trinity researcher Dmitry Kashanin secured funding from Enterprise Ireland to develop the fledgling system. “We were at a point where we really needed to work on the technology and bring it to an alpha/beta product to see if we could sell it,” she explains. That product took shape as a pump to control the flow of a sample through the acrylic vein biochip under a microscope, while computer software interprets the results.
There were initial challenges. They had to keep the system simple and reproducible, and to weight up whether to licence the technology or spin out a company.
In the end, the company option won out, even though it was probably more difficult route, explains Williams. “I would have preferred licensing, but there was nobody willing to take it on at that point because it was still at a raw stage,” she says. “So we took a risk, as a lot of start up companies do.”
Mentored by a well experienced panel of scientific experts and entrepreneurs, Williams started wearing out shoeleather, meeting with potential investors to augment start-up funding. “A good piece of advice I got was start to build relationships with investors early on, way before you need the money,” she recalls. “So by the time you do ask for money, you are not introducing yourself for the first time and saying ‘I need a million euro please’.”
The chemistry also ahs to be right, she adds. “I fairly quickly came to the conclusion of who I didn’t want to work with – if you are going to work with these people on a bi-monthly basis for board meetings, you have to make sure you can communicate with them.”
She found the right fit with two venture capital firms – NCB Venture Capital in Dublin and Paris based OTC Asset Management – who to date have invested a combined €1.9 million in two funding rounds.
Getting to Market
In 2006, Cellix Ltd was incorporated, and Williams became the first employee, as CEO. With everything in place, thins started to happen quickly. The first sales came about within months, and one in particular was the knock of the door every start up dreams of, she recalls. “AstraZeneca found us on the internet, contacted us and asked for a demo, and then they bought a system. That was pure luck in some sense.”
From there, Cellix added more clients, included other heavy hitters like Pfizer, Sanofi-Aventis, Servier and Amgen, and the team developed the technology further, adding an optional robotic arm for handling multiple experiments.
The resulting system can help companies searching for suitable drug candidates to cut costs because it can handle tiny volumes of often expensive samples. Moreover, because it simulates human capillaries, it can eliminate false leads earlier and ensure a higher success rate for clinical trials, but this is still a hard message to sell, according to Williams. “[Pharma companies”] get people like us knocking in their door every second day saying ‘we can save you money,” she says.
Nevertheless, the company has grown to employ eight people in Dublin, including co-founders Dmitry Kashanin and Frank O’Dowd, and a representative based in New York, which Williams sees as an important reassurance for potential clients in the US. “They like to have somebody on the ground, they like to know there is someone there to hold their hand,” she explains.
And Williams has become well versed in the system’s target therapeutic areas such as cardiology, cancer treatment and immunology. “If you go into a room and present to a bunch of scientists, and you don’t know what you are talking about, they will rip you apart with joy in their eyes,” she says. “They love nothing more than a fresh salesperson to have with, its like cat and mouse, so I have most of that area well defined now.”
Also carefully defined is the intellectual property, which is based on the test techniques rather than the chip itself, according to Williams. “There are always new competitors cropping up, you have to be very careful but we have IP in the area so I think we are in a strong position.”
While Cellix has more products in the R&D pipeline, the focus now is firmly on building up sales and distribution networks for existing systems, and the company has turned to more cost effective email campaigns, targeting carefully chosen potential clients.
And with a bit of help from President Barack Obama, the online strategy is starting to spark more interest. “There have been announcements made about Obama’s stimulus package, and a lot of [respondents] are coming to us now and saying they are applying for a grand, so they are looking for a quotation for this system,” says Williams.
Despite the company’s rapid ascent, Williams doesn’t see herself an entrepreneur, and she is mindful of the long hours that have gone in scaling this far up the rock face. “Granted I have seen the success, but at the same time it has taken an awful lot of work.”
-Technology Ireland, 2009.