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Spin-Outs and SME's: The Secret To Disruptive Innovation

Updated: Aug 28, 2020

In another interview with Cellix CEO, Vivienne Williams, we cover the importance of university spin-outs and dealing with the challenges presented to her. Vivienne speaks of how she and Dmitry Kashanin (co-founder of Cellix) grew personally from growing a university start-up into the successful SME it is now. As part of the Disruptive Technologies Innovation Fund (DTIF), Cellix will lead a €5M consortium with its partners at TCD and NUIG to develop a Microfluidic Gene Transfection Cell Analysis and Sorting Platform (GTCASP).


How do university spin-outs and SMEs fit into the wider biotech community?

A significant proportion of technologies are actually licensed from universities. Even those that are still at the patent stage and are just an idea. Normally you need to see a proof of concept or prototype before they are licensed but you see patents being licensed even still.

So what happens in universities is crucial, it’s where a lot of the very cutting edge research happens.

In the grander ecosystem, SMEs sit in between universities and corporations/multinationals. SMEs often take on some of the IP or technology from universities and start to validate it and do proof of concept studies. Then SMEs look for partners to scale it up in the industry.

Obviously, we are a commercial organisation but I believe we are more innovative than the larger companies. And that’s well known, it’s why larger companies acquire smaller ones - they acquire them for their tech. In a way, that’s the life cycle of tech development.


"That was a big eye-opener for us. The difference between how large organisations work in tech development verses how we work."


What advantages are there to being a SME rather than a large corporate?

I think part of the beauty of being a small company is that we can actually adapt very quickly. From working with the large corporates (particularly with some of our bigger projects at the moment) we’ve learnt that they struggle to move quickly.

I remember one project we were working with a large partner and they sent us one of their flow cytometers. Within a day I walked past the lab and noticed Dmitry had the whole thing opened and was in there with a screwdriver. This was a piece of equipment worth $150,000!

Not long after, someone from the company actually came round to our lab and told us he thought it was amazing. Saying that, in their company, the amount of paperwork required to make adjustments or integrate different things would be insane, it would never get done!

That was a big eye-opener for us. The difference between how large organisations work in tech development verses how we work. We are by nature an academic spin out and because of that, we are very experimental and agile in terms of our approach.


"It’s not just about how good the tech is, that has to be excellent no matter what. It's all the other things on top of it that matter as well, market conditions, how crucial the team is. We probably underestimated those things at the start."


How have you and Dmitry grown personally from creating Cellix and building it into the company it is now?

We had to develop grit. I’d say now, that when we started, we were quite naive. We thought we would be selling so many products and it would be wonderful. But things didn't work out as easily as we had imagined and we were met with plenty of problems initially.

When you come from the academic community — particularly if you’re someone as smart as Dmitry — you put your mind to it, you understand the physics, you develop something, and that's it. But business is totally different, it can be very unpredictable.

We entered a world that we just weren't used to and it was definitely a culture shock for us. It took a good few years to find our feet.