Updated: Aug 28, 2020
I sat down again with our CEO, Vivienne William’s, to hear the story of Cellix from her perspective. The path from university start-up to successful SME and the many turns along the way. Vivienne speaks of what influenced her business decisions, how she learnt to adapt, and how she deals with the world of business now.
What was it like running a university startup?
Well right at the start, one of our main investors said to me that a lot of companies actually end up doing different things to what they start with. I didn’t think that was me at the time but it's funny looking back at it now.
We actually started off really well, within a couple of months had big customers like AstraZeneca, NIH, Amgen, and others which was fantastic. We were selling [and still do sell] pumps and chips and integrated platforms for these customers. We enabled researchers to set up microenvironments to simulate human capillaries. You were able to seed these chips with human and primary cell lines and work towards drug discovery. But it was almost a bit of a false start.
We were convinced this was going to take off - it was around the time of the advent of the 3 Rs - reduce, replace and refine. In terms of chemicals and animal models, we thought our product was the perfect solution. Our tech works as a fantastic alternative to some commonly used animal models.
Then, of course, there was a crash in the economy. This caused a lot of companies to hold back from buying capital equipment. Also, companies who we thought were poised to take up our tech as an alternative to animal models, ended up moving their animal model research to China where they were able to do things they can’t do here.
We did successfully and still do sell the product but not as much as we’d hoped. Looking at our competitors at this time we could tell that they also weren’t growing so we weren’t losing customers to them. The problem was that the market is too small.
"It was a different technology and completely different industries to where we started. So that advice I was first given was actually right. We have pivoted."
There were a lot of ways we tried to crack it. Going to a wide variety of conferences. We didn’t just go to microtech conferences, we were going to ones for different disease areas as well. Thrombosis was one of our big areas we worked with pharma companies in.
Over the years, we decided that we had to diversify our portfolio into other areas. To develop new tech internally and bring some new tech in, we were then able to move into new markets.
In 2012 we developed the basis of impedance on-chip technology and started working in a B2B front rather than just selling products to customers. It still took several years to make the switch, it wasn't overnight. We still continued to focus on and sell our early product portfolio while also developing the new tech.
It was interesting because we needed the foundations we had developed in this other field over the years in order to move into the new one. It wouldn’t have been possible without the knowledge from these preceding steps.
It was a different technology and completely different industries to where we started. So that advice I was first given was actually right. We have pivoted.
So have the challenges facing Cellix changed with this pivot?
Yes definitely, because we’ve changed our business model. We used to be, and still are with pumps and chips, a business to customer model but our main focus now is business to business. So the challenges are different and the stage of development of the tech which we sell is different.
Now we’re selling at a tech development stage. This means we’re going to adapt it specifically for certain customers and as a result, we’re approaching customers much earlier in the process. We’ve had to change how we do business in terms of how we approach customers, where we approach them, what point in the tech development cycle we approach them, and so on. So the challenges are different.
"People were so eager to see what we had they were getting straight onto a plane and flying over to us. And then, of course, we signed a multi-million-euro contract on the back of it."
We’re spending more time now validating the market and the business case and doing our homework on the customer before we even approach them. There are challenges there, we’re a small team but they’re good challenges to have. We have good problems.
What I’ve noticed is that people are very hungry for the technology. The large corporations are much more approachable than I would have thought. Their door is open. And I think it’s probably a sign that we’re hitting the mark as well in terms of where we’re at in the development of our tech. It also shows that we’ve also done or homework in terms of matching our tech to the customer's needs and approaching the right customers. People were so eager to see what we had they were getting straight onto a plane and flying over to us. And then, of course, we signed a multi-million-euro contract on the back of it.