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Desktop Genetics

About

Inspired by the colourful remarks of frustrated bench-scientist colleagues, and seeing the urgent need for software innovation in life science research, three University of Cambridge postgrads: Riley, Edward, and Victor set out to find a better way to do Biology.

Diving into DNA assembly, genome editing technologies and CRISPR/Cas9, they called themselves Desktop Genetics. Based in London, their company has grown to an 11-strong outfit staffed by a dedicated team of life science experts and software engineers – fluent in the languages of cloning and coding. Today their CRISPR software simplifies one of the most complex and important techniques in biotech, and they offer their customers easy access to important service providers across the entire world.

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www.deskgen.com

12 October 2015

What inspired the creation of Desktop Genetics?

Riley Doyle: It started with our frustration with the way new medicines are developed and brought to market. It’s an incredibly inefficient process and we saw many opportunities for software and better tools to come in and really make that an effective process.

Our course at Cambridge was basically about the business of Pharma, and as we went through it we realised that we didn’t want to start a new Pharma company until there was a fundamental change in the underlying toolkit that was available. We felt like there was a really great opportunity for software to come in and make the enormous amount of data management that has to happen in the lab an easier process, because the reality is that so much of Pharma right now is actually outsourced. Now you can literally sit at your desktop and run a Pharma company, but it is currently a very painful process. To enable that for people, the IT infrastructure needs to connect all the pieces together.

All this is especially true when it comes to tools for CRISPR genome editing, a relatively young technology that is moving fast and changing how biologists ask and answer questions. There are no quality CRISPR tools that work for the scientist – rather there are just a lot that slow them down. Not only are we building the best platform for this technology, but we are also letting any biologist – academic or commercial – outsource experiments to the people who can deliver results to them, through us, without setting foot into the lab. We call it “literal desktop genetics”.

Edward Perello: We also agreed on the importance of augmenting a benchtop scientist’s abilities with better technologies for more productivity. The average software developer outputs 10,000 lines of quality code every year, and this has held true since the 1970s. Despite this, today’s developers are producing more complex, more useful things than ever before and that’s not because they’ve suddenly gotten better at writing 10,000 lines. It’s because the tools that are available to them have improved.

When you look at biology there’s a parallel. If you provide biologists with great tools that allow them to do more complex things you’ll see advancement in the field. We’re at this inflection point right now where there’s a lot of enabling technologies finally coming into place and we saw that the time was right to bring biotech into the digital, cloud-enabled age.

What were the critical factors that might have influenced investment decisions in Desktop Genetics?

Riley: Well, I think as always in the early stages, the team is paramount in most investors’ minds because the product will evolve, the business plan will evolve, but it’s about people executing that business plan, especially in the beginning.

Victor Dillard: That’s been a big focus for us for the past three years – the people we’ve surrounded ourselves with – our team, our advisors, investors, and customers. We’ve been careful about who we work with, and it’s paid off.

“We’re at this inflection point right now where there’s a lot of enabling technologies in place and we saw that the time was right to bring biotech into the digital, cloud-enabled age.”

Are there any other investment factors aside from the team that you’ve focussed on?

Riley: Well, I will generally say that there are two key inflection points in terms of getting traction with investors. The first in our previous funding round was, once you have something visible that you can show people – specifically the visual UI, or an interactive prototype of some form – it moves a lot of conversations forward – dramatically.

The next key point is getting a serial entrepreneur, or an experienced entrepreneur – ideally one with a high profile in your industry. This is actually what we call ‘smart money’, and that will open up a lot of doors because people don’t just invest, they go with the best. They usually invest in groups and it’s a very, very small world, and that network effect is quite powerful.

There was a report recently in Deloitte about start-ups that said, the most important thing to be able to effectively scale up is experienced leadership.

Riley: Experienced leadership is certainly important, but you’re also trying to create a new business model. You’re not trying to execute an existing business. You want the experiences in your advisory team. You want these people who can support the leaders who bring the passion and the day-to-day execution and gather talent and persuade people to turn down jobs at Google and come work for them. You want them to be supportive because there are a lot of land mines we have to watch out for. Having an advisor who has been down the road as a seasoned veteran, like our chairman, helps tremendously.

Victor: When you start a business, when you have a young management team, everything is new. With the help of experienced investors, and a strong professional network, which we are all fortunate enough to have, you can just grease your way through the inevitable slowdowns for many standard issues like employment templates and licensing. That way you can just climb upwards and you can focus the energy on exploration in the areas where you need it most.

Riley: And this is important. You take it for granted when you work for an established business; the cleaner, internet connection, phone, business cards – you get all these things because they all just magically happen in the background. But actually, there’s an entire organisation behind all of these operational things that happen.

We thought we did a pretty good job, and we did our due diligence on that first big funding round. But there was still a whole laundry list we had to get through in terms of key man insurance, employment contracts, IP assignments, and really, just paperwork. And if you were to have to go out and hire an army of accountants and lawyers to do this for you, you’d still have a tremendous amount of work to do yourself.

COO, Victor Dillard
COO, Victor Dillard

Has looking at other competitors been a concern for your own business model? How has it affected your decisions as a company?

Edward: Of course. It should be a concern for any industry, and if you’re not the best or second best you’re doing something wrong. But when you look at software, especially in biotech, a lot of the competitors come from academic laboratories. There are a lot of great tools out there, but they can be improved upon in many ways. So we look at those, and we are inspired by them. We also look at our commercial competitors, which are great to have because we see that as validation of what we’re doing. Other people are trying to do it but we’re getting it right and can do it better.

“Having an advisor who has been down the road as a seasoned veteran, like our chairman, helps tremendously.”

How has the user experience and understanding audience needs affected your work?

Riley: Average users want a clean, simple user experience and we feel the same applies to applied sciences. Scientists don’t want to have to go and source different components from IP and different chemicals from thousands of suppliers to assemble them together. What you want is to have everything integrated and put together.

For a lot of academic tools, you can download their source code, and get it set up on your server. But people don’t do that, unless they’re a graduate who’s researching it or they have their own IT staff to do it for them.

I think that if you look at what’s happened, our world today has just become increasingly complicated and one of the main thrusts of design right now is to simplify things as much as possible. Take Instagram, for example, which allows you to apply filters and manipulate photos but in a much more restricted way. When it came out, people said “that’s a horrible piece of photo editing software – that will never sell”. But its not about that right? It’s about a simple focussed experience that’s not encumbered by all this complex baggage.

How do you use social media to your advantage, especially with such a niche target audience?

Edward: So, you might think that scientists are a little bit slow on embracing the use of social media. It was my assumption when we started that they’re only going to be really active on PubMed, forums and other specific industry networks. But it turns out that on social media they are louder than the average user.

Victor: They like to talk with one another, they like to talk about the papers that they’ve found. So they’re all on Twitter, and they’re very responsive. They are responsive because it’s essentially just like having a virtual conference 24/7.

Edward: If you find something interesting and you publish it, then you’re going to put that on Twitter or Facebook to let your peers know about it. The business-savvy ones will be putting it out into LinkedIn. LinkedIn is very important for the business side of the biotech industry.

There are a lot of groups out there that are focused on specific technologies, so it becomes quite easy to go and find potential users/customers. It’s an important channel for us.

It’s also been important to define the messages that are specific to each audience. This is something we started doing more recently. The academics are quite easy; we know what they’re after. It’s a certain set of features. For commercial clients, they’re looking more for services.

And we have to link those two needs together. I’d say it’s probably one of the bigger challenges that we’ve faced – having all these separate business units. At this point we understand that our best option for academics is to provide free tools and work collaboratively with them. We’re now rolling out strategies to other sectors of the business as well. It’s part of a wider re-organisation as we grow.

CBO, Edward Perello
CBO, Edward Perello

How do you approach your product messaging for your varied audiences?

Riley: In the commercial sector, we’ve described our product by saying “what we make is like the Bloomberg terminal for biotech”. But you can’t go to academic scientists and say “Bloomberg terminal”. They have no idea what you’re talking about – it just doesn’t resonate with them. The academics are much more about sharing and openness. They demand a lot of transparency in their product and they are always trying to do new things that can get published. And you don’t get published recreating someone’s experiment. Whereas, the commercial users just don’t want that much innovation, actually. They want to recreate what the best paper did.

Victor: The other thing is, in terms of a user percentage, some people might lump all the scientists together but you can’t do that. It’s still actually a very fragmented industry. When we started the company, we went after all of the life sciences labs, whereas now we focus specifically on scientists who use the CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technique. And even then, we still have to craft our messages depending on what the application is. So we need to look at whether we’re speaking to cancer biologists, neurobiologists, or to scientists who work with different types of organisms or even animals, and tailor the message accordingly.

Edward: The audience changes even beyond that. We’ve just been talking about the product, but when we talk about the company, we also have to talk to our other audience, which are the software developers we recruit.

Our company operates at the intersection of biology and software, so we need to bring in talented software developers and train them in biology. So we need to communicate what we do in a way that’s definitely attractive to people who write code and might be used to developing apps for Fin Tech for example, and we need to convince them about getting into the world of modifying cells and playing with DNA.

Does that make your hiring process more difficult than usual?

Riley: Yes. And to be perfectly frank, we try to recruit people who can assimilate things fast. That’s what I think is probably the number one selection criteria, because everyone, regardless of their background, has to assimilate one new piece of this. No one has all of the pieces; everyone has had to learn something, and will continue to have to learn something because of the complexity of the field – we’re talking about literally going in and being able to rewrite the human genome. This thing is evolving incredibly quickly since the first papers came out in 2013, and everyone is learning in this industry. Learning and teaching are very fundamental.

Edward: Today, just to learn the fundamental CRISPR technology that we work with, you may have to read seven papers a day. If you already read all of the ones already, then you’d be reading around three and a half just to catch up for everything published so far. It has an enormous impact on the content strategy – massive – and it’s fundamental to every activity in the business right now.

“. . . to be perfectly frank, we try to recruit people who can assimilate things fast. That’s what I think is probably the number one selection criteria . . .”

How do you convey a sense of ethics in your company messaging and its operations?

Riley: I think one of the biggest challenges that the life sciences industries face is that they haven’t historically done such a good job engaging in public education.

Edward: It’s important to have an informed conversation with the public, but that can be hard, as we’ve seen, because the subject matter is so complex and requires tremendous background knowledge to appreciate.

We do talk at some events about this from time to time, but generally, I think everyone at the company is on board with the responsible use of the technology that we’re developing.

For instance, just the other day, a potential client asked us to do something which we didn’t agree with, and we told him “no”.

Victor: It’s actually a really interesting topic that is changing all the time because there was a paper earlier this year in which a Chinese lab used CRISPR technology to modify human embryos to investigate a cure for beta thalassemia. This could make genetically-modified humans, so you can imagine the stir.

CEO and Technical Lead, Riley Doyle
CEO and Technical Lead, Riley Doyle

Technology is extremely dynamic in nature and moves at an astronomical pace. In such a scenario, what are your long term business objectives?

Riley: I think we’re at a really exciting time in the industry right now where you’ve got these digital natives who are coming into the life sciences and expecting better tools. They don’t find them so they build them. It’s transforming the way we discover new medicine, and when you couple that transition with this genome editing technology where we’re actually going in to do precise edits in human and other mammalian and plant cells, you can now start tackling some really serious diseases, which is really powerful. You can go in and address a disease at its root cause.

Victor: In terms of long-term vision for the business, I wouldn’t say it necessarily evolves over time, but it gets clarified and it builds. We’re all really excited about what software can do to the biotech industry – how people set up new companies, and how they achieve a lot more ground for a lot less money and time.

Edward: There’s a great photo back in the 1950s of ENIAC which is the world’s first general-purpose computer. It’s like 30 tons, 5 million hand-soldered connections – it’s huge. In the photo there’s a guy in a white lab coat standing next to it. I like to show that next to a photo of what a molecular biology lab looks like today, which is a bunch of people in white coats with big machines. At the time people didn’t appreciate the potential for computers. Most don’t appreciate biology today. I think there will be a similar evolution from big, costly machines to small personal devices, centralised services, and cloud enabled workflows. We’re actually always coming back to this idea of “literal desktop genetics”.

What is your strategy to create brand awareness?

Victor: One of the things we treasure most in our industry is face-to-face meetings. You have to have them because it’s not speed of execution or computation, it’s actually speed of decision-making and attention that holds it back.

In our industry also there’s a lot of trust that comes from meeting face-to-face. Scientists interact with each other a lot and, especially with these new technologies, people want to hear from you and talk to you directly and design experiments together and get up on the whiteboard together and start sketching experiments.

Talking about education, our market only grows as fast as we can educate it. The more we educate people, the more people come and use our platform and the more experiments they start doing – all positive. So education is tied into our goals for sure.

But otherwise, it’s about being extremely proactive. We’re doing a lot of hunting for conferences and roadshows and applying for speeding slots.

Edward: A challenge I see when we talk about brand awareness is, when you go do a lecture and you speak to a couple hundred people, that’s great, they’re aware of you, but that’s often not enough now. You need people who are brand ambassadors and people who are willing to actually go out on a limb and say, “This company, Desktop Genetics is great”. It doesn’t usually come from just speaking to an audience. That comes from speaking to an individual and spending time with them. Thats about participating in the field and helping people get their research done.

“There’s no secret recipe. Everybody finds their strength, but really they all impact to the same thing, which is the ability to convince people.”

What are the most critical qualities required to be able to succeed as an entrepreneur?

Edward: Believing in what you’re doing a hundred and ten percent. You have to have a crazy amount of conviction – which can be tough because a lot of people are going to say no to you, or think your idea is silly.

I think the ability to be comfortable with putting yourself in vulnerable positions is incredibly important. A lot of the time, you might feel like you’re flying blind, and asking people for feedback as you do it helps steer you in the right direction

That, and a good tolerance to caffeine.

Riley: At a more concrete level, I would say you have to be a good writer.

Because code is writing. It is the same thing. The idea to be able to communicate an idea as persistent in medium affected me. Elon Musk is famous for his emails. You have to be able to write good emails; you have to be able to write good presentations; good long and short form documents. Every task requires quality writing.

It all comes down to the document production pipeline; the ability to get professional-looking, polished documents out to investors, clients, and potential employees. From a day-to-day perspective, one of the most valuable things is to be able to edit and communicate in an organised and clear fashion.

Victor: There’s no secret recipe. Everybody finds their strength, but really they all impact the same thing, which is the ability to convince people. Why do you write well? You need to convince people. Why do you need to be able to accept failure or setbacks? You need to be able to continue and continue and continue convincing people – to convince people to buy into your vision, to invest in your company, to come and work for your company, to work on the weekends, to give you a discount at a conference. It’s always about convincing people.

Riley: I think learning is also another piece of it too. That, at least for us, has always been constant. The amount of learning required is bottomless; it’s a continual process. Lets get back to it.