Jim Wicks, Anoop Pillai and Sam Brown came to Southampton Science Park in September 2018 to participate in its business accelerator programme, Catalyst. The YouSeq journey began just six months previously with a big ambition to disrupt the global healthcare market with a novel approach to DNA sequencing, the next big thing in molecular biology. CEO Jim Wicks explains why joining the Catalyst programme was the right move for their start-up.
“After successfully selling our first company, Primer Design, we were looking at options to hit the ground running with our next business, YouSeq. At that time we had secured some funding and were close to establishing a working minimum viable product. For me, the start-up phase is the most exciting bit. You’ve got a blank canvas and infinite opportunities so, even if you’ve been in business before, it’s always a learning experience – and that’s where Catalyst came in.
Looking back, there were two very clear benefits of the Catalyst programme.
The first is the physical environment. One of the most brilliant things about Catalyst is the ability to actually ‘come to work’. It’s fashionable to work from home at the moment but, if you’re serious about your business, working from home is like trying to start a business with the handbrake on. The Science Park is a healthy and exciting nurturing environment for the whole team to work together. The fact that there was laboratory space available to rent there at the same time made the whole proposition super attractive in helping us to get our new initiative off the ground efficiently.
The second major benefit is the quality of the coaching. Catalyst’s mentoring and coaching team have got it just right in terms of focusing on the commercial reality of running a business. Ten percent of your business is about technical objectives, the rest is all business objectives. You have got to get your head around the fact that you have to sell lots of product.
While we were working through the Catalyst programme, we secured our first major customer – a £1m contract in the US - and I have no doubt that the gravitas that the Science Park brought to our early-stage business at that time was pivotal in achieving this. By the end of the programme, we had also secured distributors and were beginning to get our first products out there, we’d built our marketing platform and website, and had grown to a team of five.
As in many industries, the pandemic bought an unexpected challenge to ours, in that most laboratories stopped doing sequencing work overnight to focus on PCR testing. This was an area that we knew well through our previous business and so we redirected our efforts in the short term to quickly develop and launch a Covid-19 PCR test, shipping 30 million units around the world. Had we not just completed Catalyst and been in entrepreneurial mode, we may not have done this but I’m glad we did. This strategic sidestep turned out to be really beneficial because the resulting revenue secured the long-term future of YouSeq, negating the need for any external funding to date.
Three years on, we are a team of 20, we have our own premises and we’re closing business all around the world with two revenue streams. While we continue to support PCR requirements, we are beginning to see real growth in sequencing now too and this is where it gets really exciting!
Our grand ambition is to empower people to diagnose all potential infectious diseases though a single patient test. This will transform health services and patient outcomes around the world by removing the ‘one test at a time’ diagnostic pathway that’s currently followed. It’s a radical approach and we have created a clear route to achieve this. The industry knows that this is the direction of travel, yet no-one but us is taking on the challenge.
My advice to other entrepreneurs is to find a way to go for it! Catalyst, with its credibility and reputation, is an incredibly effective way to go for it!”
First major contract value
Number of Covid-19 PCR tests shipped around the world