Altruistic, enterprising, human genomic data expert, Repositive CEO
Podcast transcription - 23rd april 2018
Peter Cowley: Welcome again to another Invested Investor podcast. Today we have a lady that I've known for about four or five years, Fiona Nielsen, who I invested in her company Repositive, as we'll see later. Fiona do you remember when we first met?
Fiona Nielsen: Yes I do and back then I thought you were not interested at all in what we're doing.
Peter Cowley: Yes, we'll probably come to why that is in a few minutes. So let's talk about your background. You're Danish, can you talk about what you did in Denmark and then why and what caused you to come to the UK.
Fiona Nielsen: Yeah, sure. So usually when people ask well what is my background, I'm like, oh yeah way back when I was a programmer. Because after high school I went to study computer science because that was the shortest possible education I could get to go and get a real job. So I thought that's easy and computer science is easy, I'll do that, get a job. So I did that for a while, working as a software developer and then I realised actually it's not that interesting to just make websites and databases, I like something that has a bit more meaning to it and that's when I found the new study of bioinformatics, it just popped up in a couple of the universities in Denmark and I thought actually adding the biology, molecular biology sides to the whole informatics and computer science side actually makes it very interesting. Then you can use the computer science to make new breakthroughs in science.
Peter Cowley: And when was this? In the early 2000s?
Fiona Nielsen: I finished my computer science degree, I finished in 2002 and then I had half a year where I just did consultancy and web development and stuff like this and then I quit to find out okay, I want to add more to it and then I went to University in Odense to start on a bioinformatics degree.
Peter Cowley: Then you went on to do a PhD as well didn't you?
Fiona Nielsen: Yeah, because going from not wanting to go university at all it was very interesting and once I got into it, I thought okay, yeah. I did a bioinformatics masters at the University of Odense and then it was so interesting that I wanted to do more projects in bioinformatics so I ended up saying yes to a PhD opportunity in the Netherlands so I moved to the Netherlands and started a bioinformatics PhD there.
Peter Cowley: And what was the specific subject there?
Fiona Nielsen: I was making analysis tools for data analysis for genomics or sequence analysis. The project that I was doing in my PhD was about AP Genetics markers, so specifically histone modifications in mouse embryonic stem cells-
Peter Cowley: Okay, we'll pretend to understand that.
Fiona Nielsen: But basically I was still developing software tools, but software tools for specific scientific application.
Peter Cowley: Excellent, okay. And then from there, did you actually come over to the UK to work for Illumina or was there another role between?
Fiona Nielsen: Yeah, yeah I went straight from the Netherlands to Cambridge because I got the job at Illumina in Chesterford, just south of Cambridge.
Peter Cowley: Can you explain Illumina and what they do?
Fiona Nielsen: Yeah, Illumina is one of the very big biotech companies today, they made a global business of DNA sequencing instruments. So they now sit on maybe 80% of markets. It's very exciting place to work because if you do data analysis and then you work at Illumina, you sit at the place where all the data comes from.
Peter Cowley: And it's one of the success stories in Cambridge, actually because they bought Solexa, didn't they?
Fiona Nielsen: Indeed.
Peter Cowley: Which is why they're present in Cambridge.
Fiona Nielsen: Yeah.
Peter Cowley: So, you're an entrepreneur now so can we talk through what's happened there at Illumina at/or before that, that's actually moved you from being in the corporate environment, quite a big global corporate, to taking a huge risk to starting something else.
Fiona Nielsen: For me the personal change was while I was working on my PhD, it was very interesting, very specific, very down to the details science, but then my mother she got diagnosed with cancer back in Denmark, and then it was a wake-up moment for me because I realiSed what I was doing was very far removed from anything that had anything to do with clinical application or even though I was working on genetics, and in principle things that could benefit cancer research, it had nothing to do with what was the reality of cancer treatment at that time. And to be honest, today it's not much different.
Peter Cowley: Right.
Fiona Nielsen: Even though it's now, what, seven years ago? But that was, as I said, a big wake up call for me because when I saw the disconnect, I realised that actually this is not that important.
Peter Cowley: Right, yeah.
Fiona Nielsen: It's not that important to work on these nitty-gritty details when if it doesn't make a change to the patients who are suffering. So I lost interest in my PhD and I actually didn't finish off, submit my thesis. My supervisor says I can still submit it if I want to, now I'm busy doing other things. But I simply lost interest in my thesis and then I looked for what would be the next thing for me to do because I couldn't make myself work on this which no longer seemed important to me. When I saw the opportunity at Illumina where I could work in bioinformatics, work on tool development, but in an environment where the data came from real clinical applications and the purpose was to show how the next generation sequencing could benefit the clinic and make difference for patients, I was like, "This is exciting, I'd like to work there," and had several projects at Illumina where we were working directly with either hospitals or genetics clinics introducing the DNA sequencing technology to their daily work. So I found that really exciting and that then drew me to the job at Illumina.
Peter Cowley: And you started doing that because of strongly social reasons, business still is strongly social. But I think you decided to set up a social enterprise didn't you, to start with?
Fiona Nielsen: Yeah, so, when I realised that the data access was the big bottleneck, that was the time when I thought, "Actually, I'd much rather work on unlocking that bottleneck rather than hit my head against the wall another five times for every project that I would be working on." So I decided to leave my work at Illumina and start, back then in my mind, it was a project, on facilitating data access. I thought, "Okay, how can I make such a project happen? Well, it's something that's of benefit to everybody. It's of benefit to the research community, it's of benefit to the patients so clearly this has to be a charity. That is what I thought.
Peter Cowley: Yes.
Fiona Nielsen: So I left Illumina and I started a charity.
Peter Cowley: DNA Digest?
Fiona Nielsen: Exactly. So I started DNA Digest with the idea and the vision that with this entity, we would be able enable data access, create a platform that facilitate data access, become the trusted broker but it didn't take long to realize that although there's lots of support from the community, everybody thought, "That's a great idea, this is very much needed, we'd like to see you succeed," in order to bring something like that to fruition you need to invest a lot of resources upfront because me as a single person, there's a limit to how much I can either develop or program or facilitate alone, on my own. And if you want to build a technology platform, if you want to bring it to market, actually, that's already quite a lot of investment and resources.
Peter Cowley: Yes, I remember thinking that it was something that should either by the government or by the Welcome Trust or something rather than something that was investible in. That's I think why, hopefully I wasn't rude, in that first meeting.
Fiona Nielsen: Yeah, so the thing is that, I mean some projects are suitable for government funding to explore new avenues or if something has to be on maintenance support, if there's enough support to keep it on maintenance, but if you want to really make a change to how things operate, you have to operate outside those existing institutions. So you need to sort of slip out of the system in order to help the system.
Peter Cowley: Yes, but you need funding.
Fiona Nielsen: And then you need funding in order to do that.
Peter Cowley: So how long did it take between these initially conversations and realising you had to morph somewhat in order to get commercial funding?
Fiona Nielsen: So it took about a year and a half before spinning out Repositive as a separate entity, so probably for the first half year or so I tried very hard to make it work within the charity, and then quickly came to realize actually, if we need funding it's not going to come from government grants, it has to be investment funding. If it has to be investment funding, we need an investible, commercial entity and to have an investible, commercial entity it can't be under the charity because if you do that, no investor would touch it.
Peter Cowley: Well they won’t get a commercial return.
So you're funding this with savings at this point or any grant?
Fiona Nielsen: No grant, no savings.
Peter Cowley: No food?
Fiona Nielsen: It is funny because I left my job at Illumina with no savings, no back-up plan, and I had just moved into a new place with my boyfriend and he didn't have a job. (laughing)
Peter Cowley: Recipe for a lot of success at this point. Anyway you are successful, let's carry on through. So you went through this process, you got a lot of advice I suspect, maybe conflicting slightly from various people, including me, I remember having this conversation saying, "Yes, you've got to have a plan in order to raise funding."
Fiona Nielsen: Yeah, absolutely and I made use of lots and lots of advice as I think that's part of what helped develop the plan to the point even where it is today as it continues to develop. Thanks to reaching out to people, say, "Okay, I have this idea. How can I make that real?" And then people come with all sorts of ideas. "Oh you should do like this, you should do like that," and once you've listened to all the feedback and then you sort of combine the ideas into something that's actually feasible, you find out okay, actually one says A and one says B but actually the route I need to take is X, which is a combination of the bits and parts that actually fit into this particular situation.
Peter Cowley: Excellent. Okay, so are you still running the charity? Is the charity in existence?
Fiona Nielsen: Yeah, the charity still exists. It has also taken some twists and turns because ever since the beginning there's been no budget, as such there's no income stream for the charity so the only way of running activities is through volunteers contributing their time and once in a while doing events for the sponsors of the events.
Peter Cowley: Right.
Fiona Nielsen: But that's the only activities that are happening in the charity, whereas with Repositive since we spun out of DNA Digest and suddenly became investible we attracted the attention of the angel investor community in Cambridge and London and then since we closed our first round in January 2015, we've built a team, we've built a product and starting to bring it to market so it's all coming together then.
Peter Cowley: Yeah, let's go through this in stages. So the investment, the team, the technology as well, so you've had three funding rounds I think?
Fiona Nielsen: Yeah.
Peter Cowley: So what sort of sizes were those?
Fiona Nielsen: So the first two were primarily angel rounds so the first one was 200K from angels, the second one 500K, and then the third one 2.5 million pounds.
Peter Cowley: Of which you got quite a lot from a fund in Germany, didn't you?
Fiona Nielsen: Yes, so in latest round we got Ananda, the social venture fund on board and they invested alongside Amadeus Capital and Jonathan Milner, so the three of them together were our lead investor.
Peter Cowley: Has the business plan pivoted as well? I mean, your ideas are changing or do you think if we opened the deck up now it would look the same as the 20-so, 25 people here are doing?
Fiona Nielsen: Interestingly, the mission has stayed the same but that was also intentional from the beginning. From the time that we spun out Repositive out of DNA Digest, we incorporated the mission into the articles to make it clear that this is the reason for existence of this company. We're here to facilitate data access for genomics research for the benefit of patients. So there's no question about what we're here to do but how we do it, that can change so we've been looking at, "Okay, how do we bring this to market," "Okay, this seems to go a bit slow, let's see where we get the traction," and most recently we got a lot of traction in facilitating access to data on tumour models, which is of course directly facilitating cancer research although it's a slight deviation from accessing data for the purpose of accessing data. It's actually part of facilitating this global platform for data access that we want to build so we have found the route to where we want to go through where there's the biggest pull from the market.
Peter Cowley: Exactly. Presumably they will pay for this as well.
Fiona Nielsen: Absolutely, absolutely.
Peter Cowley: So you're following the customers to some extent, aren't you, which is a great thing to do because customer money is proven money. It proves a product market fits and also pays some of the bills.
Fiona Nielsen: Absolutely.
Peter Cowley: What mix of customs have you then?
Fiona Nielsen: We are partnering both with Biopharma, who have big research labs. They want fast access, easy access to data because any minute they waste is a lot of money you've wasted.
Peter Cowley: So Biopharma's one of the big drug companies, is it?
Fiona Nielsen: Yes, so for example we have AstraZeneca and Boehringer Ingelheim, two of first customers and now we have a handful of others that are waiting in line to be part of our platform as we launch the beta in the spring. And then we have about a dozen biotech companies that are providing the Biopharma with services and they in this context are the data providers. So they're commercial companies that are providing data in order to enable the Biopharma to access their services. So all of these companies are our customers.
Peter Cowley: Right. Is there any public data? My wife years ago worked for BioWisdom which I think I introduced you a long time ago, Gordon Baxter, which was trying to combine private and public databases.
Fiona Nielsen: Part of the first thing we did to launch a public platform was that we started indexing all the public data repositories because we knew that's where there's a lot of data and by putting all the supply on the platform, we'll get the users to come and see the benefit of this resource. So we did that almost as a matter of fact, it's a necessary requirement in order for the platform to be useful. But the extra added value that we bring on top of that is all the additional data sources that nobody knows about because just if you've never heard about a data source, you're never going to go there to ask for access to the data and so to bring that visibility, we're adding a commercial companies, biobanks, a private repositories, all those different data sources also being indexed on the platform. That gives our users a broad visibility and it was looking at this broader market that we suddenly stumbled across this particular niche where there was a huge pull from the Biopharma: "We need a solution here. We need this solution now and we're happy to pay for it."
Peter Cowley: And how easy has it been to find people? We're based here about half a mile from, less than that, quarter mile from Cambridge Station, but you work further in the north of Cambridge.
Fiona Nielsen: Initially, it was very easy to find people because a lot of the people that we needed, me and my co-founder Adrian, we found them on network and we were almost bragging about how easy it was for us to hire people because we looked for someone and then someone from our network would step up and say, "Yeah, I can help you with that," and we would go hire them. So initially, it was very easy. Now we are entering a different stage of the company where we need to get more experienced people in faster and we can't find them fast enough using our networks. Now we're starting to use recruiters to go get specialists, people, so for example we've recently done a search for a commercial director to come in and assist with these Biopharma sales because in our networks of bioinformatics people where would we find an experienced commercial person? So at some point you realize, "Okay, that's outside my network. We need to really go find some specialists to help us."
Peter Cowley: Including in fact outside your geographic network because this sort of person might be based in New York or somewhere.
Fiona Nielsen: Absolutely, yeah. Indeed.
Peter Cowley: You made a slight restructuring, which you’re quite open about, a few months ago. Can you explain the process to why you needed to do it and how you did it and the result of it?
Fiona Nielsen: As a start-up, we are always working on basically a fixed budget and fixed timelines because you only have the money that's on the bank account but you need to operate as if you have more than that because you will of course continue beyond the extent of your funding but at the same time you need to be very strict in prioritising, "Okay what do need to achieve in order to get to the next stage of funding or to get to the next stage of revenue in order to fund ourselves?" We realised about a quarter ago that our next stage of company milestones was all about delivering product to market and realising then that the composition of our team, I don't know if it was 50/50 but there was much more of the non-product and tech team that was part of the majority of our expenses and salaries, right, and we realised we need to hire a lot on the product and tech team but it doesn't make sense for the company to have a big expense also in, for example, marketing and outreach, until we have the product to market.
Peter Cowley: Right.
Fiona Nielsen: So we did a restructuring where we ended up having some redundancies in order to make that change and just the realization to have to let people go, because that's not what the company needs right now, was quite hard.
Peter Cowley: Very painful, because you would get to know, some of these people might have been with you a couple of years or more.
Fiona Nielsen: Yeah.
Peter Cowley: I'm sure the culture in this place is excellent knowing you fairly well and that must've been really difficult.
Fiona Nielsen: It was really difficult because it feels like you have to sort of say goodbye to a family member and you have to sort of distinguish between what is your personal relation to that person and what is it that the company needs now. As it turns out once the people who were affected by the restructuring, they understood what was the reasoning behind this, they then took it very well and very supportive of the change yet realize this is what Repositive needs and be also interested in the company to succeed and of all of them I've been in touch with recently, they've all gone on to find a new job, so change is not necessarily bad, it just a change. And then for everybody to understand that it's for the benefit of the company and if it's for the benefit of the company, then everybody can get on better.
Peter Cowley: And the morale, probably a little dip. Has it fully recovered?
Fiona Nielsen: Fully recovered. Yeah. Both the people leaving and the people staying.
Peter Cowley: Well done. That's really well done.
So Fiona, you must've learned so much in the last six, seven years. Can you give us some tips for entrepreneurs?
Fiona Nielsen: Yeah. I mean, first of all I have to say there's never an end to learning and every day in a start-up is a learning experience. It is also challenging to be learning every day and it's exhausting to be learning every day, which is part of why being an entrepreneur is this roller coaster ride because you go between being excited about the thing you just learned to being bummed down by, "Oh what is thing that I don't know how to do?"
Peter Cowley: Or a key member of staff leaving or a customer getting annoyed or-
Fiona Nielsen: Yeah, because those are all the things. Because whether it's about the customers or it's about the team or it's about the strategy or it's about the investors, all those things, every time you experience it, it's for the first time. At least for me, if you're a first-time entrepreneur. So when people come to me, and I often give talks for students at the university and they come to me and they say, "Oh, I want to start a company, it's my big dream to start a company. Oh, should I start a company?" I say, "No." (laughing)
And then they look shocked and like, "Why does tell me don't start a company?" And I say, "Well if you can't take a no, you shouldn't start a company."
And then they go like, "Oh yeah, okay, I get it."
Well, you better get used to it because if you want to start a company you need to know, not know exactly what you want to, but you need to be very, very driven on what you want to achieve because if you don't have a good reason to, or have good motivation to put all that effort into it, you're going to hit the first block on the road and you're going to fall over and then it's not going to happen. Unless you're at the point where you're willing to give it what it takes, don't even start.
Peter Cowley: Perhaps I should try that myself. I'll attribute to you, don't worry. Is there any other tips?
Fiona Nielsen: I think one of the things that I think has been part of us making the progress as we have with Repositive has been the willingness to take on advice. It's always very difficult if you go ask for advice and people say, "Oh yeah, I did such and such and it was this and this and I have this and this opinion," and you go like, "That doesn't apply." But if you listen to all advice and say, "That doesn't apply," then you're not learning anything. The more you can learn from other people's experience, the more you save yourself from hurting yourself badly and making those experiences first-hand. It's really important to listen to advice. If you can avoid making the same mistakes as other people, then why make the same mistakes again, right?
Peter Cowley: This is what this project's all about, the Invested Investor, is all about that. Listening to people like you, giving these ideas. Not ideas, but suggestions that stops people from making mistakes.
Fiona Nielsen: Yeah.
Peter Cowley: So Fiona, final question. I've got a rough idea of how old you are. I know you're a lot younger than me. What do you think you're going to be doing in 10 or 15 years’ time? Now this journey will continue. You've got investors in it and investors will want to exit themselves. They might not. You might not want to. Maybe you'll want to be running this in 20 years’ time. Have you thought that through?
Fiona Nielsen: Well I think 10 years from now I'm still running Repositive, with global platform very successful. At that point, I'll take more time for myself and more time for my family and I'll probably do more of the activities related either to the charity, more of the public engagement part and mentoring young entrepreneurs, I think.
Peter Cowley: Excellent. That was a great answer. Fiona, it's been really good talking to you. I've learned a lot despite the fact I've been a shareholder for the last two years. Just shows I have too big a portfolio possibly. You're doing great. Good luck. Thank you very much.
Fiona Nielsen: Thanks. Thank you.
Peter Cowley: Thank you.
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