We sat down with George Neville-Jones, a co-founder of venture builder Cambridge Future Tech and CEO of the recently-launched GitLife Biotech, for a conversation about partnering with universities, creating startups, and why he’s excited about working on the GitHub of synthetic biology.
Capital Enterprise: You have an unusual double perspective, in that you’re leading a venture builder at the same time as you’re working on a very new startup, so I want to get both perspectives. Let’s start with a little bit of background on how you got into this.
George Neville-Jones: I worked across corporate banking, whilst staying well away from investment banking, always working with businesses experiencing rapid change, restructurings, turnarounds, high-growth, listing on markets, that sort of stuff. I focused on the tech sector from about 2015 onwards, then moved to Metro Bank to run Cambridge and coordinate their national tech proposition for the UK.
Whilst at Metro Bank, Owen [Thompson], Xavier [Parkhouse-Parker] and I came together to found Cambridge Future Tech. We could see the same challenges from different angles in the tech ecosystem, specifically the deep tech ecosystem, and so we decided to find a solution and we came up with a venture builder. That venture builder is Cambridge Future Tech.
We talked to lots of people in Cambridge to make sure we were coming in with very soft elbows. We spoke to TTOs [tech transfer offices], to VCs, other accelerators and incubators. So we came in as a deep tech venture builder, and the key is we are creating companies that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
We’re going to the TTOs and saying, ‘Is there a piece of IP that you really like but that you can’t spin out for lots of valid reasons?’ Maybe it’s because the academic is a career academic and they don’t want to leave to take this invention forward. They don’t happen to have an entrepreneurial postdoc who can take it forward. So we ask, what can we do to get the company started?
Our goal is simply to augment what the tech transfer office does, what the university does. We work with the deep tech ecosystem to create more deep tech spinouts.
CE: This is making me think of a conversation I was having with someone in tech transfer, where they said their university has hoards of IP sitting around waiting to be commercialised. The researchers don’t want to become entrepreneurs, they don’t have enough PhD students interested in startups. So they have to recruit people to start building these companies, and that’s really difficult. It seems like there is a missing entity in the middle that’s needed to fix that.
GNJ: That’s it, and it’s not straightforward because a business is difficult to build. It’s a jigsaw puzzle and the piece that you start with is the technical IP. And then you have to add people, first the technical founder of course, and eventually you get to build the full jigsaw.
The tech transfer offices are restricted in two ways. One, they are resource constrained, in that they have more IP than they can commercialise. And two, they can’t really operate a business day-to-day in the way that we can. There’s a bit of a conflict of interest because the IP ownership is split between the university and the founders. If the TTO starts operating the venture, are they working for the university? Are they working for the academic? Are they working for the spin out? They can do a lot, and they do a lot of really good stuff, but they’re not quite independent enough to operate day-to-day. And that’s what we do, we literally start working day-to-day on that business. We add the commercial and operational expertise. We roll our sleeves up and get our hands dirty.
That’s what I’m doing with GitLife Biotech – I’m the launch CEO, and over the past 16 months [co-founder] Natalio Krasnogor and I have been working on what started as a niche, academic-focused product and we’ve built it out into an industry-wide product – something that could really change synthetic biology.
CE: Okay, I want to hear more about GitLife Biotech but first I have another question on venture building.
There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the terms universities offer their spinouts, and whether that is holding startups back. What do you think of that?
GNJ: I should open by saying we work with both the TTOs and the early stage investors, so we don’t take a side in the equity debate. Any system can be improved, and it’s important to maintain the balance of reward across all parties: the institution which contributed to the technology, the founders building the company, and the investors risking cash.
My view is that everything would be simpler if it were standardised with a really clear set of guidelines, agreed nationally, including a simplification of the mechanisms that TTOs use to ensure that they see reward. That way, everyone knows what they are getting, there’s transparency, and less time is wasted in negotiation. We see terms being applied in very different ways at different universities. We see reward mechanisms that are very different, we see IP policies that are very different, and none of that is helpful at all. The early stage investment ecosystem has moved towards standardisation with the BVCA [British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association] model documents and term sheets. Standardisation of the spin out process would be massively efficient for technology transfer. Fundamentally, we’d see UK research have greater commercial impact.
So I’m not even joining the argument about whether a university should have X or Y equity. My business is about commercialising technology for impact. The university’s equity parameters may make it easier or harder to raise investment, but at the end of the day we will continue to work together to deliver commercial impact for exciting technologies.
CE: Let’s shift gears and talk about your startup, GitLife Biotech, and your first product, CellRepo.com. Can you give an overview of what your company does and the impact you’re looking to have?
GNJ: Synthetic biology is probably the most important industry this century. We can use synthetic biology to solve many of the crises facing us today. There is precision fermentation to support the food chain and chemical industries, there is the modification of certain organisms to make them more resistant to droughts or disease. There is carbon capture using microbes.Synthetic biology drives all of those technological advances.
The problem with synthetic biology is that it’s a really young industry and it doesn’t have a lot of the fundamental infrastructure that other industries just take for granted. My co-founder Natalio Krasnogor came to synthetic biology from computer science. He looked at synthetic biology as a computer scientist and said, ‘Where’s GitHub? Where’s my version control system?’ And it’s absent.
So we built it, and that’s CellRepo.com – a version control system specifically designed for strain engineering. The challenge with version control in synthetic biology is that you have to tie your digital record to your physical record. We developed a DNA barcode, a tiny strand of DNA that we can insert into the genome of a modified strain, and we use this DNA barcode to connect the strain back to the digital record and therefore to the lab or company that created it. We are launching the only system for proof of ownership and proof of provenance in the industry, which means that if you’re a commercial developer of synthetic biology assets, you can now distribute them confidently to your customer base without worrying that you’re going to lose them. You know your ownership can be proven and your revenues can be maintained.
CE: This is quite a young company, right? How is it going so far?
GNJ: So, right now there are three things we need for GitLife Biotech. The first is customers. We’ve started doing some work with a number of customers, which is really exciting, and the feedback from the first seven customers we’ve spoken to has been excellent. But we’re interested in speaking to anyone who is developing their own proprietary strains because we can help them massively and save them money on some really complicated patenting problems. We can help them to protect their assets.
The second is funding. We are looking to raise about £850,000 over the next few months. There’s good progress with that, but I’m always interested to hear from investors.
And then the third point is that we are looking for people, so if people are really interested in what we are doing then they should have a look at our websites.
CE: Final question. Turning back to venture building, what are some areas that you’re really interested in right now? Let’s say a grad student is thinking about getting in touch with Cambridge Future Tech – what should they know?
GNJ: We work across the deep tech spectrum. We’re interested in any technology that can change the world. We have built ventures in synthetic biology, robotics, materials, semiconductors, neuroscience, and digital health so far. We’re looking to do a lot more across the deep tech space.
What we don’t do is anything that needs to go through clinical trials because there’s a very long gestation period with binary failure points all the way. It doesn’t really work for a venture builder.
If there’s a researcher out there who’s thinking, ‘I’ve got a really exciting piece of tech’, our focus is so broad that they should let us know. If they’re a technical founder who wants to focus on the technical side of their spin out and they don’t want to worry about the business side, that’s exactly where we come on board as co-founders.