We caught up with Elise Jenkins and Ben Woodington, alums of our Cancer Tech Accelerator and the founders of Opto Biosystems. A bioelectronics startup, Opto aims to revolutionise healthcare with miniaturised sensors that can be implanted into the brain to deliver a stream of data for the treatment of serious conditions.
Capital Enterprise: Elise, let’s start by talking about what got you interested in doing an engineering PhD and how that led to co-founding Opto Biosystems.
Elise Jenkins: I studied electrical and electronic engineering in my undergrad and did a research placement here in Cambridge in energy harvesting devices. That’s when I met George Malliaris, my PhD advisor, who had just started his lab group here in bioelectronics. Back then I was interested in biosensing applications. George had lots of PhD projects going but I just wasn’t ready to commit to a PhD at that point. So I went to work for Siemens instead, but we stayed in contact. Then George told me about an exciting new project, which was looking at interfacing electronics with cancer. I thought that was pretty cool, so I came back to work on it.
CE: And that led pretty directly to founding Opto Biosystems, is that right?
Elise: Well, not that directly [laughter]. I was looking initially at how we could better get drugs into brain tumours. I was a little bit deterred from that idea, so I started looking at different interventions that were electrically targeted, like using electrical fields to look at a biophysical mechanism rather than a chemically induced mechanism. I started to get really fascinated by, not just treatments, but the general electrophysiology of cancer, which is looking at the electrical signals that exist in these cells.
There’s an emerging field that was coming out throughout my PhD of cancer neuroscience and I became very interested in this.
CE: Ben, turning to you, let’s hear how you got interested in the field.
Ben Woodington: I studied chemistry originally which led into drug development. I thought I was going to find that to be super interesting but it left me feeling uninspired.
I then went to work for a medical device company. I was interacting with a tonne of engineers, and I realised how much more I enjoyed it. They were building things and implementing things, and I was like, why did no one tell me about engineering? After four years of learning from those in the field, I decided I wanted to go back and study at the intersection of engineering and healthcare. So I quit that job and started my masters in sensor technology with a specific application in healthcare, which was perfect for me. I got to learn some engineering and also got to keep a foot in medicine. I was looking at spinal cord interfaces, which led into my PhD.
My PhD work sat in this weird ground between neurosurgeons, neuroscientists, electrical engineers, and materials scientists. I sat in the middle, where I could speak all their languages but was a specialist in none of them. It was exactly what I wanted, closer to the clinicians, working alongside them. They would say, ‘This is what needs to be done in this area. How do we build that?’ And then I got to build it with them.
CE: So how did you decide to start a company together?
Elise: We were both in the same lab and worked on multiple projects together, collaborating on different things. Ben spent a lot of his time microfabricating devices, which was really helpful for some of the work on my PhD. We talked a lot about ideas for a company, and I was interested in entrepreneurship but didn’t really know how it worked.
Around that time I went on the Cancer Tech Accelerator because I was hoping to commercialise my PhD research. The accelerator helped me realise that my original idea wasn’t actually a good product, the market wasn’t big enough and I don’t think there would have been enough interest. And so, quite last minute, we thought about the application of this idea [that became Opto Biosystems] right before the pitch day and decided to go for it.
CE: It sounds like a lot of the evolution happened while you were on the programme.
Elise: Yeah. Discarding ideas is a really important part of the process.
Ben: It doesn’t stop once the accelerator ends, either. Our investor recently sent us our original pitch deck and we were like, wow, that’s so dated. There’s been a lot of evolution in the past year.
CE: What’s it been like so far, running this as a startup?
Ben: Elise and I both came from industrial backgrounds. When I went back into academia, I thought ‘I’m going to do this so much better than everyone else, I’ll be so methodical, so strict with my time’, but when you go back into academia, you really go all the way back. You’re trying to run 100 projects and collaborations in parallel, your notes get sloppy. You don’t have to answer to a boss per se, you can take a chunk of funding and work on something that’s interesting to you, keep everything fast-moving and use it as a sandbox to fail. That’s how I treated academia.
Then, when you start a company, it’s almost like having to rewire your brain again. We’re not in an academic group anymore, we have a finite budget, a finite runway and milestones to hit. We no longer just need the research community to believe what we are doing, we need the investors, the doctors and regulatory people to back us too.
We both have a similar background and path and that’s made it easier to switch back to that industry mindset. I think this experience would be a lot more challenging with someone who didn’t have that same experience of working in industry.
Elise: When you’re doing your PhD, you can move very fast. You try different things, run different experiments in parallel. And you’re only relying on yourself. So it’s been a learning process for me, running a company and having to hire people and delegating work..
I thought that I would still be doing a lot more technical work myself, I’d anticipated 50 to 75 percent of my time would be spent building. That’s what I want to do, I love building. And for the first month, I don’t think I had ever been so buried in administrative tasks.
At first I found that frustrating, but now we’re in a position to look at the path for the entire project moving forward, over the next 12 to 24 months, and know that we can hit these milestones. And so I’m seeing my role change to include a lot more project management and looking at how different parts of what we’re doing come together.
CE: You mentioned your team is growing and this makes management more of a challenge. Can you talk about that a little?
Elise: Yeah. We just hired our first team. One person is someone who we know really well, he’s a friend, we’ve worked together before and he’s brilliant.
In a startup, it’s really important to get people who will take initiative. You don’t want to be telling them what their next task is.
CE: I’ve heard this from other founders, the best case scenario for early hiring is you get to pull in a couple of friends.
Elise: It’s a very easy way of aligning the culture and makes it a lot faster to start out as well as a shortcut to trust. But we’ve heard it will get really hard when you have to start onboarding a dozen people every month. Hiring your friends definitely doesn’t scale.
It’s also tough to hire your friends sometimes, because you know great people and you’d like to work with them. But you don’t have a role that really suits them and you have to be strict about that.
CE: Something that sets Opto Biosystems apart from a lot of startups people may have read about is, you’re doing medical devices rather than B2C or whatever. There’s this template that’s really patterned on Facebook, where success means you get a million signups, then 100 million and so on. And that doesn’t apply to deep tech. Can you talk me through what success looks like for a company like yours?
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. Ultimately, like everyone else, we’ll have to measure the company’s success by how much revenue we generate. But right now, we talk to investors and tell them straight up, this company isn’t making any money for at least five to six years. It’s a long pathway before we become profitable. Or, forget profitable, let’s talk about even revenue-generating. For investors familiar with biotech or medtech investing, this isn’t new information.
And so the milestones don’t look like other companies. For us, it’s a queue of surgeons lining up, saying ‘I desperately need this tool because it will change how I treat people’. It’s showing evidence that we can match treatments that are out there on the market while saving patients and hospitals huge amounts of money because the patient only has to spend two hours in the hospital rather than two weeks. Then of course we have development milestones to prove that our ideas, technology and applications hit the level we need.
That’s quite different from the playbook everybody learns in their MBA. Building an MVP and testing it right away to get a tight feedback loop just doesn’t work when your MVP is putting something in a living person.
CE: Final question, what piece of advice would you give to someone doing a PhD who wants to spin out and start a company?
Elise: The first thing is, the fear of starting something can be overwhelming but the reality of actually doing it is just really fun, so just go for it.
The caveat to that is you have to be able to acknowledge if you have a shit idea. There are so many things that I thought about ideas I wanted to commercialise. And a lot of them were just bad.
Second, be open to sharing what you are working on, get feedback and learn from it.
Ben: I completely agree, and just to double down on what Elise said, people have to get their egos out of the way. You will probably have a lot of shit ideas and letting them go is part of the process.
The great thing about starting a company is it’s one of the things you can do without permission. You can email people and ask for advice, and more often than not they will get back to you. You can pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, I want to do this thing. What do you think?’
That’s something that I’ve just started to appreciate a lot more over the past few years. I call doctors and they will almost always answer, eventually. Get as much advice from as many people as possible and keep learning. Not all of this advice will be good, though, so one of your jobs as a founder is to take all that advice, all the opinions and distil it into a direction that makes the most sense.
Thanks to Elise and Ben for speaking to us. You can follow Opto Biosystems on LinkedIn for more news.
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