Molecular biologists are successful with spin-out company
Four molecular biologists from Aarhus University have started a spin-out company that offers to identify very small differences between biological samples with a special technique. The researchers build on the experience they gained when they were students and postdocs at the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics/iNANO with a special technique called "Next Generation Sequencing (NGS)".
It can be a challenge to take the leap and become self-employed as success is in no way guaranteed. So far, however, molecular biologists Morten Trillingsgaard Venø and Yan Yan, who founded a company, have done very well, and also both their spouses, Susanne Trillingsgaard Venø and Junyi Su - also molecular biologists - joined the company. A year ago, they started the spin-out company omiics, which in the first year has yielded a profit and a turnover of more than DKK 1 million. The company is a spin-out of the research at Professor Jørgen Kjems' laboratory at the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, housed at iNANO.
The company has found a market niche in doing tailor-made analyses and sequencing of all types of samples using a special technique called Next Generation Sequencing (NGS). The firm's strength lies in the employees' special expertise in a highly specialised complex and relatively expensive area (NGS) as well as handling large amounts of data after the sequencing of the samples.
What made you consider starting a company?
Yan Yan gives the following reasons for considering starting a company: “It is difficult to get a permanent position at the university, and it can take many years before you can establish yourself as an independent group leader. But most importantly, I realised that my talent and greatest interest was the NGS technique. So I felt I should engage in this, and the best way to do this was by starting a company. It was also important that Morten was keen on the idea so that I was not on my own with expertise and responsibility. And having worked together for many years, we knew one another other well, so we knew we could trust one another.”
Morten Venø adds: “We also saw that there was a demand for our help, both from universities and industry, where some of our partners said that they would become our customers if we started a company. We had talked about it several times when one day Yan came and said: We will do it! And then we took the plunge."
Where did you get help to start the company?
Morten Venø: “No doubt it was important for the establishment of our company that we could get help at Aarhus University (AU), and our leader Professor Jørgen Kjems has certainly been indispensable for the process to succeed. When we talked to him about the idea, he referred us to the Technology Transfer Office at AU, who helps potential entrepreneurs getting started. They got us to join the course Lean Launch Pad, where we spent one afternoon a week during the spring semester 2018 learning about the more organisational and commercial elements of starting a company. It was also in this context that we were connected with the business mentors Thomas Lundgaard (DTI Oil & Gas, DIS-CREADIS) and Thomas Riisgaard Hansen (Entrepreneur, Healthcare) who support us when we need help.”
After this course, Morten and Yan launched their company omiics as a private limited company, which at that time entailed putting DKK 50,000 of their own savings as an equity (in 2019 the figure is DKK 40,000, ed.). On 1 September 2018, Morten started working full-time in the company. The company had the first customers waiting when they started and had the service ready, so they could start production from day one. The two owners believe that this is probably one of the reasons why they have been able to keep the initial expenses within the DKK 50,000 which the two founders had to put into the company from the start. Alternatively, the two founders could have tried applying for funding from, for example, the Innovation Foundation, but since the company sells an existing method and develops nothing new, they would only have a small chance of getting external funding.
Currently, only Morten is employed full-time at the company, as the company does not yet earn sufficient money to pay the salaries for four employees. Susanne is employed in omiics part-time and also participates in training and counselling courses on how to run a company through Startvækst Aarhus, which offers free professional feedback for entrepreneurs. Yan and Junyi are still employed by the university and work for omiics on an hourly basis, but the goal is that at some point when the company has grown sufficiently large, they will also work full time in the company.
Susanne Venø states: “At first, when Yan and Morten asked if I wanted to join the company, I must confess that I said no thanks. I had no experience in working in a company and was overwhelmed by the idea of reinventing everything from scratch. But I have been very pleasantly surprised. We have offices in Incuba Katrinebjerg (a hub for start-up companies) and here many courses, personal guidance and networking events with other entrepreneurs are available.”
How did you get hold of the customers?
Morten Venø: “Jørgen Kjems has an incredibly large network, so he was the one who initially helped us former students and postdocs from his laboratory find the customers. In fact, private companies had contacted Jørgen to find out if we could run some tests in the laboratory for them for a fee. This was not possible, as Jørgen as a university employee must not be paid in money, but only in co-authorship."
So the researchers knew that there would be a market for this if they set up a company, and the names of some of the customers were thus served on a silver platter.
Later, these customers have then referred people from their network to omiics. Today, omiics thus has customers from universities, hospitals and industry (especially food and agriculture) from Denmark and other European countries.
In addition, omiics has established several collaborations with other similar service providers on mutual referral. Most recently, omiics has entered into an agreement with the company BioNordika that supplies products to laboratories in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland.
What were the biggest challenges?
Yan Yan answers: “It can be a challenge if you want to take the leap from university to industry, and entrepreneurship is a good way to gain some business experience. It is of course risky to start a company, but even if you do not succeed, you have acquired a lot of experience that you can use in another company.”
Having worked in science as a university employee, there are a lot of new things to learn such as financial accounting and how to register VAT. There are an incredible number of little practical things that can end up eating most of your time.
Of course, finances play a central role – both private and corporate. There may be months – especially in the beginning – where it is not possible to pay a salary, and then it is good if you have saved up for it. In addition, it is a good idea to get expectations aligned on the home front that you need to work extra hours.
What advice would you give to others who want to start their own company?
Morten Venø: “Make sure you do your preparatory homework. Ask yourself if you really want to take that step. You can get a lot of help, but the first time is a long process. For us, with our service, we actually think it was started in a good way. Of course, we could have learned even more, but on the other hand, many things only really make sense when you deal with the problem yourself. If we had been commercialising a development project, we would have applied to foundations for funding so that we could have worked reduced hours at the university to reduce the risk and try it out.
Future plans for the company
The first year has mainly gone into establishing the company with the main focus on core performance: RNA sequencing. In the coming years, there will be more focus on a longer-term planning of establishing own facilities so that the company will have its own laboratory in connection with its offices. In addition, they will aim at upgrading employees and developing the business-to-business segment.
For further information, please contact
Morten Venø, PhD
Founder and CEO of omiics
firstname.lastname@example.org - +45 28727107