Expert Interview with serial academic founder Professor Che Connon

Key challenges faced and solutions implemented when spinning out a company

Starting a company will always be daunting, but what specific

factors should university spin-outs consider to help the process run smoothly? We interviewed Professor Che Connon, scientific founder of three bio-tech spin-out companies; Atelerix, CellulaREvolution and 3D BioTissues, to gain an expert opinion from a serial academic founder on the secrets to his success.

Should I start my own company?

This is the key question for anyone with a new technology developed in a non-commercial setting such as an academic research laboratory.

Most often, the answer simply depends on whether you believe your research has the potential to make an impact in the wider world in a reasonably short time-frame. “Before I started my first company, I found that in a purely academic environment there simply wasn’t any funding available to help me transition my work into a commercial setting,” explained Prof Connon. “I‘d been quite successful at taking my ideas through to proof-of-concept, but this stage is often when projects end for academic researchers. However, for me it’s important to see things through and make an impact in the wider world if I can. I had plenty of ideas and a growing technology portfolio, so I needed to do something with it all.”

The preferred route for universities in these circumstances is often to license out the technology. However, for those innovators leading research into new ideas, this may not seem like the most advantageous option. The alternative is to start a company independently and then in-license the technology from the university. This is the path Che Connon took.

Challenges and recommendations

  • Workload: According to Che, “it’s really important to recognise that you have to do a lot of it yourself and that you will need to be sufficiently driven to overcome the challenges you’ll be sure to face. You won’t be able to pass work to a university Technology Transfer Officer, they’re busy people and they don’t have the vision or capacity that you do as the inventor of the idea. Put simply, no one is going to do the work for you and even once you get the ball rolling, the university will be supportive but won’t take the lead – it has to come from you”
  • Time management: will also be a challenge; existing commitments must be juggled alongside dedicating an undefined amount of time to your spin-out. “This has been particularly difficult for me as I have multiple start-ups, so I spend a lot of time managing my diary to fit in all the commitments,” commented Che.
  • Team building: Use your networks – this is advice that comes up time and again. “In the case of Atelerix, I already had an established network of contacts in the bioprocessing industry and through this I found our current CEO Dr. Mick McLean. Through Mick we gained connections to the Northern Accelerator, helping us to finalise contracts and move onto pre-seed finance.” Mick subsequently facilitated the introduction of Atelerix to the UK Innovation & Science Seed Fund (UKI2S), which led the Company’s seed round.

What did I learn?

“Above all, it’s been well worth the time and effort, and in the process, I’ve learned a lot about how to start and run a business.” He continued, “I’ve been able to push the technology about ten times faster than if I’d kept it in the university and I’ve been privileged to build great new teams.” He explained that it is far easier to delegate work as a CSO in a company compared to working in an academic structure as a Principal Investigator, making it a much more efficient method of advancing projects from the lab.

“When it comes to fund-raising, it isn’t essential to have a CEO in place to get the first £100k-£150k. Focus on what you’re doing right such as identifying a specific scalable application – people often have a viable technology that stalls because of the lack of a solid application.” He went on to explain that even if the technology is attractive and useful, there will always be a further creative step between observing a positive result with the technology and clearly envisaging how it will be applied – this is why an interdisciplinary outlook is key.

About Professor Che Connon

Che is the scientific founder and CSO at Atelerix, Cellular Revolution and 3D BioTissues.

He is passionate about cell biology and regenerative medicine.

As Professor of Tissue Engineering at Newcastle University he loves applying his new knowledge in inventive ways to solve critical challenges in modern healthcare. He enjoys hoppy beers and taking relaxing walks along the local beaches with his family.