Learn from those who have done it before

Mentor Masterclass – building the DNA of a successful business with Jim Wicks

Future Worlds mentor Jim Wicks co-founded biotech company Primerdesign and was a pivotal figure in the development of the world’s first swine flu and bird flu detection kits.

In last week’s Mentor Masterclass talk, ‘How to start a company at University, with no money and no experience’, he shared the story of how he took his DNA detection business from a shoestring budget through to a multimillion pound turnover.

Watch his full talk in the video panel above or read on for some of his best advice from the event. This article’s quotes have been generated using the Synote University spinout transcription tool.

Ten days after the outbreak of a global swine flu crisis, news vans were lining up in their droves outside a young Hampshire business. “If you Google anything to do swine flu and look at the news stories, you’ll find a photograph of me pipetting Ribena from one tube into another,” Primerdesign co-founder Jim recollected.

“The real stuff is a really boring, clear liquid. No one wants to see that and the photographers asked if I could make it look a bit more interesting. ‘We’ve got some blackcurrant squash,’ I thought, ‘let’s put that into bottles’.”

For two weeks in 2009 the offices of Primerdesign were a hub of media activity.

“Our whole world just went nuts,” Jim explained. “Swine flu was over a week old and the angle that a British technology company was at the forefront of tackling a world crisis was a really interesting news story. Journalists were literally pushing and shoving in the corridors outside our laboratories and I was doing live link-ups to the Sky News studio as the prototype was coming off the production line. It was just hilarious.”

It wasn’t always this way.

Jim’s story starts with a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology at the University of Southampton but immediately stalls on his first step into industry. “It was only a week before I realised, ‘Man, I hate working for a big company – this isn’t for me’,” he said. “I could see 40 years of my life stretching out in front of me with nothing but eight hours of sleep, eight hours spent with family and eight hours doing something I really don’t care about every day. I spent my whole time pretending to do work and actually sitting there sketching business plans on bits of paper, thinking I’d love to be in control of my own destiny.”

The startup aspirations prompted conversations with old university friend Rob Powell and the pair struck up an idea of a DNA detection-based business.

“The best moment of any business is the moment when it doesn’t exist,” Jim explained. “You might be sitting here thinking I like the idea of running a business but I’ve got no ideas. Well all the better, you’ve got the ultimate blank canvas in front of you. Don’t be intimidated by the nothingness that is the beginning of a story.”

The first step on the Primerdesign masterplan was to secure investment. “We were a complete pair of idiots at this stage with no idea what we were doing,” Jim joked. “We didn’t really have a plan or know what the product was going to be but we thought to ourselves, right, we’ve seen Dragons’ Den, if you start a company I think you’re supposed to raise some money.”

A visit to the University’s innovation services did not produce any cash but it did present a valuable new lead in Professor Tom Brown, a world expert in chemical biology. “We got some investment from him and thought we’d done really well until we spoke to people who called it ‘grub funding’,” Jim remembered. “It was the most rubbish sounding word you could use to describe it but what we didn’t realise at the time was the total was a bit of a joke at that stage.

“When you’re starting a biotech company you normally go out and you raise two million quid because you have to have the labs, talented staff and really expensive equipment. We didn’t have that option so we had to get really focused, really quickly, making good quality products and looking after our customers so they might come back again.”

The Primerdesign business model centred on polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, a technique that copies segments of DNA.

“One of the things you really need when you’re doing this particular technology is two laboratories,” Jim explained. “You have kits in one laboratory, you test them in another and you can’t possibly have any contamination between this lab and that. We started in October with a little bit of lab space at the hospital and a second office in a ramshackle broken down conservatory in the back of Rob’s house. Very quickly it became very cold and we developed a condition called ‘mouse hand’ where you’d been working in the freezing cold for too long and your hands were actually clamped into the shape they had been on the mouse.”

From those humble beginnings, the business started to make a profit and with newfound support from the University’s SETsquared partnership the company received mentoring, support and motivation to successfully grow.

Primerdesign moved into an old factory by Southampton docks, signalling an end to multiple locations and ‘mouse hand’, and has grown to employ more than 50 people over the years and pick up over 10,000 customers in more than 100 countries. More recently, the business has moved again into a 20,000 square foot purpose-built lab complex on the outskirts of Southampton.

The 2009 swine flu episode has been followed with products ranging from the world’s first Ebola test, to products that can trace the presence of horses (cats, rats, or even zebras) in burgers or the presence of diseases in exotic zoo animals. The business has also developed the genesig q16, a small and portable qPCR machine that can be used by non-specialist users for food and water testing, veterinary diagnostics, human infectious disease screening and biothreat detection.

This past year, Jim has passed responsibility for Primerdesign on to someone new that can take the business to the next level. “We have got to the stage where the business needs a different kind of leader,” he explained. “It’s no longer an entrepreneurial exercise – making something out of nothing – and that’s what I yearn to get back to.”

Masterclass quote – What is key to becoming a successful entrepreneur?

“I’d encourage you to find out what really motivates you. It can get really difficult along the road and sometimes you’ll need a reason to get out of bed in the morning. If that’s just the money, then I’d be surprised if it would be enough to make you feel fulfilled you in what you’re doing. Find a motivation and make that part of your business plan.

“You don’t always need the biggest idea ever to succeed or a completely unique thing. When we watch Dragons’ Den and hear about exciting things happening at the University they are often very novel and that is brilliant. We never had that though – we took an existing technology and did it better than anyone else. Primerdesign doesn’t hold a single patent.

“Also, don’t go it alone. My mate Rob and I are like chalk and cheese. He’s a complete left brain person and I’m a right brain person. But having two opposite personalities is brilliant when it comes to problem solving. You’re going to have to solve hundreds of problems whilst you’re growing a business and doing that on your own would be exhausting. Find a mate who you really trust, who you can do business with, and it will double your chances of success.”

The Primerdesign journey hasn’t drained Jim’s enthusiasm for entrepreneurship and he’s looking forward to supporting future University startups and spinouts as a Future Worlds mentor.

“Everyone knows how to run a business,” he said. “You make something or you provide a service and then you make sure that you sell it for more than it cost you to make – that’s it! Find an idea, something you’re passionate about, and there’s no reason at all why you couldn’t start a business and be looking at a real success story.”

Listen to the full talk via the Future Worlds podcast, available here.

The Future Worlds Mentor Masterclass series will continue on Tuesday 15th February with startup adviser Gordon Clyne, book your free place here.

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Jim Wicks

Strategic Director,

Jim Wicks co-founded Primerdesign in 2005 from within the University of Southampton’s Faculty of Medicine. Primerdesign is focused on developing improved solutions for detecting disease in people, animals and food by specialising in the design, manufacture, validation and supply of real-time PCR kits and reagents. After the successful sale of the company, Jim now works as Strategic Director and oversees the development of the business.

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