Biotech entrepreneur Jim Wicks co-founded DNA detection-based business Primerdesign in 2004 from within the University’s Faculty of Medicine. Starting on a shoestring budget, the company delivered highly profitable accounts from year one, resulting in a multimillion pound turnover and a world-renowned reputation in their field. Following the successful sale of the business, Jim guides key projects and technologies as Strategic Director of the organisation.
“Until I started a business I had no idea what I wanted to do,” says Jim. “I think that’s probably a very common story for entrepreneurs, they don’t necessarily fit into the mainstream and that’s why they want to do something different.”
After completing his Physiology degree at the University of Southampton, Jim completed a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology.
“You don’t get to do any real science until your PhD, when you work on experiments that have never been done before,” he explains. “For me, this was a really exciting time.” After finishing his PhD, Jim worked for a US contract research organisation based in Southampton which organised clinical trials. He soon realised that this wasn’t the career for him and, after some soul searching, decided that he wanted control of his own destiny by starting his own business.
Colleague Rob Powell, an expert in Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technology, was about to start up from within the University and Jim jumped at the chance to work with his friend to get the company off the ground. “We started our business with only £30,000, which meant we really needed to focus on offering a high-quality service to our customers and on making a profit,” he explains.
“We were lucky enough to be able to use a small amount of lab space at the University and, paying ourselves very little, we built our own website and designed our first product,” he says. Jim and Rob approached researchers from many universities who had an interest in PCR technology and persuaded them to buy enough of the product to help the business to make a small profit in its first year, which they then reinvested. “We repeated the reinvestment process over the next 15 years, which meant that we never needed to take any further investment as a business, enabling the business to grow organically,” he explains.
In 2009, the company developed the world’s first H1N1 swine flu detection kit and in 2013 it developed the first H7N9 bird flu detection kit for use on humans in response to the 2013 Chinese outbreak. “In 2013, we also developed a test for identifying which species of meat was in food in response to the horsemeat scandal and are now the UK’s leading supplier of horse meat testing kits,” he explains.
Last year, the company grew by 25%, delivering profits at around 33%. “I think the greatest achievement to date is how much we have grown from so little,” he explains. “£30,000 is a drop in the ocean compared to most technology companies and the fact that we have been profitable since the beginning has been built into the DNA of our business.”
Jim places an enormous value on a positive working environment and was determined to make Primerdesign a great place to work. “What I like best about being an entrepreneur is having the opportunity to shape and define the culture of a business,” he says.
“What makes university startups unique is the cutting-edge nature of their technologies,” he adds. “You have a unique environment full of ideas, the challenge is to take them and knock them into something sensible that looks and feels like a business. Quite often those creative and technical skills don’t go alongside the entrepreneurial skills, so I think something Future Worlds can do is bring those talents together to turn ideas into real businesses.”
“I’ve taken something that I learnt whilst at university and turned it into a business, so as a Future Worlds mentor I am interested in sharing my experience to support startups and researchers at the beginning of their journey,” Jim says. You can get in touch with Jim using the contact form on this page.
In ten years’ time Jim hopes that he will still be heavily involved in small businesses. “My favourite part of a business is those early years in the startup phase,” he says. “I want to start several more businesses and see lots of other people have the really fulfilling experience of growing something from nothing.” Jim advises any student leaving university, “if you know what you want to do career-wise, go for it, but if you don’t, why don’t you start a business? It’s the most fun you can have, the worst that could happen is you could fail – but you might succeed!”