Published on November 1st, 2011 | by Padraic Coffey0
This article was originally published on Trinity College’s Research and Innovation website in 2012.
Cellix is a company which developed an innovative microfluidics drug screening tool, for use in pharmaceutical companies. Its co-founders were Vivienne Williams, current CEO and Managing Director of company; Dmitry Kashanin, head of Research and Devleopment and Prof. Igor Shvets, Prof. of Physics in Trinity College. Also involved in the company’s inception were Prof. Dermot Kelleher and Prof. Yuri Volkov from the Dept. of Medicine, and Frank O’Dowd the company’s current Research Engineer.
Cellix was officially incorporated in 2004, when it was registered with the CRO, but remained a shelf company until 2006, while it underwent a rigorous period of funding through its CEO, Vivienne Williams. Vivienne, like many founders of Trinity campus companies, was undergoing a Masters when Igor Shvets, then Professor of Physics, approached her with a germ of an idea for a company in 1999. Though initially harbouring no ambition to found a company, being a mere six months into her postgraduate studies, as the technology that would lead to Cellix developed Vivienne abstained from transferring to the PhD register, and proceeded with Igor’s idea.
Acknowledging that it had commercial potential, some files were patented in relation to the idea. Upon completion of her Masters in 2001, Vivienne and Igor applied for funding from Enterprise Ireland under the Advanced Technologies Research Programme (ATRG) Grant, part of their commercialisation grant. This resulted in funding over the next four years, of approximately EUR400,000, during which Vivienne attempted to bring the technology from its raw stage to a prototype, to be shown in the industry and attract the interest of customers. She also attended the Entrepreneurship Development Programme, run by Prof. Eoin O’Neill and Bridget Noone, held in the Trinity Technology and Enterprise Campus on Pearse Street.
After these four years, having attended several conferences, Vivienne and Igor decided that there was enough commercial potential to justify launching Cellix as a company. Additionally funding was received from Enterprise Ireland in the form of the Commercialisation of Research and Development (CORD) Grant, until late 2005 – early 2006, when the company was spun out. Vivienne was Cellix’s first employee in March 2006. Between March and December of that year she embarked on a fundraising expedition, approaching investors with the company’s business plan. Finance was raised from three main sources; in additional to Enterprise Ireland, Parisian-based venture capital firm OTC Asset Management and Irish-based NBC Ventures contributed. In total, EUR2Â½ million was raised between 2006 and early 2009. Since then, Cellix has been operating on its own revenues, as well as some European Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) Grants.
Since Day 1, Cellix has targeted customers directly. Its first were AstraZeneca, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Amgen, which became customers within the first 12 months of the company being spun out. It has also collaborated with different academic groups whose expertise are in specific areas in order to develop applications for Cellix’s technology; for example, the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI), with which Cellix has created a system for Thrombosis Research examining blood clots. This remains Cellix’s best seller at present.
The company’s platforms range from those sold for EUR15-20,000 to large platforms sold pharmaceutical and biotech companies for in excess of EUR100,000. In the latter field their customers include Servier and Inserm in Paris, Baxter in Vienna, the NIH, the BloodCenter of Wisconsin, the Medical University of Hanover, Biotea in Finland and Lund University in Sweden.
The initial board for Cellix was comprised of Igor, Vivienne and Dermot. Both Igor and Dermot had previous experienced in establishing companies with Deerac and Opsona Therapeutics respectively, something which was unfamiliar to Vivienne at that point. Nevertheless, all three agreed that the addition of a person with more business acumen was needed, and so, through the Enterprise Ireland Mentor programme, Vivienne was introduced to Dr. John Monahan, and Irish-born US-based entrepreneur. John had a record of enormous success in starting up companies such as Avigen, listed on the Nasdaq, for which he had raised over $235 million, and left with a cash flow positive of over $100 million in the bank. Though essentially retired, John had maintained an interest in business, and put Vivienne in touch with OTC Asset Management, obtaining their investment.
Vivienne has praised Trinity as an environment for starting a company, though warned it was not sufficient to guarantee success: “Trinity have a great reputation, which gives investors confidence in terms of a team that have done business before, but it ultimately customers only care if a device or test works, is reproducible and cost-effective.” In terms of their customers, Cellix have gone from almost entirely drug companies to an even split between pharmaceutical companies and academics. Because their market is based in large part internationally, they continue to prosper despite the economic downtown: “I think the reason we’ve weathered the recession so well is because we are global. We don’t rely on any one market.”
Though their customer base is strongest in Europe, with particular success in the UK, Sweden, Austria and Frace, Cellix have started to increase sales to Asia, having sent units to Japan, China and India. They sell to both Europe and Asia via distributors, whereas they sell both directly and via OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) Agreements to the US. It is there that they are concentrating on developing sales at present, with a number of potential partners.
Among the proudest achievements for Cellix, according to Vivienne, was having Harvard Medical School publish a paper on Nature Immunology using the company’s platform. “We are especially proud of our reputation in the market also, though we have spent five years growing that.”
Cellix’s principle office is in Dublin, though they have a service office in New York. It currently employs 8 people in total. They intend on hiring some additional engineers in 2012.