The Passion in Building a Green and Sustainable Biological World

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Joe Price - Evolutor

Sue Rees In Conversation with Joe Price

Joe Price is the CEO, co-founder and commercialisation lead for early-stage biotech spinout Evolutor. The fledgling company has developed technology that streamlines and automates the process of optimising microbes for biomanufacturing. This includes products like bioethanol, bio-based chemicals, food ingredients, bioplastics, and many more.

Joe is passionate about building a green and sustainable biological world, and Evolutor’s breakthroughs can take us a step closer to his ambition. With a background in scientific research, Joe’s route to entrepreneurship has been quite different to many others that I have interviewed, and I wanted to find out more about what made him swap the lab for the boardroom.

Sue Rees: What has been your journey so far?

Joe Price: I did my undergrad degree here at Sheffield 9 years ago in pure zoology/biology. Now I’ve moved over to more of the biological engineering side, which I find much more interesting as it’s more directly applicable to the commercial world. And I joined the team which is becoming the spin-out just before the pandemic hit in February 2020 – which feels many years ago now, even though it’s only 18-months.
This wasn’t why I joined the team originally, it was to do some other research work, but myself and the other co-founders had built a very good relationship and it seemed like I was the best person to drive this forward.

SR: Growing up, did you always know what you wanted to do for a career?

JP: No! I’ve always been one of those who didn’t have a strong picture of what I wanted to be or where I wanted to go. But since getting involved in this work I’ve discovered a passion that I didn’t know I had for working in this area and being involved with so many exciting businesses.

SR: Did you come from an academic family?

JP: Not really. Both my parents went to university, which was still fairly uncommon when they were growing up, but they aren’t academics. My dad was in the oil industry and my mum was a teacher.

SR: So how did you get to be in the position to be driving this exciting new venture forward?

JP: So it did really all stem from when I joined this team to get involved in a specific area of research following on from my previous research role at the university which was involved in bioplastics. The real jumping-off point was when I joined the Lean Launch programme for market discovery funded by Innovate UK. That was when I first started to explore the commercial landscape and the industry rather than just the academic side of things. That really sparked something in me that rapidly grew into a passion I never knew I had!
I think there’s a lot of academic research that is done that has huge potential but that ends up sitting in universities, and the idea of actually turning academic endeavours into something tangible and commercialising it so everyone can benefit from it is very exciting.

SR: So what stage in this exciting journey are you at at the moment?

JP: Our technology helps improve the microbes that large-scale biomanufacturing facilities use. Initially, we are targeting producers of biofuel and biochemical industries, which are the most established sectors in the industry. Once our technology is further validated in these areas, we will look to get involved in some of the more nascent sectors such as alternative meat and milk proteins.
Right now, we’ve finished the market exploration and validating a need for our technology and we’re actively looking for funding so we can officially spin-out from the university. We’ll be applying for funding from Innovate UK in December. If that comes through, that will get us up and running, and we’ll form the company. We’ll adapt our strategy and look for funding elsewhere if we don’t.

SR: And does Sheffield University have a say in this soon-to-be-formed business?

JP: Yes. We’ll be licensing the tech from the university because we developed it as employees. They will have an equity share in the company that will need to be negotiated.

SR: So it’s very early days indeed, but I can tell from your enthusiasm that this is very exciting for you.

JP: It is! It feels like anything can happen at the moment. I’m keen to get things started up officially, as it seems like a bit of a limbo stage at the moment. We’re still working at the university, but we’re close to getting this business up and running.

SR: How are you managing the whole process, the work-life balance, and the pressures that come with forming a startup?

JP: I think I’m doing ok! One of our strengths is being a tight-knit team, and everyone is fully committed to driving this forward, which has been great. The rest of the team focuses on ongoing scientific development, and now I’m focused much more on the business development side. It’s something I’m still learning how to do, but we’ve got a highly experienced business advisor helping me.
I’m also mainly working from home. That’s partly due to the pandemic and social distancing, but also because I don’t have a dedicated office there. It makes holding video meetings or phone calls more difficult, for example. But on the flip side, it’s made the work-life balance a bit better than it might have been in more usual times.

SR: Has having the business advisor been helpful for you?

JP: Absolutely. I’ve never started a business before, so having someone with that experience is invaluable. I’ve never had to do a cash flow forecast, for example. Sometimes I might not be using the proper business terminology or language, so things like that have been vital.
The advice is being funded through the university’s commercialisation fund. And as well as technical advice, they are a great sounding board and a great mentor.

SR: So, how many people are involved in the business at the moment?

JP: Three of us will be the co-founders when we incorporate, and we’ll be looking to employ another staff member from the start. We’ll also continue using our business advisor, which will give me continuity as we transition from business plan to live business.

SR: I know it’s early days, but through your experience so far, what advice would you give to anyone who’s thinking about whether to go down the spin-out route?

JP: I would say you should take things one step at a time; otherwise, it’s too easy to be overwhelmed by all the things you have to do. Breaking things down helps you to focus on the here-and-now.
With the benefit of hindsight, I think the earlier you can start things and the more structured you can be from day one, the better off you will be.
Finally, don’t be intimidated! As a scientist, I had this idea that the world of business would be cut-throat and full of hard-nosed people who would try to manipulate you and be confrontational. That hasn’t been my experience at all. There’s a much more collaborative feel to the startup space than I expected.

SR: You mentioned a tight-knit team – how important has that been for you?

JP: Very much. Although it was an interesting dynamic, as when I came into the team, they were my managers in effect, so there was a leader/subordinate dynamic. So I think it took me a while to get my head around shifting to an “equal colleagues” relationship, but as I said, we did gel quickly, and I think that’s so important.

SR: How will the responsibilities of the new company be shared among the founders?

JP: So I will be in the company full time, and I will be driving the business development. The other two founders will be more involved with the ongoing science.

SR: There’s a lot of responsibility with you, then! Are you nervous about it at all?

JP: Yes! But in a positive way, I think. There’s a massive opportunity for my growth and development here, probably much more than if I remained in academia. Taking the reins and doing what I want to do is an exciting opportunity, and there’s also the possibility of making a bit of a name for yourself.
But, realistically, lots of companies don’t make it beyond year two or three, so that’s something that makes me a little nervous, but I’d still say there’s more excitement than nerves about the venture! I’d always rather try and then not succeed than never try at all.

SR: Going forward, what do you think are the key things that your business will need to do to maximise its chances of success?

JP: In the first couple of years, it’s critical to pick the right partners and customers to start working with. For us, gaining market awareness will be critical. Beyond that, I think keeping an ear to the ground on sector developments and predicting the next ones to take off will be important.
Building the right team will be vital, and that could be seen as a challenge as Sheffield’s biotech sector is very young. However, there’s a very strong pool of science talent at the University we have direct access to, and we’re also already in discussion with specialist recruiters to ensure we can attract the best candidates both locally and from further afield. Sheffield is a great place to live and work and we’re looking forward to building an industry-leading team here.

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