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In conversation - Julian Shapley and David Haines

Sue Rees In Conversation With David Haines & Dr Julian Shapley – Glucose Republic

What do you get when you cross a successful serial entrepreneur and business developer with a cross-functional engineer, biochemist and inventor of the world’s first mobile diabetes management system? In the case of David Haines and Julian Shapley, PhD, the answer is Glucose Republic – a company that combines biology and software to show people how to eat and live better.

I had a fascinating video call with David and Julian recently. I wanted to learn more about how they began working together and the strengths and talents they bring to their exciting and rapidly growing personal health company.

Sue Rees: Gents, it’s lovely to speak to you again, and thanks for your time. Before we delve deeper, can you just give me an overview of how you two came together to form Glucose Republic?

David Haines: Hi Sue, it’s our pleasure. I’ll pass this on to Julian to begin the story.

Julian Shapley: Thanks, David – and hello again, Sue. David and I have a bit of history together! He was one of the initial rounds of “family and friends” investors in a company I founded a few years ago called Cellnovo, based on some IP I had that led from my initial studies at university into diabetes control products. The company eventually went on to be listed on the French stock exchange. It morphed from being an insulin pump company into being a supplier of mobile diabetes management systems. David was a board member for several years, and we developed a great friendship.

Although we had the most advanced pumping technology available, able to deliver tiny volumes of liquid with extreme accuracy, it became clear to me that what customers wanted wasn’t “the most accurate insulin pump”. They wanted something to help them better control their blood glucose levels.

That led me to get deeply involved in software tech and algorithms. Throughout all this time, David and I would regularly meet in coffee shops to put the world to rights and see if we could develop our next good idea. I was working on some ideas around an artificial pancreas at this particular time, and as with many biotech founders, we tend to do the initial experimentation on ourselves. We’re readily available, keen, and understand the concept, and there’s no need to go through a full ethics approval! I was wearing a continuous glucose monitor, which David was curious about, and I showed David what was happening as I ate my meals. Neither of us lives with diabetes, but we felt there was a lot to be learnt from those initial experiments. That was the start of the idea for what became Glucose Republic.

Because I had years of understanding how blood glucose needs to be controlled in people living with diabetes, it was fascinating to me how our early experiments showed that there’s a lot of potential for this in people who don't have diabetes for general metabolic health and weight loss.

SR: Fascinating! What surprised you the most from those early self-experiments?

JS: Well, I found that the very worst thing to eat for spiking my glucose was the humble crumpet! So I stopped eating one of my favourite things because of that.

DH: Now steady on, we don’t want to get a reputation as “crumpet killers”, Julian. I’ll just throw in that it was clear from our work that food and its metabolic effects are quite personal, so other people may be able to enjoy crumpets with alacrity. And that’s a key point – it’s all about personalised data and nutritional information.

In situations like this, I always tend to take the layman’s point of view as a compliment to Julian’s scientific approach. I think we’re in a real “sweet spot” – pardon the pun – here. Because of our background with nutritional algorithms and developing the world's most accurate insulin pump, we’ve arrived here with a huge amount of knowledge about one of the key questions for many people worldwide – what does food do to me?

The answer to that is highly variable. It changes depending on sex, weight, body shape and size, genetics, and more. Globally, blood sugar dysregulation is a huge problem. Obesity and Type 2 diabetes are being reported in record numbers in most countries.

So the real problem is ignorance about the effects of what we eat; this is what we’re looking to address.

SR: So, talk to me about the product you’re developing.

JS: Our system is a suite of AI algorithms that combine to become a “metabolic digital twin” for the user. At its core are personalised algorithms that use data from various health metrics, including real-time glucose data. We can use this data to predict how a particular meal will affect your blood glucose spikes. We can then offer individual advice or support about how that meal could be changed to improve its outcome for you.

Sometimes, that could be eating less of what you would consume. But it could also be suggestions such as adding some protein, fibre, or fat to that meal which will modify how your body will react.

This will all happen through an app. Initially, the user will wear a continuous glucose monitor while the AI learns how their metabolism behaves and reacts. After sufficient data is collected, the monitor can be removed, and the “metabolic twin” takes over. After another period of time, we would expect the user to wear a monitor again because if they’ve been taking the advice and guidance, their own metabolism will have changed for the better, and the digital twin model can be updated.

SR: So we’re very much looking at a very high-tech preventative tool?

DH: Absolutely. Our customers are adults, not robots. If they want to have a sweet treat, of course, they can. But with our system, they go into it with their eyes open about the effects it will have, short- and long-term.

And interestingly, it can throw some curve balls about what is a “good meal”. I’ve been wearing a monitor as part of our experiments, and at one time, a meal of chicken and chips barely registered a change on a particular day. But at another time, or if I had eaten something else earlier, that may have had a much worse outcome. So this system gives you the knowledge of what your food is doing to you on a micro-scale, compared to calorie counting, exclusion diets, or other non-personalised dietary regimes.

We want to help people to look, feel, and be better. Personalised metabolic information allows people to manage lifestyle changes in a targeted way they’ve never been able to before.

JS: In very simplistic terms, you’re either burning fat, or you’re burning glucose. That all depends not just on what you’re eating but also when. I don’t mean that in terms of the time of day, but what’s going on internally in your body. By tracking your blood glucose and learning how your body reacts to that, we can give you tailored advice on a meal-by-meal basis rather than generic dietary advice on what to avoid or about counting or restricting calories.

You know what you're doing if you buy some sweets or a chocolate bar as a treat. A one-off treat isn’t going to cause you great harm. Where our system shines is by highlighting to you where there are hidden sugars in your meals and in foods that people may perceive as broadly more healthy than snacks and treats.

SR: So where are you at the moment as a business? And what’s your next move?

JS: From the technical side, we need to complete the last elements of the algorithms using our internal data. Then, we’ll be ready to move into a trial phase with “real” users to increase the sample size and sort out the user experience. Once that’s done, we’ll be ready to launch.

From a business point of view, we’re ensuring that we have all our launch marketing in place and everything up and ready to go to be able to get paid! But for more detail on that, I’ll pass it over to David.

DH: I agree with all of that, Sue. But look, we’re a tech company and unashamedly a growth business, so we’re always looking for funding – it’s the nature of the beast. We’re always open to talking to investors and funders, which we enjoy doing!

SR: What sort of funding levels are you looking at?

DH: At this stage, we’re anticipating £0.25M to get us to launch and then another funding round post-launch which will be a little chunkier.

SR: You’re co-founders, and you complement each other well. What advice would you give to anyone looking to start a new adventure with a colleague, business partner, or friend?

DH: We do get on very well – even though Julian has decided to move to the other side of the world to get away from me! But seriously, from previous experience of working together, we both have a lot of skills that are adjacent to what we’re doing here, so I think that makes us very investable. But starting a new business is not for the faint-hearted.

Getting a little bit older, you recognise that you don’t get here alone. And that’s not just at work. Julian and I have families, which makes you realise that no matter how bad a day you had at work, you go home, and it turns out you’re still loved! I don’t want to make light of that – I think things you have around your business life make you have a better business life. Now it doesn’t have to be a life partner or family, but I think you have to have people in your life that you can call or go and see and just bounce ideas off or talk through your bad day with. Without that, starting a business can be incredibly lonely and brutal.

JS: It’s really important that you can separate what is work and what is friendship. David and I will have very frank discussions and may agree or disagree. But it’s important that we assure each other that that was a business conversation and not one that is affecting our friendship. To be able to do that successfully, you’ve got to have honesty between you. There can’t be any different or hidden agendas. There are so many stories about founders falling out because they don’t set those boundaries between work and life outside work.

SR: You started Glucose Republic four years ago. What has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic?

DH: It impacted us, primarily around changing how we’d always done things. For example, we raised our first round of financing online, which I’d never done before. So that was a new thing for all of us. We’re pretty resilient characters, so although we hadn't planned for it, we didn’t let it become an all-consuming problem for us. I think we all need to learn the lessons societally from it, though.

JS: There’s also a tangible benefit in that people had to learn how to use technology to do business. I think huge numbers of people have learnt that you can do business in ways other than face-to-face and pressing the flesh – important though those still are. So I think in that way, it’s made the world a smaller place.

SR: And regarding people in the business, I believe it’s no longer just the two of you.

DH: That’s right, we’ve now grown to a team of seven. We have some tech engineers who have joined us, a finance director, and someone to lead marketing and our social media. Because we raised the money, we were able to bring in high-quality people to help us. It’s great to build a team that can support us and believes in our vision.

SR: You’re based in Cardiff. Do you see the business staying there?

DH: Yes, I can’t see a reason to move our head office – particularly as I’m a proud and patriotic Welshman! But the problems we seek to help people with are universal. The food we are eating is causing problems for everyone. So we don’t want to be known just as a Welsh business. We want to be a global business.

JS: This company was born in Wales, and I’m sure it will continue to be part of our DNA. But we’ve very much got our sites on building a global brand and business. I think before COVID, being based in South Wales might have been seen as a disadvantage for some businesses, but the move to more remote working and doing business online means that’s much more a thing of the past.

SR: Thank you so much, gentlemen. For anyone whose interest has been peaked by your product, how can people find out more?

JS: We’re currently taking sign-ups to our waitlist. Please visit our website at or follow us on social media using @GlucoseRepublic

DH: We’re also looking for partnerships with businesses with a like-minded interest in health and what we eat, so again, get in touch with us if you’d like to be involved.

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