Starting a Company a Month Before Covid Hit

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Sue Rees in conversation with Mark Preston

Mark Preston is the CEO of Prismea, a biotech software development company that was founded in January 2020 – just a month before the UK entered its first lockdown due to COVID-19.

Self-financed by Mark with his co-founder and CTO Andrew Smith, Prismea’s first product is that enables biotech companies to organise and share lab samples in real-time.

With a fascinating academic and career background, including a PhD in Mathematics, I wanted to find out more from Mark about his approach to business, founding and growing a startup during a global pandemic, and his thoughts and advice for new CEOs in the life sciences, biotech and pharma sectors.

Sue Rees: Mark, you’ve got a background in IT. What has been your journey to CEO of a biotech startup?

Mark Preston: Yes, I’ve done some interesting work in the IT field. As a contractor, I’ve had stints working with some global players such as the Disney Corporation, Panasonic’s cellular division, and Sony. I also spent time in senior scientific and IT roles for the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.

My real passion had always been in mathematics. I always wanted to study for a PhD, and was finally able to do so at the University of Reading as a “mature” 27-year-old!

Although I found studying and academia interesting and challenging, the sheer variety of what you need to do on a day-to-day basis is what now makes business the favourite thing I’ve ever done.

SR: Tell me more about Prismea and your first product?

MP: Well, we started in February 2020 and it’s been an interesting year! The core idea behind the business was productivity tools for lab scientists. I had spent most of the last 10 years heavily involved with lab scientists, both professionally and socially. My wife is a lab scientist, so I kept hearing a lot of war stories about things going wrong in the lab for – it seemed to me – often trivial reasons.

The penny dropped even harder when I would talk with very senior industry figures about these issues who would say “Goodness, why is this still a problem? We were having those problems 30-years-ago.”

I realised that there seemed to be quite a lot of acceptance of old-fashioned processes that weren’t really very efficient because “it’s always been done that way”.

So, with Andrew, we put together the foundations of the to allow labs to organise and share sample data in real-time. They can use it to track sample movements with a few taps on a smart device, search real-time visual records of samples, slides and reagents, and easily share boxes and samples with colleagues or other collaborators.

We had the basis of a really useful product, so all that was left was to build it out and then steal the name of my dad’s former consulting business, and Prismea was born!

SR: As a first-time startup CEO, what’s the best part of the job?

MP: That’s easy – it’s the sheer variety of what you need to do. Every day I get to speak to the widest range of people I ever have. As CEO, I’m talking to lawyers, accountants, leaders in the NHS, scientists, entrepreneurs. I love building these new networks. It’s always great speaking to people who are knowledgeable about areas where I am not. There’s such variety that it makes every day seem full of possibilities.

SR: As a business that’s supporting the biotech sector, what’s your take on the current level of innovation within the life sciences?

MP: There are a lot of ideas and innovation, from start-ups and academic spin-outs up to organisations that are scaling massively. It’s about translating these great ideas into viable businesses.

I speak to many companies, and help a few, who are encountering challenges in overcoming data analytic bottlenecks, be that in genomics to machine learning – essentially getting the mix of resource, blue sky-innovative thinking and practical infrastructure right is hard. The ideas are there, it’s about the next steps, overcoming the practical, compliance and business challenges – and we’re very happy to be helping these innovators keep on growing!

SR: So is that how you see the Oxfordshire biotech sector developing over the next 5 years?

MP: Yes, there’s lots of potential. In fact, as things start to get back to normal in a post-pandemic world, I can see us needing more lab space in the region. I think that the companies spinning out from Oxford University are going to be growing more quickly over the next few years.

On the flip side, I also think that we’ll probably see more failing companies. There are going to be lots of great science ventures that fail not because of the science, but because of the business side of the equation. I suspect the business and investment environment is going to be tougher. If that’s the case then it will be a real shame – not just because of the lost money and jobs, but also the loss of some potentially great ideas.

SR: How has the double-whammy of Brexit and COVID-19 affected Prismea?

MP: As far as Brexit goes, it hasn’t. We’re still quite geo-local. So although we’re working with multinational organisations, it’s with their local teams. We’re not “crossing borders” in that sense.

The pandemic, though, did cause us to take a couple of major pivots. It cost us a couple of contracts, which is always a big deal for a young company. It also slowed down our development progress somewhat.

However, it also showed me just how vital having a business plan is. Although I’ve also learned that it can go out of date literally overnight, having that guiding framework is so useful in helping you take decisions that you couldn’t have foreseen needing to take.

SR: Given that the world we’re operating in now is very different to how you envisaged it when you wrote your initial business plan, what challenges are you facing now in business and how are you addressing them?

MP: For me, the biggest one is not being able to meet people and speak to them face-to-face. I’ve always been someone that found the physical feedback you get from gestures and body language important. But it’s also what gems often come from the sort of impromptu corridor and water-cooler meetings we used to be able to have.

Just the other week, for example, I was on a Zoom call and two of the participants were in the same conference room sharing a screen. Because of the way they were sitting I basically had a wall to look at, which made it very difficult for me to gauge how things were going.

So that’s my biggest challenge right now. I find that a world of Teams, Meets, and Zoom is a little more formal and it reduces the emotional range people are prepared to use.

There really isn’t a substitute for those serendipitous impromptu meet-ups you have in person where someone says “ah, I know who you should speak to about this” and suddenly you’ve got a great lead or a huge opportunity out of nowhere.

SR: So when it comes time to grow your business and attract the best talent,  how important to you is culture and team fit?

MP: Look, if I had to choose, I would rather have the right person with the wrong skill set than deal with the wrong person with the perfect knowledge and fantastic experience.

Because we’re a small team, I’d rather bring in people who are flexible people and who have a growth mindset. Being a sector-specialist isn’t something we need – we can teach you all about biotech and our potential customers as long as you are able to learn. It’s much more difficult – probably impossible – to teach people how to have the right mindset.

SR: Many startup CEOs with a science or academic background seem to like to bring people into the business who remind them of themselves. Is that something you’d consider?

MP: No! Why on Earth would I want someone like me? The company will work much better with different mindsets in it. It will thrive if we bring in people who can challenge what we’ve “always done”.

My co-founder and I have known each other for 30 years, but we have diametrically opposite ways of doing things a lot of the time. It works really well. As individuals, we have a tendency to start to disappear down our own rabbit holes, but we can pull each other out. Having those different yet complementary approaches is key.

As a CEO, I don’t want people who can parrot back to me what I already know. I want to learn about the areas where I don’t have in-depth knowledge – accounting, or marketing, or legal matters. So having people who aren’t like me is really useful for my growth, as long as they have a mindset that will complement the business and team.

SR: That’s really refreshing to hear, as it’s the same advice I give to all the startups I work with! But speaking of recruiting, how do you think that’s going to work given the current restrictions on meeting people?

MP: For me, it depends on the role. For example, my co-founder is our CTO and together we can’t see any reason why our technical team can’t be recruited and operate fully remotely. Over the years, we’ve both worked that way several times. I’ve worked with technical teams from around the world including the USA, Bangladesh, Latvia and Russia. That’s worked well, although I think we would still want a physical connection once or twice a month. And, given the nature of those roles, an interviewing and recruiting process done fully remotely would be fine.

However, for a more customer-facing role, where I’m expecting people to be “in the room” representing my company – once we’re able to do that again – then personally I would prefer to conduct a physical rather than virtual recruitment process. I’d need to know that in-person they can always act in the right way. Dropping the odd “surprise question” into a face-to-face interview and seeing how people react to a bit of curveball in person is a great way to see how they are going to represent your “brand” out in the real world.

SR: As a founder and CEO, what advice would you give to a new startup right now?

MP: As the world is opening up again, try to be somewhere you can physically meet people and have those impromptu meetings and conversations that keep you on the straight and narrow.

I think some people will have got used to spending all their time in their own space, so find somewhere to go, even if it’s just one day a week. Rent a hot desk there, get to know the people and companies there. I still do it because there are always things you can learn from people who are doing similar things to you and who are a little further down the line.

If you’ve never run a business before, you really don’t know the volume of stuff you don’t know. But I can tell you that it’s big! There’s so much that you won’t know as you start. There are great business mentors out there, and so I highly recommend finding one (or more) that you gel with to help you. I get a lot of energy from speaking to people like this, but I’m also quite reflective, so make sure that as well as collecting all these experiences you’re looking at how they could shape your next steps.

I like to think that one of my strengths is a healthy level of pragmatism. So be honest with yourself about your new startup:  it might not work out. That sounds negative, but it’s not. By accepting it as one of the possible outcomes you will have to reassure yourself that there are jobs out there for you. It means you will have networks and connections in the right places that give you the confidence to really go for it with your business idea because you’ve already thought about how to mitigate against things not panning out as you would hope.

This last point seems to go against the “success is the only option” mindset prevalent in some entrepreneurial mentoring and coaching. What do you think about this pragmatic mathematician’s approach of mitigating against the consequences of failure by keeping your career network in close contact? Do you agree that this could allow you to throw yourself even more into your biotech business, particularly if you have a family to feed and a mortgage to pay?

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