Sue Rees In conversation with Michal Barski of Reciprocal Space
Dr Michal S Barski is the co-founder and director of Reciprocal Space, a visual science communications studio in London that designs effective visual marketing content for both start-ups and established biotech companies. Michal has a PhD in Structural Biology from the University of St Andrews and prior to founding Reciprocal Space, he completed his postdoctoral research in virology at Imperial College London. With over 10 years of experience in the science & tech sector, Michal oversees the work of a multi-disciplinary team at Reciprocal Space and provides scientific expertise to ensure projects are delivered with the highest quality and scientific accuracy.
Sue Rees: Michal, thanks for taking the time to chat. I wonder if we can start by finding out about your background and the journey you’ve taken in business so far?
Michal Barski: It’s great to speak to you again, Sue, thanks for inviting me. So I was born in Warsaw in Poland and I came to the UK after I completed High School. I had attended an International School, and that really sowed the seed in a lot of us, students, that you could go overseas and study abroad. So that’s what I did! I came to London to study biochemistry and ended up just staying!
SR: Was biochemistry always the field you felt you wanted to go into?
MB: Not initially! My dad was a chemical engineer, so there were always lots of books around the house about engineering, but I wasn’t sure if this is what I wanted to do! I was a big film buff, and my dream job was to become a movie director. And while my parents were supportive of me, they were also pragmatic, and they encouraged me to perhaps look at doing something more practical first and then if film was still something I wanted to do I could go on to that later.
So, I went on to study biochemistry because I found the concept of understanding how biology works through chemistry really interesting. At that time in Poland, you couldn’t study biochemistry as a subject – only chemistry, biology or physics. After you’ve done 3 years you can then specialise. I really was just interested in going straight into biochemistry, so that was another motivation to go overseas so I could study what actually interested me.
After 3 years at King’s College London, I knew that I really wanted to go on and do research. I didn’t want to do a masters, I wanted to get straight into research, and I was lucky to be here because the UK is one of the few countries where you can do a PhD straight after graduation. I moved to St Andrews in Scotland, and that was a great experience. I loved the campus and the work I was doing, too. My PhD was in structural virology, looking at the group of viruses that causes haemorrhagic fevers in Africa – similar to Ebola.
After 4 years, I moved back to London and started a postdoc at Imperial College continuing the same theme of research. At Imperial, I noticed how entrepreneurial the environment was. I saw peers spinning out companies, and how the various departments were always looking for ideas that could be commercialised.
So, this is where the genesis of Reciprocal Space started. The key moment was when I was responsible for designing an exhibition stand at an event alongside a well-known London designer who is now a co-director of the company. The event was called Imperial Lates and they were a series of after-hours free events for adults exploring cutting-edge research at Imperial in different creative ways. We worked really well together and it was a great success. And that was what got me thinking that it seemed like there was a great need in biotech – particularly young biotech – for good visual communication. It’s a sector that’s driven by academic research and academics don’t always make good communicators!
SR: How long did it take before the experience from that event crystallised into a business idea?
MB: Not long, and I can actually pinpoint the exact moment! I was in the lab just a few days later pipetting samples, and I remember that all those thoughts about merging scientific expertise with really amazing, world-class design started reverberating as an incredibly innovative and powerful idea. Of course, there wasn’t a concrete business plan for quite a while, but the idea that there should be a business that can start telling visual stories about research came to me at that moment. I guess the creative side of me that thought about being a film director a few years earlier found its way out in a different way!
SR: So tell me more about what Reciprocal Space does for its clients?
MB: Clients will usually come to us because they have a product that they are excited about, but only a short time to get others to understand the fundamentals and also become excited about it.
Often, there is no physical product or demo yet, but the concept or its development needs to be communicated visually. And it’s really tricky for these guys because it can’t be dumbed down, but at the same time, it mustn’t be too complicated. It needs to have a clear message, but also needs to look and sound amazing. Often, the only way to do this is through animation, and so creating engaging 3D or 2D medical or “mode of action” animation is a major part of what we do. We also offer the full range of creative services for biotech companies, including branding, scientific illustration, product photography and video, and even pitch deck design for companies seeking funding.
SR: It started with just the two of you, how has the company grown since you launched?
MB: Quickly! We’ve been operating for just over a year and we’re now a team of 9. We have dedicated 3D modellers, graphic designers, branding specialists, and photographers. As well as producing a lot of fantastic animations for clients, we’ve been producing a video series for YouTube about the importance of good design in Life Sciences. It’s called “Science Meets Design” and is the first production of this kind. The first episode was aired in March. It’s been a really busy time, which is fantastic.
SR: And how did you find the funding to start things off?
MB: We were completely self-funded. Our starting capital came from wiping out our savings. It meant we had to start off cautiously, particularly as it was lockdown thanks to COVID-19. But it was the pandemic that made it the right time to start working on the idea because I was effectively locked out of my lab for a while and wasn’t spending ‘dead’ time commuting – I could use that time to build a business plan out of an idea. In fact, I would go so far as to say if it wasn’t for the pandemic I’m not sure this would have happened at all. A lot of executives and marketers in the Life Sciences industry have started noticing how important visual marketing is – even at quite early stages of company development.
SR: I’m fascinated to know what makes entrepreneurs tick. What qualities do you have that made it possible for you to take this from an idea to a growing business in such a short space of time?
MB: Firstly, finding the right co-founder and team was key. Yaatzil Ceballos Fernandez, who is the Creative Director at Reciprocal Space, is not just a prestigious, award-winning designer but a source of inspiration, creative energy and a great business partner. Finding the right way to work together, complement each other’s skills and manage a team of people with various backgrounds and specialties was fundamental to getting Reciprocal Space to where we are now.
In terms of skills, I think being proactive is a key trait that anyone who wants to start a business should possess. That’s fairly non-negotiable! Personally, I’ve got a lot of interests in quite a few fields. Biochemistry, yes, but also in film, design, economics, finance, business, computing, web design, marketing… I’m by no means an expert in any of them apart from biochemistry, but I’ve managed to absorb quite a lot of information from my own reading and interest, and from friends who are involved in those sectors. So I’ve been able to avoid having to outsource a lot of those things because I kind of know enough to get us started and that really helps with making informed decisions that keep costs down and get things moving more quickly.
Because of my academic background, I can talk to scientists about their research on an equal footing, but I’m then able to use my creative skills to write scripts for illustrative animations, and to use my filmmaking experience, and so on. It means that we’re able to go straight to our expert illustrators and animators with a really great brief.
So I think that if you have a good generalist knowledge across the whole spectrum of things your business is likely to have to deal with that will save you a lot of time and a lot of money – really important if you are self-financing or have only minimal investment.
SR: At any stage, did you ever worry that things wouldn’t work out?
MB: Sure, right at the beginning. There was a definite period where I was worrying about whether it was worth the risk, and if it was the right thing to do, was it the right time, and all that. And I was watching a lot of YouTube videos by motivational speakers to see if that would give me some answers – most of whom I didn’t like, to be honest! But there was a guy I found who had started several successful businesses who talked about the time he spent in the Far East. He spoke about the philosophy of warrior monks he had spoken to whose perspective was that you must not feel fear and not act, you must feel fear and act regardless of it. That spoke to me at the time, and I realised that there’s no way to stop that fear about the business not making it and I just need to go for it – feel the fear and do it anyway!
SR: That’s a great philosophy. Having felt that fear and got things off to a good start are you now going to be looking for further funding?
MB: No, not at the moment. We’re self-sustaining right now and moving ahead to plan, which is great. Also, as a service business, it’s notoriously difficult to attract investment anyway, so we’re managing our growth to keep us self-sustaining for now.
SR: As a relatively new entrepreneur and founder, do you have anyone who you view as a mentor to help you navigate these early years of business?
MB: I don’t have any particular individual who I can say is a mentor. But what I do is try to listen to as many people as possible. In a way, unless you can find someone who’s been through exactly what you are going through, with a very similar business, then I think it’s difficult to find really focused advice on your particular situation.
SR: But is there anyone you can turn to for more general support when times are tough or when there’s a big decision to be made?
MB: Sure. I’m lucky to have family and friends who are able to offer advice based on both their experiences in business, in finance, and the legal world. Some of them have started their own businesses in the past. These are the people I bounce things off, and I don’t think I would have been able to do this without their help. I can take on board what they all say and that forms an important part of my decision-making process.
As the business was self-funded, any kind of professional help was completely out of scope financially at the start, and so it was my personal network that I relied on. I think it’s important to leverage the experience of people you know. And even if it’s not direct advice, they will send me a link to a great article, or suggest a book to read, or even say “I wouldn’t do that yet”! It all helps to guide your decision-making.
In the end, though, you are the one that has to sit down, digest all this information, but then make the decision that you feel is best for your business. And that’s the most challenging thing that I have encountered as an entrepreneur.
SR: Looking back over the last 12 months or so, is there anything you would have changed or done differently when you were starting the business?
MB: I think if I could go back then I would probably have done a bit more research. It took us a bit of time to figure out exactly what the market actually needs, and that wasn’t quite what my original assumptions had been. If I’d done a bit more market research, and asked more people about their needs, then we could have launched with the perfect set of services. As it was, we had to adapt our original offering in reaction to what we were hearing from potential customers. In a similar way, I think if I had done a more in-depth financial analysis before we opened for business it would have alleviated some of the concerns that I think most young businesses have around liquidity and cash flow.
So yes, the lesson there was to perhaps hold off on launching just a little bit longer to really nail what it is your target market wants.
SR: Going forward, what is the next big challenge for the business as you grow?
MB: Getting the right people on board, I think. It’s always hard for a young company with a small team. I’ve had personal experience of seeing really talented people not do well in organisations because of personalities clashing, for example. Getting the right cultural fit is really, really important. You can be in the depths of the worst recession ever, for example, but if you have a great team that are all pulling together then you have the best chance of surviving. Even a minor crisis can send shockwaves through a small company if the team dynamic isn’t good.
Trust is also key. We offer a really flexible way of working for our people, we don’t log hours and check up on activity levels and such. I’ve still got a bit of an academic mindset like that – I don’t care if you come in at 8am or 1pm, or where or how you work, it’s about everyone getting to a great end result not just hitting a certain number of hours. But with that comes the need to have 100% confidence in the people you bring in that they have integrity and honesty, and that they believe in the business and where we’re going.
SR: So if that’s on your mind, does that mean more growth in the near future?
MB: I hope so. We’re certainly happy with the way things are going right now and it looks like we will need to expand next year. As more and more people find out about us as we start to make a name for ourselves then I want to keep the forward momentum going.
The thing I’m most pleased about is that clients love our work and that the designs we provide them with help their Biotech companies grow, get more funding and find more clients. And I love presenting things to clients that blows them away. Hearing something like “wow, we weren’t expecting it to be this amazing” always brings a huge smile to my face. The plan is to continue to do that, to win referrals and recommendations, and to scale up accordingly.
One thing we are all enjoying is the sheer variety of the work and the cutting-edge technology we get exposed to every single day. One day we’ll be working on something to illustrate a new vaccine, the next it’s a space satellite, another one might be an innovative medical implant or a new drug for hypertension. Every day is a new challenge, and our designers, in particular, find it really refreshing to have such variety – and that keeps everyone motivated and excited which I think is reflected in our work.
So we’d love to keep expanding so that we can do this great work for the biotech sector and beyond, and really showcase some of the great new advances and technologies that deserve to be seen and understood by the widest audience possible.
Sue Rees is an expert C-Suite executive search specialist with over 25 years of experience in Pharma, Biotech, Lifesciences etc.