Dr Yichen Shi, CEO at Axol Bioscience
Axol Bioscience is a Cambridge stem cell startup co-founded and co-funded privately by Abcam CEO, Dr Jonathan Milner, and internationally acclaimed Dr Yichen Shi.
The company, based at Babraham Research Campus, is selling proprietary brain stem cells produced from reprogrammed human blood cells, known as iPS cells. It has shipped its first product – to the University of Cambridge – and inside a month set up a global distribution network spanning the US, Japan, Scandinavia and several territories in mainland Europe including Germany, Italy and Switzerland.
Axol – primed to address a $15 billion dollar global neurobiology research market – is regarded as having a significant ethical edge as its products eliminate the need for testing human disease pathologies in animal models. Axol is applying cutting-edge stem cell technologies to generate high quality human neural stem cells and neurons. Cerebral cortical neurons are implicated in numerous neurological diseases including Alzheimer’s, autism, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury and stroke.
1. At what stage did you realise that you had a potential business on your hands?
Before I started my PhD at Cambridge I saw an article published in Journal Nature about converting adult human cells, such as skin cells to a special type of stem cells, called iPS cells. These iPS cells have the ability to morph into any cell type of human bodies. I was thinking, this amazing technology will eventually revolutionise the personalised medicine field. At the time I was determined to learn more about it. So, I applied to do a PhD in a stem cell lab and proposed to work on producing important human cell types from the iPS cells.
During the second year of my PhD, I developed a method to produce high purity brain stem cells and functional brain neurons from the iPS cells, and since then, I have kept receiving requests for samples and collaborations. This is when I started to see a business opportunity in providing ready-made human cells for research purposes.
2. How did you physically convert the science to a business opportunity?
Starting a business in the biotech field is expensive. Without funding I knew I could not physically do anything. So the first thing I did was to try to convince investors – including my family and friends – to provide a pot of ‘proof-of-market’ funding for the business.
Once the funding was in place I started production in a rented, fully equipped lab on Babraham Research Campus. This helped me avoid spending large capital on equipment. I also designed the company’s e-commerce platform and contacted potential customers to pinpoint their requirements. Feedback from the early customers helped Axol to better position its products, define customer archetypes and create effective marketing campaigns.
3. Had you been determined from the outset to form a company or did it evolve naturally?
I always had the idea of starting my own business. I was keen to commercialise biotechnologies that benefit medical research.
4. What problems did you face before forming the company?
I did not face significant problems before the company foundation, but I was prepared to take on lots of challenges after that. Things like how to find and reach potential customers and manage employees were not taught in my PhD so I had to learn and apply the business knowledge at the same time.
5. At what stage did you engage with Jonathan Milner and how important is he to the business going forward?
Jonathan is one of the two co-founders of Axol. We met at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge – which promotes research in the areas of developmental biology and cancer biology – when Jonathan was speaking there as a guest alumnus. He is a seasoned biotech entrepreneur with experience in starting up and growing high profit biotech businesses at a fast pace. He is and will remain our leader providing inspiration, knowledge and direction for the team at Axol.
6. How are you funded and when will you need to reinforce your funding?
Currently, the business is privately funded by Jonathan and me. We are raising the next round of funding - £600,000, in order to bring on board new talent, file patents, license-in IP and enhance our production capabilities.
7. What do you lack in the business?
We are looking to recruit more technicians to fulfil the production demands and customer service requirements. A growing company like us would constantly look for talented individuals and cutting edge technologies to support the expansion of its capabilities.
8. What are the opportunities going forward?
The market for human cell-based research products is expected to reach $11 billion within the next five years. We aim to take the lead in the market and diversify into the Amazon of the cell supply industry. Instead of just providing a few products on our websites, we will incorporate a wide range of cell types and cell-related products manufactured by our partner companies and us. This would allow us to grow into a complete solution provider for our customers in academia, biotech and pharmaceutical industries.
9. What does a Cambridge location mean to the business?
Cambridge is becoming the Silicon Valley of Europe. There are not only great innovations, but also many entrepreneurial communities and a lot of experienced investors supporting technology and biotechnology ventures. I was lucky enough to be in this place and have the opportunity to learn and discuss business ideas with some of the successful biotech entrepreneurs. Many concepts of our current business model stemmed from the discussions with business angels in the community and our researcher customers in the University of Cambridge.
10. What keeps you awake at night?
My baby daughterwww.axolbio.com