Ajit Nagral – Growing and divesting businesses in the life sciences and pharmaceutical industries?

Do you start a business with the intention to divest, or is this something that becomes clear as the business grows?

I find building a company from the ground up very exciting, so that is always a leading factor behind starting a new business. Divesting is never the intention when building a business, it is more something that becomes clear over time. The motivation behind starting my businesses is to create value and deliver a meaningful impact into the pharmaceutical and life science space, in whatever shape that may take.

Take Sciformix, for example. As with my other businesses, Sciformix was created in the right place at the right time, offering our ability to combine science and process at a time when other outsourced businesses were only offering one or the other. When creating Sciformix, the intention was not to divest at a later stage, but to deliver value in what was, at the time, a new area in science.

CROs and regulatory consultants had been around for a long time when I founded Sciformix, but pharmacovigilance (PV) was a relatively new area in the industry. As regulations tightened on the reporting of adverse events within clinical trials, the pharmaceutical industry sprang into action, and it soon became clear that the new pharmacovigilance processes were too much, and too lengthy to all be completed in-house within the 15-day deadline for reporting serious reactions. These regulations were very new when we built Sciformix, and as a result we grew very quickly and worked through roughly one and a half million cases per year. When the time was right to divest, Sciformix was acquired by Covance, and it was time to move on to the next venture (Scitara).

How do you know when it is time to divest and move onto your next project?

When you are working on your business, there is not a conscious decision to divest. You know when the time has come to move on – it is like you flip a switch and realise it is time for something new, and you begin to ask yourself “why would I sell?”

Timing is critical when considering divesting. Is it the right time for your customers? Is it the right time for your employees? And is it the right time for your investors? If it is the right time for all three of these areas, then you can begin the transition fairly quickly. However, if only one or two of these areas are ready for this change, you need to step back and ask yourself “how can I make it the right time for all three?”. Thankfully, all of my exits have been at a point where the time has been right for all three parties, so I have left my businesses smoothly and on good terms.

Does divesting affect the company’s customer base, or is there a smooth transition?

Interestingly, a lot of our customers often prefer to work with smaller companies, such as those which I founded, over larger companies who offer similar services. The benefit of smaller outsourced companies – well, small in comparison to the customer – is that the culture is quite different. Smaller companies and agencies can offer a level of flexibility and innovation to customers that can be difficult to pass through larger organisations. In addition, there is a real sense of an “I have your back” attitude, as you are able to work closely with your customers. Culturally and contractually, my companies have been able to offer something different to larger companies, and we have been willing to do anything and everything our customers needed, which is why they would often choose to sign up with us.

However, as the business grows, those customers tend to stay. When customers become a part of your journey, your relationship with them evolves and your company becomes better equipped to protect their business. Because I aim to divest at a time when my customers are ready for it, there is generally a smooth transition.

You mentioned in our last blog that Scitara was your ‘finale’ – what do you mean by this?

As my previous three ventures were in tech, services, and global delivery, Scitara is the summation of all of my previous projects. As I mentioned in the last blog, Scitara aims to solve the major problem within the lab industry of data connectivity and is leading the digital revolution in labs to address this issue. To do this, we will require the cooperation of every connection we have made over the years, as by helping us, we can help them. If we can reach out to everyone in the ecosystem, we will be able to help companies take a huge leap into their digital transformation projects by creating a platform through which they can communicate their lab data through their digital systems, something which at present is proving a real hindrance to digital transformation projects.

This is why I believe Scitara is my finale. It is almost as if we have come full circle, as Scitara pulls together the skills and relationships I have built over my entire career – into creating a final solution. I intend to go out with a bang!

Industry leader interviews – Oscar Kox?

Oscar, please introduce yourself

I am Oscar Kox, and I am an analytical chemist by training. After I graduated I worked in a laboratory, but with my energy levels I knew I wanted a change of setting. I did not want to discard all my hard work and studies, so I started working for Thermo LabSystems, where I started my sales role with LIMS. It seemed I was pretty good at this: – I understood the software, I understood the customer, I understood the lab process and the demos went well.

After 8 years at Thermo, I moved to London to work for R&D software and solutions company, IDBS. My focus at IDBS was ELN systems, and I stayed there for five years: I had accounts mainly in Europe but also a couple of global accounts.

In 2010, I set up my own lab automation company called iVention. We set iVention up with just two employees, using our own finance and have grown the company organically. 

What made you decide to set up a business from the ground up in a market with established competitors?

We set out to create an automated upgrade platform for LIMS/LES/ELN/(S)DMS, which supports all functional areas within a single technology platform.

I know the competitors in the market well and I have a lot of respect for them, they do good implementations, but I feel there is a lack of innovation. If you look at Salesforce, or Tesla, or Microsoft 365, the system is being updated constantly at no additional cost. Why should lab automation instrumentation be any different? That is the reason I set up iVention – we are trying to change the model.

How is iVention’s approach different in terms of the technology and the business model?

Customers in the market do not look for only LIMS or only ELN anymore – they want an integrated system, a Platform. The iVention vision was to create a lab execution system within a single platform to supply all functionality requirements with no need for modules or extra payments on upgrades. Our platform allows customers to use the LIMS entity in the ELN and visa versa, giving the ability to mix up structured and unstructured data, and do everything in one platform. We like to compare it with Lego; we use functional building blocks that work seamlessly together as one.

How does iVention approach product development?

In terms of product development, we are agile. This means we cut everything down into small pieces and deliver quicker releases. This enables us to ship releases every two weeks (which is more manageable than bigger updates every six months or annually) and therefore mitigates risk. Agile implementations mean we do a very simple implementation, go live and then work from there to enhance the functionality and configuration. The simpler the system is to go live, the easier it is accepted.

While customers do not make initial decisions to buy based on long-term service, we invest strongly into support for our customers, with automation and upgrades as part of their contract. For example, we have automated OQ scripts, which we feel really is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow because the whole process is automated.  

Is iVention today what you expected to build ten years’ ago? Are you where you expected to be?

I am now not only responsible for sales but for services, support, the development team, management of capacity, and so on. I love the responsibility.

I thought the pickup would have been at a higher pace, but we are in a very conservative industry. I quickly realised the importance of having people on the ground, so we are strong in Europe especially in DACH countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland), in North America and in India thanks to the teams we have built.

There is one mission statement I came up with when we started up in 2010 – happy customers. That is really big for me, and I am immensely proud that we have not had a single customer loss in 10 years!

Who is your customer base and what is your global footprint?

A large portion of our target audience works in a regulated environment, in pharma, and there are also some big food and beverage companies that we work with. We also now have a growing footprint in the water industry, as there is a strong regulatory demand for sample management.

It is always good to have first mover customers in a market, so they can see your solution and talk about it to others in the market. Again, this is a conservative industry – people buy from people.

Our growth has been sustained by global partnerships, including Microsoft, LabTwin, Dextr and Perkin Elmer. We plan to grow our global footprint in the coming years, as people on the ground allows us to penetrate local markets and clients. We currently have a total of 75 people working for iVention, and very good global coverage. Our headquarters is in the Netherlands, where I am based. We have regional footprints all over the world, including an office in India, where our Global Configurations Manager is based.

However, the biggest growth area for us currently is DACH supported by our regional office in Switzerland. Next year we plan to triple our revenue across the DACH area. Our growth comes from wider knowledge and acceptance of our technology, for example, in the last three weeks we have signed up over 300 new users. We invest strongly in people in each region to support our growing customer base.

How has COVID-19 impacted you and your customers in 2020?

Since late February, all our consultants across the globe have worked remotely and have moved all ongoing projects online. As you can imagine, it has been a huge relief to our customers that we have been able to continue with projects despite the stringent travel restrictions and challenging circumstances.

We have adapted well to COVID, and these times have actually helped us to showcase the full capabilities, power and strength of our product.  We support all our implementations online, which has proved the power of the platform and the SAAS cloud technology. We can work from anywhere.

What makes iVention a success and what do you feel makes you a successful entrepreneur?

We started the company with no Venture Capital, so we are completely private, there is no external money in the company. We have built this company with decency, knowledge and with a strategy.

I think it helps that I had a reason for starting iVention. I still work as hard because I want to change this industry by highlighting it is about staying ahead of the game and constant innovation. People like to drive a Tesla; many people purchase them for the environment, but a lot of people do because it is simply great technology!

I see iVention as a family business – we go on skiing holidays with the whole team every year and do regular outings. During COVID it has been difficult and we all really miss that interaction. I miss my team! I like to make people successful in their roles, but also make iVention successful with the ambitions that we have.

Industry leader interviews – Ajit Nagral. An insight into the world of scientific entrepreneurship?

Ajit, please introduce yourself. 

My career history is uncomplicated because straight out of college I started working for myself, and it has been that way for my entire career. I graduated in the US with a background in computing science and I decided I did not want to take the traditional path of finding a job and building a career that way. I always liked to be doing things differently. Coming out of college with very little money and a limited skillset, the reasonable thing to do was to get into software consulting because that did not require a whole lot of capital. Since then, I have founded four companies in the life science sector.

What led you to the science industry?

I ended up in the pharma and life science industry very early on by chance. After I graduated, I was in Boston with database and computing skills, and I started a small consulting company called Megaware. I found out there was a large life science vendor in Massachusetts which had some opportunities around a new life science product they were building. After a lot of persistence, the CIO reluctantly gave me 15 minutes to speak with him. I told him about my background and what I was attempting to do – he said they didn’t have anything for me within his organisation, but he would connect me to his counterpart at their analytical instrument division. I then got a contract to help this analytical instrument company build a part of their (then) new product, the first database driven instrument software, and that was my entry into the pharma world. That seems simple, but it was fortuitous and persistence more than anything else.

Can you give us a potted history of each of your companies? 

My first company was Megaware. Back in those days labs were making the transition from VAX.VMS-based systems to PC-based systems. Enterprises had huge investments in VAX.VMS systems and in HP printers. We produced a product to be able to print from a VAX.VMS system onto a HP printer. It seems straightforward (but it was not!) because you are printing to a Windows-based printer but from a non-Windows system. We built a whole system to rectify this issue. I ran and built Megaware for 4 – 5 years and it was then sold to a boutique consulting company.

NuGenesis was my second company. We identified the issue that labs had several different instruments, from different vendors, but they did not talk to each other. You had large pharma companies, printing reams of paper, spending $millions of dollars on running labs across the globe and eventually all of that intellectual property ended up on paper! In those times when they submitted a new drug application, those applications were on tens of hundreds of pieces of paper which were carried to the regulatory agencies on trucks for review! It made no sense that something started out electronically and ended up on paper to be read by somebody manually. We were able to intercept print streams and capture a lot of information to make the data live. It is remarkable that 20 years later it is still being used – that says a lot about the value and sustainability of NuGenesis. I sold the business to Waters in 2004.

After I sold NuGenesis I was clear I wanted to stay in life sciences but do something different. I went back to many of my clients and ask what problems they are facing – that is when I landed into outsourcing in the area of drug safety, clinical and regulatory.

What was new and different was an area called pharmacovigilance. If you recall, there were a couple of landmark cases related to drugs in the market that had caused deaths. That is when the regulatory agencies realised they do not have a handle around adverse events. They approve drugs, they come to market and years later you start seeing adverse reactions that you did not see during the trial period. The regulatory agencies started mandating reporting of all adverse effects. With the visibility and potential liability, the biopharma industry sprang into action and the flood gates opened to drug safety outsourcing. This was when we launched Sciformix – a scientific knowledge-based outsourcing provider for the life science industry. Any given year when we got to the maturity stage we were doing around 1 million cases. We did everything from cancer drugs to consumer products, from cancer medication to sunscreen lotion. Our success at Sciformix was due to our ability to combine enough science and a very good process. Again, the company grew very rapidly to over 1300-1400 people globally, and it came to a point where it felt like the time was right to divest in 2018. Sciformix was acquired by LabCorp/Covance, a top three CRO (and currently a leader in COVID19 diagnostic testing).

What was the motivation behind the launch of Scitara? 

Having done tech, services and global delivery, I thought I should combine these skills and focus on my finale!

Our core team believes Scitara is more than just a business, it is a goal of ours to solve a major problem that still exists in the scientific laboratory: data connectivity. We are pioneering a new digital revolution when it comes to lab data connectivity. We have invented a platform called Scitara DLX (data lab exchange), and our goal with this platform is to connect your instrument, application, or anything else you use in the lab to our platform and we guarantee they can talk to each other.

Our goal is that science labs can log into any system that they are currently using and can access data from any other system that is in the lab. We have a mantra of ‘no application or instrument left behind’. For us to achieve this goal we need cooperation from the industry, which is why I am calling this a finale. It will require all our connections we have made over the years and the reputation we have built to reach out to everyone in the ecosystem. Companies are making significant headway in their digital transformation initiatives, except they do not know how to get their lab data onto their digital platforms, and that is where we come in.

How did you find your entrepreneurial drive?

I am very driven to be independent. I am useless when it comes to working for someone else and fortunately, I have never had to. My personality drives me to try new things and dive into uncertainty and this has always pushed me into something completely new.

The building of my companies motivated me. What excites me is the building from the ground up. Each time the building is easier, but the expectations are higher. I do not build to divest – I build to create value, disrupt, and hopefully deliver a meaningful impact, and the rest takes care of itself.

If anyone comes to me for advice or mentoring, I ask them why? Why do you want to do it? Why you? What is the motivation? That tells a lot very early on about the chances of success that a person may or may not achieve. It does not guarantee success, but if you have a good understanding of the ‘why’ it helps you go a long way. Beyond that I’d say it is important to find a mentor from the industry – people need to recognise that investments happen in teams not necessarily ideas. Do not latch onto an idea too much because things can change.

Create a loyal fanbase, people often think I have 500+ clients, but it is not the number that counts, it is whether you have a handful of loyal clients who make a lot of noise and reopen doors. That becomes exceedingly important.

What would you say makes you a successful entrepreneur? 

We do not rely on big sales engines in our industry. It is about building solid connections and networks. When clients learn that I created the concept behind several successful companies, people admire that. There is no better way to connect with a client than something that they are fond of and that I am proud of.

I have learnt the hard way; you build the best partnerships in tough times. When things do not go right, it is how you react that defines not only your relationship but your career as an entrepreneur. I have sold to the same clients across multiple companies. Most of those clients I have had difficult moments with, and it has made our relationship much more resilient.

Having a non-scientific viewpoint has also really helped, particularly when it comes to products. To be able to look at the consumer world, or industrial world or finance world and understand how technology has evolved there and bring those learnings into the scientific world is invaluable.

What does the future hold for Ajit Nagral? 

This is the first time after having done this for 20+ years that I have the liberty and luxury to say if this part of my journey were to end, what would be my new journey? It is the first time I have thought about it, and I think it comes with experience and the safety net I have built for me and my family. I am eternally grateful to my customer, employees and investors to put me in this position.

Hopefully Scitara is my last company, as an operating founder. There are many other things I want to do. In addition to being a tech guy I am also a musician. There are things I am doing in music production that I have started already – hopefully in a few years once I am done with Scitara, that is where I will end up!

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