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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