Entering the Dragon’s Den of the Biotech Industry

9th December 2021

An enterprising group of students from the Quadram Institute has entered this year's global YES competition. The go-getting team successfully progressed to the final and are now in for the chance to win the prestigious award, plus a generous cash prize.

Glória Máté-Koncz, Ariadna Miquel-Clopes, Maria Solsona-Gaya, and Federico Bernuzzi share their experience in the Dragon’s Den of biotech, from coming up with In-Ball Diagnostics to pitching to leading industry figures.

What is the YES competition, and why is it such a big deal?

The YES competition, which stands for Young Entrepreneurs Scheme, is an annual global competition for PhD students, early postdocs and research staff. For the past 26 years, teams have devised novel science and engineering business models to address significant societal and environmental challenges. Through participation, individuals learn how to commercialise their ideas.

We developed a hypothetical (but plausible) idea for the competition and built a business plan around it. Over the last few months, we have learnt about creative thinking, business models, intellectual property, finances and regulations from leading figures in industry. With all the knowledge acquired and advice from mentors, we presented a 15-minute business pitch to a panel of equity investors. We’re thrilled to be finalists – we will compete for an incredible prize fund of £15k.

The YES competition is often a catalyst to real company ideas with several participants going on to start fully-fledged businesses. It’s important to emphasise that a lot of the speakers, mentors and judges were previous YES participants and have proven track records of professional success. This competition also offers an alumni community, through LinkedIn, to build your network.

 

Your entry for 2021: What is In-Ball Diagnostics, and how did you come up with the idea?

In-Ball Diagnostics (our hypothetical company) offers a home-based kit to detect protein biomarkers in stool (poo) directly in the toilet to diagnose and monitor Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).

Bath bombs inspired our idea. We created a new “toilet bomb” for healthcare purposes. The multi-layered ball, which could be classified as an in-vitro diagnostic device (IVD), is an easy-to-use home kit that avoids stool collection. Throw the ball in the toilet, and it’ll generate colours as it reacts to specific IBD stool biomarkers. The final colour would reflect the likelihood and type of IBD. An app linked to the NHS would scan the results, collect patient data and send it to the GP. Our solution would help relieve pressure on the NHS by reducing unnecessary colonoscopies.

We brainstormed different ideas and problems during the first team meetings. We wanted to do something related to gut health and thought about a diagnosis kit. In the beginning, we were mainly focused on the science behind the diagnostic kit. But we then started thinking outside the box and came up with this idea. IBD affects around 0.5-1% of the population. The diagnosis process can sometimes take up to 6 months from the first GP visit. So we decided to focus on this pressing issue. We wanted to create something easy to use and affordable for everyone. Even if the idea seems futuristic now, it could be plausible with more research in the future.

As part of the competition, we pretended that we had already done 5-10 years of research in collaboration with the Quadram Institute and the NNUH Gastroenterology department. So our product was ready to be commercialised.

“Do you experience any gut issues? In-Ball Diagnostics offers an innovative and easy-to-use home kit to detect signs of Inflammatory Bowel Disease.”

 

What was it like working together as a team?

It all came very naturally, to be honest. We were all very good at brainstorming, helping each other out, and we bonded very well. For the competition, we had to take different roles in the company, such as Chief Executive Officer (Glória Máté-Koncz), Regulatory Affairs Officer (Maria Solsona-Gaya), Chief Science Officer (Federico Bernuzzi) and Chief Financial Officer (Ariadna Miquel-Clopes). Although, we all chipped in for each other’s roles and discussed everything as a team.

 

How did you overcome any challenges?

Challenges? We did not experience any of that (joking)! When we ran out of inspiration, we tried to take a break to make a decision with a fresh(er) mind (brownies helped too!). During the three-day workshop, we had some mentoring sessions. We realised our market had to be changed, along with all the financial plans. In the beginning, that wasn’t easy to manage. With the decision made, though, we decided on the next steps and helped each other make the right changes.

 

How was it pitching to the judges?

We were stressed during the preparation stage, especially because we knew we would be the last ones to pitch. We were all very energetic on the actual pitch. We even showed a “prototype” of the toilet bomb and our badges with the company logo. After the presentation, we were relieved and answered all the questions calmly and smiling. It was a great experience, and we all had fun!

 

What have you learnt from participating in YES 21?

We have developed a wide range of skills such as enterprise, teamwork, management, communication, and project management by creating an innovative solution that could be translated. This competition made us think outside the box by cultivating our business sense and creativity.

 

Would you encourage postgrads and postdocs to enter the competition in the future?

Absolutely! Participating in YES is an excellent opportunity to learn about the business world and network. You will learn about entrepreneurship, meet other students from different universities, and collaborate with industry experts from all sectors. In the real world, these contacts might become very useful!

One crucial factor to consider is that the competition involves many team meetings, literature reviews, and long nights during the workshop. We even managed to keep early-bird Federico awake until late! We would recommend it to students who can dedicate a fair amount of time alongside their PhDs/Postdocs. Our team had two 2nd year PhD students and two 4th year PhD students. Although we would suggest doing this at the early stages of your PhD/Postdoc, you can benefit more from all the connections made at later stages of your career.