When Novo Nordisk acquired our company, Ziylo, in a deal potentially worth $800 million, it exceeded our wildest expectations. Four years earlier, in 2014, I was finishing my Ph.D. in Professor Davis’ lab at the University of Bristol. We’d designed a set of molecular ‘sugar switches’ that sense how much glucose is present in solutions, with applications in diabetes to produce new therapeutics and sensors.
When my Ph.D. funding ran out, I reached a crossroads: should I go back to working at a restaurant to pay rent and try to write up in my free time, or take a gamble on my own business venture? I decided to max out my credit cards and build Ziylo while finishing my thesis. It certainly gave me a lot of motivation.
Bristol has a tremendous pull as a city. It’s consistently voted one of the best places to live in Europe: it’s independent, vibrant, and liberal, with an incredible art and music scene. Bristol is bubbling over with creativity and attracts young people with fresh ideas.
But I’d noticed something of a ‘brain drain’ from the area. The universities are pumping out world-class researchers, but there’s nowhere for them to go. There’s a single-digit probability of finding a permanent position in academia, and the prospects in the industry weren’t much better. Many graduates I knew were forced to move to find research work or changed their careers to stay in Bristol.
The biggest challenge we faced with Ziylo was finding space for R&D. Our mad idea in 2015 was to convert a warehouse into Unit DX: central Bristol’s first science incubator with rentable laboratories. Our vision was to put Bristol on the map as one of the UK’s key life sciences ecosystems. While there weren’t many start-ups at the time, we knew there was a glut of research on the fringes of commercialisation. We bet that if we could lower the barriers to entry, we’d see an explosion of enterprise.
We opened our first site in 2017, and now we’ve filled it, we’re expanding into a second. We’ve seen more start-ups associated with the University of Bristol in the last two years than in the decade before we opened our doors.
Many people told us that Ziylo and Unit DX would fail, but I don’t worry about advice unless it’s backed up with information, and those giving it can answer the hard questions. Never lose your drive to learn and understand a situation. Question everything: how are things done, and why, and can they be done differently?