Start: Dr Caroline Barelle’s Converge Challenge journey - turning a scientist into an entrepreneur

Caroline Barelle

Dr Caroline Barelle, CEO/CSO of Elasmogen Ltd. didn’t consider herself an entrepreneur.

However, when faced with a collection of circumstances, she launched down that road with the help of the Converge Challenge, a pan-Scotland company creation competition and entrepreneurship development programme for staff, students, and recent graduates of Scottish Universities and Research Institutes aimed at creating a new generation of entrepreneurs in Scotland.

She tells us her story and details the journey.

Converge; to tend or move toward one point or one another, to come together and unite in a common interest or focus, to meet.

In hindsight I should have asked where the term “Converge Challenge” originated from but having bought the ticket, been given permission to board and taken the journey, the name now makes a lot of sense.

I’ve never considered myself to be an entrepreneur mainly because I tend to go towards safer more considered pursuits but I also felt that this title was more becoming of young, energetic “go-getters” who all had risk as their middle names.

However, change hit me big time when I was made redundant from my position as a team leader for a large pharmacy company and the opportunity arose to bundle together an asset portfolio and create something new.

That something new was a biotech company based on novel antibody-like molecules that could be developed into different therapeutic drugs to primarily treat inflammatory diseases, autoimmune disorders and cancer. These molecules, that we now call soloMERs, are as effective as therapeutic antibodies (which have predicted sales of $125B per annum by 2020) at binding disease targets but benefit from being a fraction of the size (<10%) enabling them to penetrate further into tissues such as solid tumours and to be applied topically instead of via a needle.

This all sounds great but what we had were all the pieces of the puzzle but little idea how they fit together. The antibody market is awash with competition, substitute products and IP galore. We truly needed a cunning plan to carve a niche, to define that USP, to come up with a killer app. Enter Converge Challenge.

I had heard the name bantered about on the Scottish life sciences grapevine but had never really explored what it was about until our Research and Innovation department at the University of Aberdeen highlighted the competition and suggested heading down to Glasgow to find out more.
It turned out to be a very productive day out. Past participants, runners up and winners from previous years from a multitude of different technology sectors provided an insight into their experience and what they had gained from taking part in the company creation competition.

The timing was perfect – we had an asset portfolio, support from the University of Aberdeen and Scottish Enterprise, incredible scientific talent but we needed to take all of these and convert them into a viable business proposition.

The first pleasant surprise was the simple, straight forward application form. After enduring biblical sized grant applications this was truly heaven sent. It also became apparent very quickly that this efficient first stage reflected the whole process which was supported by an incredible team of individuals who were there to help throughout.

We made it through to the next stage – the business plan. A critical part of any new company is defining the purpose, articulating the benefits of the product, identifying the target customers, selecting the market and analysing the competitive landscape to ensure you are investor-ready. The feedback we got was invaluable and we now had an integrated business plan for our company.

The final stage of the Converge Challenge was to pitch to the judging panel and after months of research, mentoring and guidance we knew our business model inside out and we were ready.

The finalé took place at a wonderful ceremony in Edinburgh where disbelief and elation in equal measure pretty much summed up my feelings when we were announced as the 2nd prize winners. My smile was even bigger than the enormous cheque we were handed but this joy was just the beginning of what has been a fantastic year.

The money was, as money is, always welcome particularly when you are starting a new venture from scratch however I feel in many ways the support leading up to and beyond this point was where the real value lay. Press coverage that came with succeeding with the Converge Challenge, PR and branding support we won as part of the prize, we now have a new image complete with logo and are about to launch our website. IP, financial and legal support were also part of the package which are all key activities necessary for a new business.

But for me the greatest benefit of being part of the Converge Challenge, by taking the Converge journey, is being part of the Converge family; the contacts, the networking, the expertise and the support. As I stated at the start, I had not considered myself entrepreneurial material, I had never done anything like this before but this experience has instilled within me a “can do” attitude, and the support and training to deliver as a CEO of a new biotech company – all of these did indeed need to ‘converge’ to make this a reality…now I get the name!