Dr Julie Barnes, Founder & CEO, Abcodia, Startups Businesswoman of the Year

Dr Julie Barnes is CEO of Abcodia Ltd, an innovative company engaged in the validation and discovery of biomarkers for the early detection and screening of disease.

Abcodia swept the boards at the UK’s 2012 Startups Awards, winning the Innovative Business of the Year Award, the Angel or VC-Backed Business of the Year Award and the prestigious Natwest Startups Business of the Year Award, whilst Julie was also awarded the Startups Businesswomen of the Year Award.

Julie has over 20 years experience of the Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology industry, including 15 years experience of early R&D with GlaxoSmithKline. More recently Julie was director and Chief Scientific Officer at BioWisdom, a healthcare technology company.

Her mix of scientific and commercial experience in large pharmaceutical and small start-ups and academic network brings a strong understanding of what is required to successfully lead Abcodia as an ethical and collaborative organisation.

We spoke to Julie about how it felt to win every award she was nominated for at the Startups Awards; about her successful fundraising round; and her hopes for 2013.

 TNW: How did you come up with the idea for Abcodia and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?

JB: The idea for Abcodia came from the lifelong work of Professor Ian Jacobs, who through his work on ovarian cancer screening, established the UCL biobank to which we have exclusive commercial access. It was a meeting of minds when my business partner, Chris Hodkinson, now COO of Abcodia, and myself met Professor Jacobs. We saw the potential and began to think through how we could form a company which maximised the value of the biobank to derive new tests for the early detection and screening of cancer. It took us a year to really assess the market, the competition and, crucially, the niche that we would occupy. We were then in a position to define a compelling business plan to take to investors. 

TNW: What is your business model?

JB: Our business model is to work collaboratively with partners who are interested in developing tests for early cancer detection. These partners could be major diagnostic companies, smaller biomarker start-ups, technology focussed companies or academics. The value that Abcodia brings to these collaborations is returned by the partner either in upfront licence fees, downstream royalties or full commercialisation rights to the products that result from the collaboration.

TNW: Abcodia swept the board at the 2012 Startups Awards. Tell us how that felt; what you took away from the whole experience; and what the impact has been on your business?

JB:

We were delighted, and to be honest, rather overwhelmed. We had hoped to win one of the awards for the categories for which we had been shortlisted in the finals, but not all three.

The icing on the cake was was winning the overall award for best business of 2012. It was really great to hear that the judges were unanimous in their views of our company, based only on what they could read in the public domain. Of course, there are more exciting things that we cannot yet disclose too. What was equally rewarding was their appreciation not only of the global commercial opportunity that lies ahead for the company, but also the value that we hope to bring to individuals at risk from cancer.

Cancer is an increasing burden on society and our healthcare systems, and early detection and prevention are increasingly important. The opportunity for us to really make a difference to people’s lives was recognised strongly. It’s too early for us to appreciate the long term impact of the awards on our business, but certainly it was a real morale booster for the entire team and has created a stir. It was also great recognition for UCL, UCL Business and our investor, Albion Ventures too. 

TNW: The judges at the Startups Awards were impressed with how much Abcodia has achieved with a relatively modest amount of venture capital. Tell us a little about your successful funding round and how you have allocated the funds.

JB: We raised VC capital from UCL Business and Albion Ventures. The success in raising the funds was really down to a number of factors, not least the unique opportunity to advance early diagnosis of cancer, made possible by access to the biobank, the strength of the 5-10 year business plan and the credibility and experience of our highly skilled management team, as well as working with Professor Jacobs and our chairman, Dr Andy Richards, who is well respected in the world of biotech and business. 

TNW: What are the advantages of gender diversity in a startup? Are there any disadvantages?

I am a big believer in the need for diversity in all aspects and fully recognise that gender diversity is one of the essential elements to ensure broad capability in any business.

Men and women tend to bring a different way of thinking and operational steer and I can see no disadvantages to having a fair balance in any organisation. What is critical to success in any team is the balance of the right expertise and behaviour and an understanding of and respect for each others’ roles and responsibilities. 

TNW: What has been your biggest challenge throughout the history of your company, from planning to funding and execution, and how could others learn from it?

JB: There have and will continue to be several challenges in the business, as in any other. One of the greatest challenges was probably obtaining early validation of the business model by signing up some partnerships with both short and long term value. We did this quite quickly. We have also needed to keep a real watch on the bank balance. It’s very easy to spend cash, in areas that don’t really bring value. Success in the long term is really about the early stage investments that one makes.  

TNW: Do you think that attitudes towards female entrepreneurs are changing?

JB: There are certainly more women in high profile leadership roles now than say a decade or two ago, but it’s hard to know why this is. It’s a very complex area that relates not only to attitudes, but also competency, changes in equal opportunities legislation, perceptions, image, work/life balance, family management etc.

What is important is that where a woman wants to take up the entrepreneurial gauntlet, they get the same support and opportunity to do so as a man.

In this context, throughout my career, I have never experienced any major barriers getting in the way of what I wanted to achieve.

TNW: What qualities do you think women entrepreneurs need for sourcing angel investment/raising venture capital? 

JB: The quality of any entrepreneur in raising capital are the same, whether one is male or female; Commitment, confidence in the mission, and eloquent delivery of the value proposition. Basically, you have to persuade someone to invest in a story and in You. 

TNW: What is one lesson you would like to pass on to other women leaders?

JB: Believe in what you do. (If you don’t believe, don’t do it!). Be passionate about the cause. Never give up.

There is always a way round most obstacles in a business, even if it means a turn in another direction.

TNW: What are your hopes for your business in 2013 and beyond?

JB: We hope that 2013 will bring us significantly closer to having a product that can benefit patients. In the longer term, my vision for Abcodia is that it becomes a globally successful business in cancer detection and screening, delivering products that really make a difference to individuals and healthcare systems around the world.

I would also like Abcodia to be a real example for UK translational research. There is considerable emphasis here in the UK on translating the best of academic endeavour into commercial reality and I hope that what we are doing will inspire others to look at how the richness of academic excellence can for the basis of new start-ups that support the economy. 

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