Interview with SAL Scientific Founding Director and Catalyst Graduate, Alasdair Robertson

We interviewed Alasdair Robertson, Founding Director at SAL Scientific and 2013 Catalyst Graduate.

Tell us about SAL Scientific.

We are a life science business offering products and services to companies that use cells in their research. Primarily, we work with pharmaceutical and bio-technology companies doing pre-clinical drug discovery.

Our core business is cell biology – both services and cell culture supplement products – but we’re also developing an “organ-on-chip technology” we call the smart biochip.  This could be the focus of our business in the future. We’re currently 50 percent focused on developing the existing business and 50 percent on technology development.

So how did the business begin?

I was Head of Biology at a company called Genetix and my colleague Steve was head of R&D. We were acquired by a big American corporation which eventually decided to close the site. Although we were offered very good packages to relocate to Silicon Valley, we ultimately turned this down, acquired some of the lab equipment from the old company – and set up in business.

We initially put the equipment in storage while we looked for somewhere to site our new business – as very few locations have suitable lab facilities. We thought about kitting out an industrial unit ourselves but then came across the Science Park and found out about the Catalyst Programme. We won a place in Catalyst and then became the first tenants in the newly opened Science Centre. That was three years ago.

And now?

There are currently four of us so it is still quite full-on, although we expect to add another scientist to our team shortly. We’ve got a strong client base, a good pipeline of prospects and all of our clients have come back to us for repeat business which is encouraging. However, it can take quite a long time to get contracts in place with big pharma organisations, which we have to plan for.

You’ve been successful in securing funding haven’t you?

Yes, we’ve had two Innovate UK grants and some regional growth funding. One reason for this is because we’re working in an area that is of strategic interest to the government.

The pharmaceutical industry is very important to the UK economy and pharmaceutical companies are facing major issues in that it now costs more than £2.5bn to take a new drug to market. When you’re developing a drug, you start off with thousands of potential candidate drugs and you test them in cells, or on animals, to weed out the compounds that don’t work and identify the candidate that safely delivers the best response. Then you embark on clinical trials with humans. Many drugs fail clinical trials because the preclinical testing data doesn’t translate well into humans – and this can be very expensive – so we are trying to develop and grow cells that better reflect the human situation.

What we’re trying to develop are more sophisticated stem cell-based models that will deliver more predictive data, to reduce drug failure and replace animal testing. This approach means that you can take cells from people, reprogram them into stem cells and turn them into any tissue in the body for patient or disease-specific modelling. This is a multistage process and in order for it to become commercially scalable, there’s much we have to optimise.

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs looking to start their own business?

My advice would be that there’s a lot of advice out there! It’s good to take advice but you must also have the confidence to make your own decisions. Often, advice is contradictory with both points of view having merit – so you have to weigh them up and make your own decision.

The Catalyst process was very good for us as it offered so much knowledge that we didn’t have. Even though we both had a commercial background, there is still a lot of information around basic business administration – accounts and the legal side of things – that you don’t have to think about until you start up.

What do you like about being based on the Science Park?

Networks are very important as a source of advice and support and, here at the Science Park, there are all kinds of people from whom you can get good advice. The interaction with other people and companies on site has been invaluable. We received a Future Solent regional growth fund grant in 2013 which really gave us the boost that allowed us to set-up; we wouldn’t have known about that grant had we not been based at the Science Park.

The professional environment has also benefited us: we’ve had two of our major clients visit and look around the lab. What they saw was exactly what they needed to see – a secure, professional set up in a pleasant conservation area.