Marcel Gehrung is the CEO of Cyted, a Cambridge spinout which he co-founded during his PhD in 2018. Prior to this, he studied nanoscience and biomedical technology, before beginning his PhD at Cambridge University in AI and healthcare. He is a serial entrepreneur and was listed on Forbes 30 under 30 for science and healthcare.
Marcel founded Cyted with co-founders Maria O’Donovan (a pathologist at Cambridge) and Rebecca Fitzgerald (Professor for cancer prevention and clinical advisor). The company uses deep learning frameworks to support analysis of patient samples, thereby foregoing the need for laboratory experimentation and ensuring accurate and more efficient diagnosis with reduced screening time. The company received its first funding in January of 2020 and began to grow as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. This was a challenging time, Marcel reflects, as establishing a company culture was difficult when hiring remotely. As a self-defined people person, Marcel found it difficult to have less interaction with staff and build good line management. This, he notes, is particularly tough when you have been so heavily invested in your company from the start, but understanding what type of culture you wish to build – for example, a culture by people or process – is crucial for growth. Remember, he adds, establishing a community takes time.
Building a business alongside completing a PhD is a mammoth undertaking. Marcel’s biggest challenge during this time was stakeholder management, as being embedded in an institute, whilst good for engagement and support, came at a cost. In the sphere of academics, one is often perceived as an academic or an outsider, and Marcel faced criticism from some academics as progression and visibility of the company grew. He overcame this with honesty: open communication with supervisors about his future plans and his uncertainty about remaining in academia made it easier to manage others’ expectations. However, he emphasises, he has still been able to keep a foot in science whilst maintaining his business.
Yet the migration from idea in science to execution of strategy in business is a tough transition. Constantly changing the designs based on problems with the data was difficult, and having to go back to the drawing board was tiring – particularly as this was dragged out across his PhD. However, much of this requires time: both to establish software and have academic conversations (often at low levels but in high detail), and this cannot be compressed into a few months. Marcel suggests that at points like these, you need to be hard on yourself; in academia, generally you have to defend your work, but commercially you need to be able to identify flaws and challenges you may face in scaling the product. His prior experience in software consultancy aided in detachment from his scientific findings. Understanding your weaknesses is also a vital part of building business. Knowing if you’re better at operations or strategy, and bringing in people who can help in weaker areas is essential, and therefore you need to be able to critique yourself and your work.
Academics running companies often run the risk of forming a research project as opposed to a commercially viable business. Marcel proposes that entrepreneurs should identify one of three tiers of a company and determine whether the focus should be on technology, product or the business. Initially, Cyted was a tech company, but Marcel made a 180 during the pandemic to focus on running a service, which better catered to the market and customer needs. The ability to change his mindset proved that different components of the company could be leveraged when needed, and eventually resulted in a hybrid company – Cyted has since acquired a laboratory and now functions in labs and the office.
Marcel advises several key strategies when creating a business: have a prime focus and refine the mapping of the journey required to succeed in this area. Furthermore, the user need and customer need to be identified, and from this a pitch can be built. He adds, make sure to pitch in the right way: people tend to invest in revenue, not cost reduction, even when both are beneficial. Talk to others; it’s important to have constant validation and critique in order to get closer to your tech, product or business success. Ensure you understand ‘idea, problem, fit’ and acknowledge that a good idea may not result in commercial success. Also, don’t get too excited about your idea – this does not tend to end in success – instead, at these points in time, take a step back and identify problems. Your idea will evolve and become solutions to the problems you encounter along the way.