Q&A with Aaron Venables, CEO of InsituGen (Episode 1)

Can you briefly introduce yourself and your background in the Life Science Industry?

I’m Aaron, I have a background in the life science industry with 25 years of experience. I began my career at market leading companies such as Qiagen, Life Technologies/Thermo Fisher Scientific, and Illumina, where I gained invaluable insights into the field.

Initially, I started in sales and marketing roles, which allowed me to develop a deep understanding of customer needs and market dynamics. As I progressed in my career, I transitioned into management and senior leadership positions, taking on increasing responsibilities and leading teams to success.

Seeking new challenges and opportunities, I ventured into the world of startups, joining companies of varying sizes and at various stages, such as Wetherbys Scientific, Fluidic Analytics, and Sampled. This experience provided me with a unique perspective on the dynamic and innovative nature of smaller organizations within the life science industry, certainly when it came to how to scale a business for high growth.

Recently, I have taken up the position of CEO at InsituGen Ltd (www.insitugen.com), an exciting New Zealand startup. InsituGen has developed a novel and innovative bioassay for the rapid and accurate detection of androgenic and estrogenic activity. Initially focused on anti-doping in racehorses, camels and supplements, we are also developing further applications in wellness testing in companion animal and monitoring environmental steroid contamination. In this role, I am thrilled to lead the company and its amazing team, in its mission to ensure fairness and integrity in sports, as well as protect the health and well-being of animals. As I guide InsituGen through its growth and success, I am hopeful that we can make a meaningful impact in the life science industry and contribute to the advancement of detection technologies in these fields.

What do you see as the most significant upcoming trends in the Life Science Market?

From my perspective, having a background in genomics, I see some really exciting trends on the horizon in the life science market. One of the significant ones is the ongoing cost reduction in advanced technologies like Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS). This is a game-changer because we are hitting a price point where large genomic data sets are now at the forefront of clinical research projects, drug discovery, and ultimately being used for precision medicine.

Another trend that I find fascinating is the rise of single-cell and spatial transcriptomics. In the past, we used to analyze gene expression in bulk, which gave us an average measurement across a group of cells. But now, with single-cell transcriptomics, we can actually zoom in and study gene expression at the individual cell level. This is a breakthrough because it allows us to understand the diversity and dynamics within a cell population, leading to valuable insights in fields like developmental biology, cancer research, immunology, and neuroscience. And let’s not forget about spatial transcriptomics, which takes it a step further by allowing us to see how genes are expressed within their tissue context. It’s like unravelling the intricate patterns of gene activity in the body.

What’s really exciting about these trends is how they’re contributing to the advancement of personalized medicine. As the cost of genomic sequencing continues to go down, more and more people can benefit from tailored healthcare approaches. Personalized medicine involves advance diagnosis, then designing treatments and interventions based on an individual’s unique genetic profile. So, as the quality of genomic data improves and costs become more affordable, we’re getting closer to a future where healthcare is truly personalized and tailored to each person’s needs. I would love to see a world where these advanced technologies are routinely used for any patient that is diagnosed with a chronic disease.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the life science industry, and what changes do you foresee in the post-pandemic era?

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a massive impact on the life science industry, and how we operate in business in general. One of the obvious shifts was the rise of virtual working. Suddenly, in-person meetings became a thing of the past, and we all had to adapt to video calls and virtual conferences. I remember a time where all of my sales calls would be in person, and now if you meet a customer then more often than not it’s a remote virtual meeting. Even though conferences are making a comeback, I think people question the need and cost of travel more than ever. This also gives us more flexibility in where we can work, which has really opened up a broader talent pool for employers. You’re not limited to hiring someone who can relocate to your area. Now, you can tap into talent from different parts of the globe, which is great.

The other noticeable change is the funding available for scientific research, especially in the areas of virology and vaccine development. There is no doubt that this will accelerate research and development efforts in the life science industry.

All in all, the pandemic has shaken things up in the life science industry. We’ve adapted to virtual meetings, expanded our talent pool, and witnessed a remarkable surge in funding for research. The post-pandemic era will undoubtedly give a mix of new working styles and exciting advancements in science. It’s an ever-evolving industry, and you have to be ready to embrace the changes and move forward.

Could you share some of your notable achievements or success stories in the industry?

One notable achievement was being part of the team that created the Stratified Medicine Scotland Innovation Centre (SMS-IC, now called Precision Medicine Scotland) back in 2013-14. This initiative was truly groundbreaking as it paved the way for personalized medicine in Scotland. It was great to be at the forefront, and we were one of the first standalone personalized medicine companies in the UK. It was exciting to contribute to the development of an initiative that has had a lasting impact on healthcare in Scotland.

A more recent success story I was involved in was a rebranding effort at Sampled. This was a huge undertaking but also immensely rewarding. I had the opportunity to come in and lead the complete rebranding of the company, which was done top-secret (which added another layer of complexity in executing on the project). The results were very well received both internally with colleagues and in the external market. It only took a few months for staff and customers to forget the previous name and brand and fully embrace and adopt the new one. It was a game-changer for the company as the rebranding not only brought increased visibility but also helped establish a strong brand presence and credibility in the market. It was a proud moment for the entire team.

They have been just a couple of significant moments of growth, innovation, and making a meaningful impact. Being part of creating Stratified Medicine Scotland and leading the rebranding at Sampled have been highlights of my career, and I’m grateful for the opportunities to contribute to these remarkable milestones.

What advice would you give to young professionals aspiring to enter the life science industry?

Firstly, it’s important to determine what area of the industry interests you the most. There’s a wide range of roles available, from technical and research-oriented positions to commercial and support roles. Identify your passion and strengths to guide your career path.

Having a strong scientific knowledge base is crucial in the life science industry. Make sure to invest time in building your scientific expertise through formal education, training programs, and staying up-to-date with the latest advancements. This knowledge will serve as a solid foundation for your career and enable you to excel in various roles within the industry.

Networking is a key aspect of the life science industry. It’s a relatively small community, but a friendly and collaborative one. Take the opportunity to network as much as possible, both online and in person. Attend industry conferences, join professional associations, and connect with peers, experts, and potential mentors. Building a strong network can open doors to valuable opportunities and help you stay updated with industry trends.

Speaking of mentors, they can be instrumental in your professional growth. Seek out mentors who have experience and expertise in your desired field. Their guidance and insights can provide valuable advice, help you navigate challenges, and accelerate your career development. Don’t limit yourself to internal mentors—consider seeking external mentors as well, who can offer fresh perspectives and broaden your network.

Finally, keep an open mind and embrace continuous learning. The life science industry is dynamic and constantly evolving. Be adaptable, willing to learn new skills, and stay abreast of emerging technologies and trends. Be proactive in seeking out training opportunities, workshops, and certifications that can enhance your expertise and make you a valuable asset to potential employers.

How do you think artificial intelligence and machine learning will revolutionize the field of life sciences?

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are poised to revolutionize the field of life sciences in a significant way. While we are still in the early stages, there is tremendous potential and excitement surrounding the application of these technologies in the industry.

We are witnessing the emergence of numerous companies focusing on AI and ML in life sciences, and substantial investments are being made in this area. It’s reminiscent of the early days of Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS), where people recognized its immense potential but were yet to fully grasp its specific impact. Similarly, we understand that AI and ML will be game-changers, but we are still exploring and discovering the extent of their transformative power.

One area where AI and ML can have a profound impact is in bioinformatics. This field plays a crucial role in processing and analyzing the vast amount of data generated in life sciences research. AI-powered tools can significantly enhance the speed and accuracy of data analysis, helping to overcome bottlenecks and accelerating scientific discoveries.

The advancement of conversational AI, such as ChatGPT, has tremendous implications, especially from a marketing perspective. The ability to generate content in a matter of hours (or even minutes) instead of weeks will completely change how marketers work, but also how potential customer look to find the information they are after. It enables faster content creation and dissemination, facilitating effective communication with target audiences. However, we are still in the early stages of evaluating how AI-generated content performs against traditional methods and how platforms like Google Analytics may adapt to these changes. It will be interesting to see how the industry evolves and whether there will be competition or integration between AI technologies and established players like Google.

What role do you see data analytics playing in shaping the future of the life science industry?

Data analytics will play a critical role in shaping the future of the life science industry. Its significance has already been immense over the past few years and will continue to grow exponentially. The availability of advanced technologies and affordable price points has made it easier than ever to generate vast amounts of data. Whether it’s human-generated data or data derived from AI or ML, the focus remains on the valuable insights that can be extracted from the data.

Customers and stakeholders in the life science industry are primarily interested in the end results—the data and its interpretation. From the very beginning, they are eager to obtain their data and gain a comprehensive understanding of its implications. The processes and steps that occur in the middle may be less relevant to them compared to the end outcome.

Data analytics empowers researchers and professionals in the life science industry to extract meaningful insights, uncover patterns, and make informed decisions. It helps identify trends, detect anomalies, and uncover correlations that may not be apparent through traditional analysis methods. By leveraging data analytics, scientists and researchers can optimize experimental design, improve diagnostics, enhance drug discovery processes, and develop personalized treatment approaches.

Moreover, data analytics enables the integration of data from multiple sources, such as genomics, proteomics, and clinical data, allowing for a comprehensive and holistic view of complex biological systems. This integration and analysis of diverse datasets can provide valuable insights into disease mechanisms, identify biomarkers, and facilitate precision medicine approaches.

Data analytics is of paramount importance in the life science industry. It enables the extraction of meaningful insights from the massive amount of data generated, ultimately driving scientific advancements, improving patient care, and shaping the future of the industry.

How do you develop and execute effective commercial strategies to drive revenue growth in a highly competitive market?

Developing and executing effective commercial strategies to drive revenue growth in a highly competitive market requires careful planning and a deep understanding of the dynamics at play. Here’s how I would approach it:

Firstly, crafting a strong go-to-market strategy is crucial. In the past, companies typically relied on distribution or setting up their own sales teams. However, in today’s landscape, there are numerous options available. It’s essential to evaluate different routes and determine the most efficient and viable path to success. This involves assessing market dynamics, customer preferences, and competitive landscape to identify the best approach.

In today’s digital age, the role of marketing has become even more critical. It’s estimated that the majority of customers (90+%), start their purchasing journey by a Google search. This emphasizes the importance of having a strong online presence and utilizing effective digital marketing strategies. Generating leads through Google has become a primary source accounting for a significant portion (around 90-95%) of the sales process initiation. Therefore, investing in search engine optimization (SEO), pay-per-click advertising, and content marketing can significantly boost visibility and attract potential customers.

Next, it’s crucial to determine the most appropriate sales team structure. This could involve considering factors such as inside sales teams focused on high-volume sales, field specialists who can engage with customers face-to-face, or a hybrid approach combining both. Understanding the customer’s decision-making process is key. Once they determine that your product aligns with their needs, they will evaluate the value proposition and efficiency of your offering. Tailoring the sales team structure to effectively address customer needs and preferences can greatly enhance the chances of success.

Additionally, maintaining a customer-centric approach is vital. Understanding customer pain points, their desired outcomes, and the unique value your product or service provides is essential in driving revenue growth. By aligning your commercial strategy with customer needs and demonstrating superior value, you can differentiate yourself from competitors and build long-term relationships with customers.

Developing and executing effective commercial strategies in a highly competitive market involves careful consideration of the go-to-market strategy, leveraging digital marketing channels, optimizing the sales team structure, and maintaining a customer-centric approach. By aligning these elements and continuously adapting to market dynamics, you can drive revenue growth and stay ahead in the highly competitive life science industry.

In your experience, what are some successful tactics for effectively launching and promoting new products in the life science market?

Early adopters and Key Opinion Leaders (KOL) are key. By getting your product in the hands of influential experts in the field and gaining their endorsement, you can significantly impact industry perception. When respected KOLs become early adopters, others are likely to follow suit, increasing product acceptance.

Digital marketing plays a crucial role in reaching the right audience. Leveraging search engine optimization (SEO) techniques, targeted online advertising, and engaging with potential customers through social media platforms can help create awareness and generate leads. A strong online presence allows you to connect with your target market and position your product effectively.

Participating in industry conferences and events provides an opportunity to showcase your new product and engage directly with potential customers. These platforms allow for face-to-face interactions, demonstrations, and relationship-building with key stakeholders. Attending relevant conferences and speaking at scientific symposiums can position your product as a valuable solution to industry challenges.

Creating thought leadership content, such as whitepapers, case studies, and scientific articles, establishes your company as an authority in the field. By highlighting the unique features and benefits of your new product and addressing customer needs, you can build trust and credibility, attracting customers seeking innovative solutions.

Early adoption programs can create a sense of exclusivity and generate buzz around your product. Offering select customers early access or pilot programs allows you to gather valuable feedback, refine your product, and demonstrate its value in real-world scenarios. Successful early adopters can become vocal advocates, helping drive broader adoption.

Strategic partnerships can enhance your product launch by collaborating with complementary companies or research institutions. These partnerships enable you to tap into their existing networks, leverage their expertise, and jointly promote the product. Such collaborations can accelerate market penetration and establish credibility by association.

How important is collaboration and partnerships in the life science space, and how do you approach building and maintaining such relationships?

Collaboration and partnerships are paramount in the life science space, regardless of the size of the company. Recognizing that you can’t be an expert in everything, aligning with companies that possess niche expertise allows you to tap into their knowledge and capabilities. Building and maintaining relationships with strategic partners is crucial for success. In my experience, its key to approach and develop relationships with potential partners who have complementary strengths and aligning with your objectives is essential. This requires thorough research and understanding of the industry landscape to pinpoint companies or institutions that can add value to your offerings.

How do you stay updated with the latest advancements, research, and discoveries in the field?

Effective collaboration and partnerships in the life science space rely on key factors such as communication, customer interaction, and networking. As you gain experience in the industry, you build a valuable network of contacts. Engaging in conversations and actively networking with industry professionals becomes essential for establishing and maintaining successful relationships.

Regularly speaking with customers allows you to understand their needs, challenges, and expectations. This insight is invaluable for identifying potential partners who can address those needs and provide complementary solutions. By actively listening to customers and engaging in meaningful discussions, you can discover opportunities for collaboration and partnership.

Networking plays a vital role in expanding your reach and connecting with like-minded individuals and organizations. As you spend more time in the industry, you naturally develop relationships with a wide range of people. Leveraging these connections through networking events, conferences, and industry gatherings allows you to tap into their expertise, knowledge, and potential collaborative opportunities.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs or startups looking to make a breakthrough in the life science industry?

Securing the right investors is crucial for success in the life science industry. Besides providing financial support, investors can offer valuable expertise, connections, and guidance that can significantly impact your growth. Engaging with investors who have a deep understanding of the industry and share your vision can open doors and introduce you to potential partners.

Utilizing your network becomes especially important in attracting the right investors. By leveraging your connections and seeking advice from individuals who have experience in securing investments, you can gain insights into the best approaches, refine your pitch, and identify potential investors who align with your business goals. Their first hand knowledge and guidance can be invaluable in navigating the investment landscape.

Building relationships with experienced advisors or mentors who have successfully raised funds in the life science industry can also provide valuable insights. Their guidance can help you refine your investment strategy, identify potential investors, and navigate the complexities of the funding process. Leveraging their expertise and connections can increase your chances of securing the right investors who can contribute not only financially but also strategically.

As a senior leader, what leadership qualities do you believe are crucial for success in the life science industry?

As a senior leader, possessing certain key leadership qualities is crucial for success. These include strategy, people, results and technology.

Firstly, it is essential to have a strong understanding of the science and technology that drives the industry. This knowledge enables effective decision-making, strategic planning, and the ability to identify opportunities for innovation.

Understanding the customers and their goals is equally important. By gaining insights into their needs, challenges, and aspirations, leaders can develop solutions that truly address their requirements. This customer-centric approach fosters trust, loyalty, and long-term partnerships.

Additionally, having a deep understanding of people is vital. Effective leadership involves managing teams, collaborating with partners, and recruiting talent. Strong interpersonal skills, empathy, and the ability to communicate and inspire are crucial for building and maintaining positive relationships. Being able to motivate and empower individuals within the organization fosters a culture of teamwork, creativity, and innovation.

Successful leaders in the life science industry demonstrate adaptability and a willingness to embrace change. The industry is dynamic, with rapid advancements and evolving market landscapes. Leaders who can navigate uncertainty, adapt to new technologies and market trends, and guide their teams through transitions are well-positioned for success.

Ending on a lighter note – What is your signature dish?

Chicken fajitas (nothing at all to do with how easy they are to cook, honest!)

What is the best place you have ever visited?

As a keen cyclist, my absolute favourite place is Tenerife, with the incredible cycling opportunities it offers. One of the highlights was being able to cycle all the way from the beach to the top of Mount Teide, the highest peak in Spain. The breathtaking scenery, challenging terrain, and the sense of accomplishment made it an unforgettable experience. For me, spending a holiday immersed in outdoor activities like cycling is the perfect way to unwind and enjoy the beauty of nature. Tenerife truly provided the ideal setting for such an adventure.

Finally, who would be your 3 dream dinner party guests (dead or alive).

Master Yoda, David Bowie, and Robin Williams – a unique combination of philosophy, religion, music, and comedy.

Interviewed by Oliver Chalkley – Director

Connect with Oliver on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/oliver-chalkley-kapia-scientific-medtech-talent-commercial-solutions/

Follow Kapia on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/kapia-io/

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