On November 17, Y Science hosted a Health Pitching Competition for early-stage startups and pre-startups. Today we had the opportunity to interview Päivi Saavalainen, CEO of SCellex, the startup who won the 5,000€ prize. SCellex is a Finnish startup developing a novel spatial transcriptomics method based on visual barcoding with feature barcode beads, as well as a picowell chip array platform to study the gene expression profiles of cells directly from tissue sections or single cells in high throughput manner. Below you can find out more about the story of this company.
I run the Immunomics research lab at the University of Helsinki (UH) and Folkhälsan Research Center, and one of the focus areas of my group has been single-cell RNAseq methods. Back in 2016, I invented a novel way to barcode single cells for high-throughput sequencing. At that stage, it was just an idea with no data nor funding, so UH and HIS (the tech transfer office of UH) decided to leave the IPR to me. For a couple of years I was too busy to move forward but then, in 2018, I joined the SPARK Finland program, as I saw that the spatial analysis of cells and tissues was about to become a hot topic. SPARK Finland provided me with a lot of support and feedback from experts, broadened my network and put me in touch with great mentors that believed in my idea and encouraged me to take the next steps, so in September of that same year I founded SCellex.
In the beginning we didn’t have any funding. The first grant of 15,000€ came from Runar Bäckström Foundation in early 2019. The initial team and the board members also decided to invest in the company, and the first angel investor got on board during that same year. Instrumentarium Science Foundation supported us with a larger grant (50,000€) and our angel investor, very committed to SCellex at that point, decided to make a second investment and also join our board. This was enough to get Business Finland involved, which is now supporting us with an R&D loan of over half a million euro.
SCellex is growing, counting now eight team members and four additional board members. Currently, we are also part of the Health Incubator Helsinki (HIH) program, which provides us with the office space on the third floor of Terkko Health Hub. Sharing a space with other companies is very important to foster peer-learning. HIH offers additional training and opportunities to meet VCs to discover more funding opportunities.
What is your role at SCellex and what does that entail?
At the moment, on top of my academic work, I also work part-time as the CEO of SCellex as well as chair of the SCellex board. On paper I’m working part-time both in academia and the company, but in reality it takes much more, including a lot of my free time. Luckily my sons are already in the school and much of the work can be done remotely from home.
My research work has been from the same field and on similar technologies, which allowed me to easily learn the competing technologies, the different customers and the markets. However, the commercial aspects were very new for me and required quite a bit of learning when I became CEO.
Surprisingly, the quality demands required to develop a robust business product that provides a reproducible service are much higher than what is needed to publish a new method in an academic paper. For academic studies, you only need a few replicates, but for a commercial product you need much more to meet the quality and replicability demands! I now look at each lab kit we use at work with different eyes and with a lot more respect for the companies and people that developed those tools.
At the moment, even though my title is CEO, I also have a lot of responsibilities that would fit more the title of CTO or CSO, such as leading the R&D and the lab work because our product still needs a lot of lab development to optimize the method.
How has your academic career benefitted from your work at SCellex?
Working in a startup has pushed me to develop my project management skills and has improved my ability to focus on a specific topic. As a researcher, I tend to be curious about everything, working on multiple parallel projects and with new ones always popping up. However, in business you have to focus on developing a specific product for a specific target customer. I see the benefits of this approach, and realize that I need to develop my project management skills even further, to then bring them also into my research and into my role as supervisor of students and early-stage researchers.
SCellex was founded in 2018. How has the corona pandemic affected your work?
Covid-19 had definitely slowed down the networking with other startups part of SPARK Finland and HIH, as well as with potential investors. Moreover, during the first year of the pandemic we couldn't use the lab as much as before (due to restrictions), so it was good to at least have the office space in Terkko Health Hub.
As one of the finalists of the Health Pitching Competition, how was your experience at Y Science?
I really enjoyed taking part in Y Science, and not only because I was a finalist in the Health pitching competition. Compared to the Slush main event which is industry-agnostic, Y Science helped us find the right type of connection and even potential new customers among the researchers who attended the event. Having a booth in the networking area of the event also brought us great visibility, so people could easily find us after we pitched on stage.
The pitch coaching offered as part of the competition was also very valuable, providing us with feedback on different aspects of our project as well as on how to improve our pitch.
What is in store for SCellex in the near future?
We plan to go to market with our first MVP during early 2023, so a lot of focus in the company will move from pure R&D to also include productization and marketing. Next year we will also actively seek for a new CEO to lead the business development of the company, so I can focus more on being CTO. So a lot of exciting new developments are coming in 2023!