Arctoris’ co-founders, Martin-Immanuel Bittner and Tom Fleming look back on how Arctoris was born and how we got to where we are today.
Arctoris has turned 5 today! We are thrilled to see where we are now, and how far we have come. We have had a lot of fun and success, have overcome many challenges, and have learned a lot while pursuing our mission to empower scientists around the world. Both Arctoris and our industry as a whole have evolved a great deal during this time and while it is always tempting to look ahead, our anniversary is a good opportunity to reflect on our journey so far.
The Problem that Sparked the Idea
The idea of Arctoris was born through our own experience in the lab. A clinician by background, I (Martin) moved to Oxford for my DPhil in Oncology, and was surprised to realise how much time highly skilled PhD students and postdocs were spending with manual lab work, struggling to find the time to read the scientific literature, develop new ideas and drive their projects forward intellectually. Together with my friend and then co-founder Tom, we agreed that instead of spending most of our time pipetting, scientists should be empowered to do what they are best at: original scientific thought.
And the way to do that was to build an automated laboratory that uses robotics to perform experiments for scientists worldwide at the click of a button — akin to all other industries and sectors that had been transformed by the rise of robotics and automation. Once the idea was in place, our next step was to learn more about life sciences processes, the drug discovery ecosystem, the market opportunity, robotic technologies, and the prospects of a company doing what they saw as addressing a real need. An intense one-year-long process.
Bringing the Idea to Life
One of our key learnings was that the current state of laboratory automation was not enough to enable the capabilities we envisioned. We had to go beyond what was currently possible. And so, we applied for — and won — an Innovate UK R&D grant in 2017. This enabled the first crucial engineering and laboratory hires, and led to the first strong IP that secured the company’s first investment round in 2018. Things were looking up! And only six months later, Arctoris was awarded a European Union R&D grant to further develop their automation technologies, expand their team, and expand their operations. The development accelerated again, and in mid-2019, following full technical validation of its robotic technology and demonstration of early product-market fit, we then raised a large Seed round — bringing the company’s funding to-date to $10m.
Within the same time, our team grew from the founders to a team of 30 — starting from the first employees, who were often recruited from our immediate network. And they have proven to be the most amazing colleagues we could possibly wish for. Without them, and their trust in our abilities, Arctoris would simply not exist. A few names include our organisational genius and Head of Laboratory Poppy Roworth, our world-class Head of Discovery Biology Dan Thomas, and Wilfride Petnga, one of the smartest and most dedicated scientists you will ever meet.
Fast forward just a few years, and Arctoris has grown into a multitude of scientific, engineering, and commercial teams — with the team’s powers being heavily augmented by Ulysses, our ever-expanding robotic system. We are not alone on our path: most of our investors and key advisors have been with us since day one, have seen us grow from the first iterations of our pitch to a company operating on three continents, and continue to help us raise global awareness for our platform and our radical commitment to data-driven drug discovery. In particular, we are thinking of Patrick Pichette, the former CFO of Google and current chairman of Twitter, Vishal Gulati from DraperEsprit, Charles Conn, the former CEO of Ticketmaster-Citysearch, Stan Lapidus, founder & CEO of the CYTYC Corporation and Exact Sciences, and John Wylie, former head of Lazard Australia, who stand for many others who have helped us on our journey. Their advice and unwavering support have been instrumental in our success.
Fast forward just a few years, and Arctoris has grown into a multitude of scientific, engineering, and commercial teams — with the team’s powers being heavily augmented by Ulysses, our ever-expanding robotic system.
The Evolution of an Industry
Yet, quite like most new ideas, we were not always met with enthusiasm. Sometimes we look back and smile at how both investors and distinguished scientists would tell us that what we had in mind — automating all of drug discovery — would simply be impossible. But we stood our ground and persevered, because we knew we could make it possible. And here we are, five years later, with a fully automated laboratory in Oxford, generating millions of data points every month on a technology platform covering cell biology, molecular biology, and biochemistry.
What excites us in particular is what we can see happening all around us in the drug discovery industry: countless new actors have emerged, machine learning is playing a larger and larger role in finding new and better treatments, and the first drug designed by an AI system is already in clinical trials. We are a part of a broad movement of companies leveraging technology to overhaul the way this vital industry works; our shared focus is to bring the best possible drugs from idea to the clinic, by making use of the power of automation.
Sustaining the Idea: Our (Entrepreneurial) Learnings
One of the great things about creating something entirely new is that you’ll do something no one has ever done before — as a founder, and a startup, you really do enter the unknown, and push the boundaries of what is possible. We are incredibly grateful that we can use our and our team’s and supporters’ combined talents to work on something that is truly life-changing: transforming drug discovery. This also explains why in our experience, entrepreneurs above all else need a clear sense of vision, creativity, and resilience.
We are a part of a broad movement of companies leveraging technology to overhaul the way this vital industry works; our shared focus is to bring the best possible drugs from idea to the clinic, by making use of the power of automation.
Developing and communicating a vision is what makes an entrepreneur in the first place — being able to see something which doesn’t exist yet, and rallying support to turn an idea into a reality. Creativity is crucial to find ways to overcome the many challenges that lie ahead. And finally, we find that resilience is what keeps us as entrepreneurs going, and makes us pick up the phone to win a client or investor, even after having been told ‘no’ a hundred times that day. As every founder knows, you get rejections all the time, and the only winning move is to believe in one’s idea and keep at it.
It is natural that this is a learning curve, and we quickly learned that numerous things can — and will — go wrong. There will be difficult times, there will be technological hurdles, delays, and malfunctions, and there will be tough times on the human side as well, with misunderstandings, anxiety, and changes in the team. But all of these are an integral part of any startup’s journey, and remembering them makes us humble, and reminds us to always give our best.
If there is one lesson to be learned and shared, then it’s about people. We firmly believe that turning the best ideas into reality needs the best people. We are determined to build the best team possible: we recruit the brightest scientists, and the most talented engineers from around the world, and we are incredibly proud of our extremely diverse team. But above everything else, all our team members share the passion and absolute dedication for our mission to change the way we do drug discovery, and to bring better treatments to those who need them faster. This spirit of shared goals in the team is what drives us and motivates us, every day, every hour.
As a parting thought, and as we write these lines during a prolonged lockdown amidst a global pandemic, it is astonishing to see how Covid-19 has changed so many industries practically overnight. The past few months have brought an increasing recognition of the benefits of remote work, the role of resilience, and greater emphasis on business continuity. We are proud to do our part in securing research continuity, and provide researchers with remote access to the latest biomedical technologies, regardless of lockdown.
Here’s to many more years of Arctoris! We thank you all for reading, supporting, believing in, and recommending our work.