Everything gels together

Everything gels together

Biogelx has expanded from its base at BioCity Scotland to open a satellite office in New York and has grown its customer base across Asia, Europe and the United States.

Some slogans will always stick in the mind – catchphrases like ‘Because you’re worth it’ by L’Oreal, ‘Just do it’ from Nike and ‘The car in front is a Toyota’ all trip off the tongue with ease. Soon, Biogelx may be able to add ‘Gels for your cells’ to that list.

“I think the idea came from some banter that our team was having over lunch one day,” smiles David Lightbody, chief executive of Biogelx. “We used it internally for a long time, but then when we were adding the ecommerce function to our website we thought why not use it?”

Biogelx was spun out from the University of Strathclyde in early 2013 thanks to £60,000 of seed funding led by Glasgow-based Gabriel business angel syndicate and a £100,000 Smart Scotland research and development (R&D) grant from Scottish Enterprise. The company was one of the first companies to move into BioCity Scotland, the life sciences incubation centre created in the facilities at Newhouse in Lanarkshire that were vacated by MSD, the European arm of American pharmaceuticals giant Merck & Co.

Since then, the growth of Biogelx and BioCity Scotland have mirrored each other, with Biogelx adding more and more customers, while BioCity has added more and more companies. The business was setup to produce gels in which cells could be grown for scientific experiments – what set its gels apart is that they can be ‘tuned’ to mimic the behaviour of the body’s tissues and organs.

Biogelx’s rate of growth accelerated last summer [2015] following a £630,000 investment from Gabriel, the University of Strathclyde, Scottish Enterprise’s Scottish Investment Bank and new shareholder Peak Capital Advisors. The funding allowed the company to open an office at the Harlem Biospace in New York and to increase its headcount from seven members of staff to ten.

“Up until that point, our customers had mainly been academic institutions in the UK, Europe, Asia and the United States,” explains Lightbody. “The funding enabled us to fully commercialise our gels and they’re now being used by four of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world and one of the largest cosmetic companies too.”

One of the major steps for the company was developing a powder that it can sell through its website, which customers can then turn into gels in their own laboratories. The business anticipates bringing in just under £300,000 in sales this year [2016] and could break-even early next year. [2017]

Opening the New York office also marks a return to the US for Lightbody. After cutting his teeth as a chemist with British Petroleum (BP), he joined the Scottish Development Agency – the forerunner to today’s Scottish Enterprise – and served with the organisation in Chicago. Later in his career, he worked for the Daedalus Project in Washington DC.

Biocity Case Study 2 Biogelx 1“One of the reasons we expanded into America so early was due to my previous experience,” he explains. “I had set up a couple of other companies during my time in the States, so I knew how to go about setting up our subsidiary and dealing with the legal and accounting sides of the process.

“It feels very comfortable to be doing business in the US again – like an old pair of shoes. I’m enjoying the experience.”

Lightbody is also preparing for further expansion. He plans to raise £2 million before the end of the year to fuel Biogelx’s growth. “We want to grow the company’s headcount, both from a business development point-of-view and from a technical point-of-view so that we can increase production,” he says. “Raising the money will allow us to add more resources to the business.”

Lightbody founded Biogelx alongside its chief science officer, Rein Ulijn, who is professor of nano-chemistry at the University of Strathclyde and director of nanoscience at the City University of New York’s (CUNY’s) Advanced Science Research Centre.

The company’s achievements have been recognised with a number of prizes along the way, including: a grant from the Scottish Edge Fund in 2014; winning the ‘pitch of the day’ competition at Engage Invest Exploit (EIE), the investment conference organised by technology accelerator Informatics Ventures; and a runners-up spot at this year’s [2016’s] ‘Pitch at the Palace’ event at St James’s Palace in London.

Most of Biogelx’s staff come from a chemistry background and so BioCity Scotland was a natural home for the early-stage biomaterials business. “We needed a laboratory that had extraction facilities, fume hoods and standard analytical equipment, like high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC),” explains Lightbody.

“When we were starting up the business, BioCity was just getting started too, so we were able to come out and take a look around at what was basically a pharma lab. It had the right kind of look, the right kind of feel, the right kind of fume-hood capacity and so we were able to put in a small lab here on day one.

“The other big advantage was that we could rent some of the analytical equipment that had been left by the pharma company that had moved out. In effect, we’ve got a peppercorn rent on HPLC equipment and other standard lab equipment.

“Once we’ve been through our next fund raising round, we’d like to expand our headcount at BioCity. We want to increase our production capacity so that we can make more powder and make it in bigger batches.”

The firm has just hired its first biologist, who is working in its New York office. “We’d like to grow our team by bringing in more biologists,” Lightbody adds.

“Sometimes our customers will ask how their cells will react in our gels under specific conditions. We plan to open a cell biology facility at BioCity so we can then replicate
those conditions in our own laboratory. That will allow us to offer even more services to our customers.”