Nejc Škoberne, Genialis: “Work with data represents a large part of research in biology”

Day 11. June 2017 posted Majda Dodevska

In the investment part of this year’s PODIM Conference, startup Genialis and its pitch convinced the jury of international investors and won the laurels of the PODIM Challenge, thus also winning the main award: a trip to USA. Genialis’ CEO Nejc Škoberne talked to us and revealed how two computer science students have gone astray and landed in the business of developing software for biodata analysis, and how their solution helps biologists become data analysists.

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Genialis came into existence as a spin-out of the Bioinformatics Laboratory from the Faculty of Computer and Information Science in Ljubljana. Can you tell us more about these beginnings? When, where did the idea come from?

We were created in 2013. Back then, two students of computer science were deciding to found a company. We didn’t completely know what we wanted to do, but then the Bioinformatics Laboratory was approached by a pharmaceutical company that wished to have a certain software. Then we said to each other “ok, considering we want to have a company, we will just create this software”. That’s how it basically started, then we spent practically two years only learning, gaining experience, offering services, while developing our software platform. Only then did things start happening a little bit. Before that, I never even worked in bioinformatics, that was something completely new to me, but now we are all in it.
Genialis is developing user-friendly software for biodata analysis. Could you please explain this to our readers with a concrete example? Who’s using your products and for what?

Our products are used by researchers in pharmaceutical companies, biotechnological companies, different research institutes – in all places where they work with molecular biology, life science, and where different genomes are used or studied (human, plant, animal …). Our software equipment makes this genome data accessible to scientists who can’t even research this without a certain smart tool.
Which are the biggest problems you face in your work?

The biggest problem is how scientists who don’t have a lot of computer knowledge can suddenly become data analysts, so how can they suddenly know how to work with data if they even want to do their research. In this, there is a similar transition as there was in physics in the 80s, when most physicists couldn’t do their job without computers anymore, as they had to do all simulations with computers. Today, a similar thing is happening in biology, because working with data represents a large part of research work, but people don’t know how to do it yet. We can’t even expect this of them, in fact, because they already got their education in the field of biology, which is very broad and complex.
That’s why we’re making software that would enable these people to do this. Most software available today is too complex, mostly made for computer-skilled biologists, or it’s completely specialized and solves a specific problem inside an entire problem area of a very small group of people, while everyone else can’t do anything with it. We are a platform, but on this platform, we are setting tools with which we will really cover most of these problems; that is our mission. We wish to be “Apple for biologists” – for them to take our solution in their hands and know how to use it without needing extensive training for it.
Which are your main markets?

Currently USA, Europe, otherwise actually the entire developed world.
A while back you said that you have quite a lot of competition in the word, but no competition in Slovenia. Has anything changed during that time?

Not really, we still don’t have any competition in Slovenia. But there is quite a lot of it abroad. We are talking about a couple of dozen startups from this field solving the same problem, but there is still not as much of it as there is in the field of various mobile apps, for example, because ours is a very specific niche field.
As you said, the idea arose to two computer scientists who had no knowledge of biology … How did you attract other team members and how many employees do you currently have?

A couple of weeks after the company came to life, we invited a pharmacist, biotechnologist and geneticist into the team, so that we were even able to start talking to customers, because we, the founders, didn’t have enough knowledge then. Already at the beginning we knew we had to build an interdisciplinary team, which is also the reason why we have 20 people today, not 10. Because if you wish to build something, you need very different profiles. With us, software developers would have nothing to do if we didn’t have bioscientists who define how something works, how they should do something.
What is the structure of employees now?

Most of the team is from a completely engineering background, there are only four of us in the business part of the team, others are all developers, analysts, biologists, designers … But about half of us have PhDs.
You recently also opened a company in the US. Is the entire team in Slovenia or is part of the team also in the US?

Our first user at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston joined us as the Chief Product Officer about two years ago, and it’s actually because of him that we opened a company in the US. Currently the American company owns the Slovenian one, mostly due to a more favourable investment structure.

Who are your customers and how many do you currently have?

We currently have 5-6 bigger customers – from this, there are two pharmaceutical companies, and institutes and universities.
What are your plans for further growth and customer acquisition?

We are currently looking for an investment in the amount of 1.5 million dollars. We already have a part of this investment guaranteed. With this money, we would like to increase the team for about 10 people in the next 18 months, and establish more partnerships.
Considering you’re part of the Slovenian entrepreneurship environment and have an experience in a business accelerator behind you, I’m interested to know how important you think is collaborating with the startup community, mentorship …?

I think it’s very important and it’s great that we have this possibility. I find it difficult to say if this was all or nothing for us, but it definitely helped us on our path. I also think that in the past few years, our view on this has changed, and I think that we had to grow in Slovenia, that the view on what a startup is, how a startup should make money had to mature, especially when it comes to tech startups, which are its own universe compared to others. Generally I think that in Slovenia, we whine way too much. If you decide to do something, you’ll do it no matter your resources. The thing that is currently burdening us most is access to capital. In this area, it’s still difficult to obtain an investment worth more than a couple of ten thousand euros, you need to look for it abroad.
So you’re looking for your next investment in the international environment?
Of course, in London, Berlin, Vienna, Boston, Houston, Austin …
This year you conquered the PODIM Challenge. Why did you apply for this challenge at the PODIM Conference?

We applied because we decided to try to establish contact with potential investors in as many ways as possible, and thus also attend events of this kind. I was very pleasantly surprised at PODIM, because I thought the event would be more local, but it turned out to be a rather international event with many international guests. I was very pleasantly surprised about it all, especially because explaining what we do is a rather ungrateful job, it’s very difficult to explain what we’re doing in a way for people to understand. This is also what usually made us less attractive compared to other startups.
A jury of international investors chose you as the PODIM Challenge winner, so such a recognition certainly bears a certain weight. What do you think convinced the jury?

Probably that it’s a niche market, that there is a strong team of people behind the product and they know something about it, that our solution has a deeper impact, in that it is something smart, that it’s not just another app in a series of many, that we have a relatively big market, and our go-to-market strategy. Especially the latter created quite a few opportunities with investors, but I do not wish to talk about it in more detail at this time.
Which are your biggest challenges for the upcoming months?

Further validate our go-to-market strategy, obtain an investment, and make the product more scalable so that it handles bigger load (more users, data).
Where will Genialis be in 5 years?
In 5 years, we will have about 110 million in traffic. (Smile).
And will it still be Genialis?
I hope so. As long as we grow quickly, we won’t sell ourselves.
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Jury members about the PODIM Challenge and the winner

Laszlo Gulyas, EIT Digital: "I think Genialis is a company of great potential. The 21st century is about data and they found a very interesting domain to specialize their analytics on. Our support for the PODIM Challenge is part of EIT Digital’s ARISE Europe program that was designed to stimulate regional growth in EU countries where EIT Digital is not present with one of its nodes. The objective is to connect the local ecosystem to EIT Digital's innovation and education ecosystem of about 140 Partners representing global companies, leading research centres and top ranked universities. In Slovenia, we are partnering with ABC Accelerator to carry out this mission. We, at EIT Digital, work on fostering the European innovation ecosystem and as part of this on helping great European companies to scale up in other markets. Despite all the competition, Silicon Valley is the main entry point to the American digital market. That is why EIT Digital has its only office outside of Europe in the Valley."
Martin Pansy, Up To Eleven: "I think Genialis won the challenge, because they are an excellent team with outstanding scientific track record, they had the best pitch on stage and are tackling a huge business opportunity. I believe challenges like these are very important, because they help younger startups to showcase their ideas and get valuable feedback. Before that, even the preparation for a pitch is a good learning in most of the startups. They also narrow the gap between local and global players."
Jure Kobal, Nova KBM: "Nova KBM was the general sponsor of the PODIM Conference for the sixteenth year in a row, and has been a partner of the Entrepreneurship Research Institute (IRP) since 2005. Through this collaboration, the bank closely monitors the activity in the segment of startup companies, and is looking for opportunities to develop partnership collaboration in areas that could bring value added to Nova KBM and its clients. At this year’s PODIM, Nova KBM also participated as a blue-chip partner for fintech in the PODIM Challenge. From the aspect of finding new tech solutions and collaborating with startups, the bank is mostly interested in innovative teams and products that introduce the latest online and mobile technologies to ensure advanced user solutions in fields such as personal finance management, virtual bank consultant development, blockchain technology, remote business with non-clients, and development of chatbots for use in the financial industry. We offer our sincere congratulations to the winner of this year’s PODIM Challenge, company Genialis, and wish them a lot of success on their continued business path."

Enis Hulli, 500 Startups Turkey: "I believe smart platforms are in a rise similar to the rise of marketplaces in the past 10 years. I believe in vertical and industry oriented big data platforms that automate a big part of the user's work. These hybrid processes will hopefully become fully automated in the near future, and the smart platforms like Genialis will have the head start in becoming the end-to-end fully automated solutions in their own verticals. International challenges and events like PODIM are really important for the entrepreneurs. They get the chance to showcase their work, perfect their pitch and increase their network while also growing their reach. Relationships built during these events can help an entrepreneur in many ways moving forward, whether its regional expansion, sales lead or finding down stream capital."
Jakob Gajšek, ABC Accelerator: "Our mission is to support startups from Slovenia and broader region - Central and Eastern Europe. We support Podim Challenge, because it gives startups from the region a chance to shine on stage. Podim Challenge provides the best startup with a reward that allows the startup to advance to the global level. To experience the Silicon Valley is the most a startup can experience."


PR and communication, PODIM Conference
Izvedba: Mojdenar IT d.o.o.