In Meet Our Expert you will get to meet the talented people behind Cergentis' success on a personal level. In this interview, Emily talks about her early aspiration of becoming a lawyer and what made her transition to a business development role within the ever-growing biotech sector, paints a clear picture of the biotech & pharma landscape and describes our corporate culture.
Can you tell us about your childhood?
I spent the first 5 years of my life in Saudi Arabia, before moving back to the UK for about 2 or 3 years. Then, we went to Australia, where I stayed until I was 21. So, I always say that I'm Australian because I think I have more of an Australian personality and outlook, it’s where I really grew up!
In high school, I was fully convinced that I was going to be a lawyer. When I was picking my final subjects, I was tossing up between politics and biology. I chose biology on a whim when I was 16, and kind of fell in love with it. That choice led me to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Biotechnology back home, still with the idea that maybe I'd be doing IP or patent law afterwards. But, just as luck would have it, I kind of ended up sticking to the scientific side!
What made you travel halfway across the world for your master’s?
I think I knew the whole time that I didn't want to do research and be in the lab. I think it was always my intention to move into a more commercial role. But after my undergrad, I didn't really know how to do that, nor did I know what my options were. So, I started searching for a master's but couldn't find what I was looking for in Australia. I eventually came across the master programs offered at Leiden University and Utrecht University. I immediately thought they were amazing and unique! I ended up applying to both. A month before my graduation, I found out that I had been accepted. In the end, I think I picked Leiden mainly because I felt – based on my Google search – that their Bio Science Park was a more active and mature cluster. As soon as I came to a decision, I immediately moved here the following month. I was determined to come because this was exactly what I wanted to do and couldn’t find it elsewhere.
Did you experience any “culture shock” when you arrived in the Netherlands?
The weather was probably the first “shock” [laughs]. Especially because it was summer when I left Australia. Actually, I think it was even snowing when I first got here, and I hadn't seen snow in 10 years! Going to uni on my bike, I also couldn't really get used to that at first…
Culture-wise, I didn't really throw myself into being here at the beginning. I’d almost avoid speaking to any locals because I didn’t want to end up saying “oh sorry, I don’t speak Dutch...” Instead, I lived a very international life. Though after a while, you realize that being an expat in the Netherlands is not difficult at all. I think Dutch people are quite open and accepting. And it helps that they all speak English very well!
Having studied in both Australia and the Netherlands, what would you say are the biggest differences?
The way that my bachelor's was structured in Australia, I’d have lectures and lab courses maybe 3 times a week from 9 to 1 and that was it. However, when I moved here, it was uni 9 to 5 every day. And we’d focus on one subject at a time here. So, we’d have one subject per month here whereas in Australia, you'd have 4 subjects running in parallel for the entire semester. What I find nicer here, and I don't know if the difference is simply due to bachelor and master levels, but my master’s in Leiden was smaller scaled. Because of that, it really felt like you had your own cohort, a close-knit group of people with whom you could share everything. Whereas during my bachelor's, there were 3000 students starting at the same time. I also had the opportunity to gain a lot more practical experience through internships in the master’s, but again that could be down to the bachelor/master difference.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your previous internship?
I started out working at ProQR Therapeutics about 6 hours a week alongside my studies. It’s a RNA therapy company that has offices in Leiden and the US. As a genetic consultant, I’d help examine their genetic reports for potential trial participants and would check if there aren’t any undesired mutation(s). Then COVID-19 hit, so I continued doing that from home. For my business internship, my then manager had introduced me to the business development team and Karen, who’d later be my thesis supervisor. Karen was doing a lot of competitive intelligence work, market research and was also trying to work out how they could get additional people into rare disease trials. So that ended up becoming my internship. There was also literature reading involved, trying to work out if there's a hotspot for a specific mutation and so on.
Can you share your thoughts on the biotech landscape and weigh in how attractive the Netherlands is in such a sector?
In my opinion, the biotech scene at the moment is a really exciting place to be, because it still feels very new and the industry is developing really quickly with new companies and concepts popping up every few weeks.
In our building alone, there are so many exciting young companies! The Life Science Incubator’s environment really nurtures them. The companies are given the platform and the resources to grow. On the other hand, if you look at Janssen, they take up a sizeable part of the BioScience Park in Leiden and have a huge presence and influence on their ecosystem. They're also coming out with some really amazing stuff! Another thing that is quite nice, especially if we're talking about cell therapy, are the Dutch companies that have been acquired by huge pharma companies. For instance, Kiadis Pharma by Sanofi. This clearly shows that the research coming out of Dutch companies has huge potential.
What are your responsibilities at Cergentis?
I tend to say that I do the “pre-sale stuff”. Which mainly involves market research, competitive intelligence, and lead generation. My job is to identify gaps in the market that we might be missing out on and feed that information to the sales team. As a genetic QC service provider, it’s important to make sure to stay up to date with market developments.
For cell line development, I’ll for instance look into the different cell types or editing types that are coming up and are currently being explored. Understanding how the industry is moving allows us to shift our communication and better articulate how we can help bridge those important gaps. The same applies for cell and gene therapy. The field is burgeoning, and with increased activity comes increased scrutiny from regulatory authorities. So here, clearly articulating how we can support with those stringent requirements will of course be useful and relevant to our customers and manufacturers.
Would you say that you have now found your own niche within business development or are you still exploring?
Today, I think I've really found what I'm good at but also what I enjoy doing most. Which is sort of this market research and analysis. I love reading about new scientific developments and work out how our solutions can fit into their workflow. It's now been a year and a half that I’m at Cergentis, and while I’m still learning every day, I do think that I'm getting better and finding better ways to things. Luckily, here I’m really given the freedom to explore and grow professionally.
Do you get to travel a lot?
I actually don't travel as much as the rest of the sales team but I have been lucky enough to go to San Diego and Vienna this year! And I mainly go for conferences, which I think are the best way to get intel. People typically tend to talk more freely and you're hearing it directly from the experts in the field, rather than trying to find it online or trying to contact them by email. So, I think it is valuable for me to travel as part of my work.
What make our solutions unique?
The fact that the TLA technology platform is patented makes it obviously unique, in that no one else can offer what we offer. Also, what I think is special in the way we carry out customer projects is that the projects are treated very individually. We make sure to tailor, as much as possible, our services based on our customers’ needs. Rather than simply generating data and letting our customers figure out how our service best fits for them. So, in that sense, I think Cergentis is very customer centric. Also true, as we try to develop new products and expand our portfolio, we always try to find ways to add value and make researchers’ lives easier.
Does Cergentis’ rapid expansion give you renewed energy for its future?
Yes, it's really nice! When I joined the company, it had already expanded a lot and that’s largely due to its growing customer base. In fact, back when I joined the company, you could already feel that there is this push to further grow and a communal attitude to continue improving. But it's still at the size where you still feel very involved, and it still feels like a tight-knit group, so that’s nice.
From the get-go, I knew that I had made the right choice to join because I think that the experience that I've managed to gain here, I wouldn't have been able to get if I had gone to a very large company. It’s safe to say that Cergentis was in a scale-up phase. Yet even now, every time someone new comes in, I think they really fit nicely with the whole team and Cergentis still manages to preserve its culture as it grows!
Can you describe Cergentis’ culture?
Everyone has their own role and is an expert in their own field, but we're all doing it together. Everyone is working towards one main objective. So every department is really interconnected and working as one cohesive group. On top of that, everyone is also very open, positive and gets along with one another. Cergentis also organizes outings and barbecues! I don't know if this is a Cergentis or Dutch thing, but I think the work-life balance here is amazing. The whole company truly feels like one unit.
After 3.5 years, how Dutch are you now?
Before I got here, I think I wasn't as direct. I would beat more around the bush to get my point across. Especially in business, I don’t think it’s rude if it helps you and/or your team work more efficiently. So that's something that I’m starting to pick up and am quite happy about!
Another funny thing, when I went back home for Christmas at the end of last year, I apparently say “ja” [pronounced “ya”] a lot! Those are probably the only things that are really rubbing off. But “ja” [laughs].
Outside work, what are your favorite hobbies?
I’m very into team sports and used to play basketball back in Australia, both in high school and uni. But then, when I came here, I think I was a bit scared to join a Dutch team. I told myself that I would either not understand anyone or that they’d all have to switch to English just for me… So unfortunately, I never realy got into it again, only casually. Instead, I spend my spare time meeting up with friends. I love going for a nice beer or a nice meal! Other than that, I try to work out and stay fit but that kind of comes in waves [laugh]. It really depends on my motivation. Now that it’s summer, I also think this is a bit of a Dutch mindset by the way, you just want to be outside and enjoy the weather when it’s sunny. Whether it’s going to the beach, going for a walk or to the park.