In Meet Our Expert you will get to meet the talented people behind Cergentis' success on a personal level. In this interview, Nicole reveals how she was able to break out of her shell while growing up, provides insights into the fruitful relationship Cergentis has with its globally-based customers and gives a glimpse into our corporate culture!
Can you tell us about your childhood?
I grew up in Zoetermeer, the Netherlands, and did my higher education in Biomedical Laboratory Sciences at the University of Applied Sciences in Leiden. I was always very shy and introverted as a kid. That’s kind of why I went into science because I could be by myself and wouldn't have to work behind a desk. It was a good combination! [laughs] To put myself out of my comfort zone, I decided to go to Oxford, at the Weatherall Institute. It was great to be in a different environment, where I didn't know anyone but had to push myself to connect with new people instead.
After that experience, I decided to take a short break from my studies, to save up for my next internship. I ended up doing something completely different and worked for an insurance company in the Netherlands. That opportunity initially started as a summer job but was extended to little over a year. It was fun! Once I had enough savings, I went to Montpellier, in the South of France, for my final two internships. I decided that it was time for better weather than the UK and what we have back home! [laughs] After completing my studies, I came to Cergentis.
It’s hard to picture a timid and reserved Nicole!
[Laughs] If you would ask my childhood friends to describe how I was as a kid, they would say that I used to avoid eye contact and get red whenever a stranger would talk to me. Now, being part of a commercial team is obviously quite a contrast! In fact, if you would have told me that this is what I would be doing in the future, my 10-year-old self would have probably laughed! Moving abroad definitely helped me become more open and social.
Why did you specifically pick biology?
The first year of my degree was a combination of Biomedical Laboratory Sciences and Chemistry. However, after half a year or by the end of the year, students could specialize and pick either one of the two. Because I always wanted to do something medical-related, I picked the Biomedical Laboratory Sciences stream. I find science in general really cool! The fact that everything comes from nature and the idea of being able to create something that might save someone's life always fascinated me.
Did you notice any differences in the way research is conducted between Oxford and Montpellier?
My personal impression is that there seems to be more of a well-defined “procedure” that researchers abide to in the UK. Whereas in the South of France, it felt like I had more creative freedom to explore, in terms of the experiments I was able to conduct. In fairness, I am not sure if this was lab- or institute-specific, though this was the main difference I noticed. However, I have to say that during my internship in the UK, I got pushed way more than I ever did. I don't think I've ever learned so much in a span of six months!
I noticed from your LinkedIn profile that you worked a lot during your studies. How challenging was it to juggle both?
It was challenging. I was part of the generation that no longer received student grants from the government. Therefore, I always felt like I needed to work, to not end up with too much debt. Having said that, I also really enjoyed it. It allowed me to explore completely unrelated fields. I had the chance to work on websites, do some administrative work for an insurance company, etc. Those experiences made me realize that I really like the business side as well.
When did you become aware of Cergentis?
When I started looking for jobs. Although my internships always involved genomics, I never worked with service providers before. Therefore, I didn't know about Cergentis yet. During the job-hunting process, I came across two openings at Cergentis and found the company interesting. Although I was already in the final interview stages at other companies, I still decided to apply. As soon as I had my first call with Martijn Kelder (Sales Director) and Wietske Stevens (Marketing Director) I was a lot more enthusiastic about Cergentis than the other places I had applied to!
What convinced you to join us?
I think the biggest deciding factor was Cergentis’ culture. During my second interview, which took place in-person, I had a good feeling about the environment and the people here. In fact, just two weeks ago, while visiting customers in the US, one of them even mentioned how Cergentis folks are always happy and approachable! That’s exactly how I felt during my interview. I felt that ideas were welcomed at Cergentis and that you didn’t have to go through bureaucratic layers to get heard or to express your opinion.
The possibility to travel as part of my job was also appealing to me. Not only being able to travel with my colleagues (giving me the opportunity to connect with my colleagues even more) but also, to interact with other bright individuals ranging from PhD-level scientists to C-level executives all over the world was an exciting prospect from a career perspective.
For those unfamiliar with our work, could you explain in layman's terms what is the core of Cergentis’ business and what your responsibilities are?
We support biomedical researchers, be it in pharma, biotech or research institutes globally, in their cell line development, cell & gene therapy, or genetically engineered (animal) model-related projects. As long as there is a reference genome available, we’re able to generate meaningful genetic insights. People typically turn to our unique expertise to help them QC the genetic consequences of their genetic engineering. In terms of my responsibilities, I reach out to potential customers, try to get a better understanding of their work and potential struggles, and whenever appropriate connect them with our scientists to help troubleshoot their genetic characterization pains through our proprietary solutions. I really enjoy being this “in-between” person that helps connect both parties.
You also joined us at a rather interesting time, when the company was about to significantly scale-up. Did witnessing this growth give you renewed energy for the future of the company?
Yes, definitely! Even though we’re rapidly growing, it’s really nice to see how everyone here is still able to remain connected and how Cergentis has been able to maintain its close-knitted culture. The fact that it managed to keep that going is great!
What are some of Cergentis-related successes that you are most proud of?
I think it's really cool to see more and more scientific publications highlighting the unique capabilities of our TLA-based solutions. This is a clear reflection of the growing adoption of our improved analytical assays within the biomedical community. It’s great to see the impact of our work in research. Also, whenever we learn from customers that our contributions have helped them minimize time-to-clinic, have earned them regulatory approval, or even supported their COVID research through genetic QC of their mouse model, it makes our everyday work even more rewarding!
The sales team had an extremely packed agenda this month. You’ve all been traveling almost non-stop! How beneficial and worthwhile are these company trips?
Our trips are a combination of conferences and customer visits. Whenever possible we try to combine both. To give you an idea, I went to San Francisco and San Diego for two weeks in January to visit our customers in the region. Shortly after, we went to Barcelona for a conference but also had the chance to host a small event with our customers to strengthen our relationships with them. More recently, as you mentioned, I went back to the US, but this time Martijn and I planned an entire road trip to visit customers we haven't had the chance to see on the East side for over two years because of COVID. After that, most of the Sales team went to Vienna, Austria, for the BPI Europe conference. Because Cergentis is turning 10 this year, we hosted a small event with customers who attended the same conference or happened to be in the neighborhood. These travels are always exciting and extremely fruitful. It allows to put a face to the people you’ve been communicating with by email, but also to foster a long-lasting and meaningful relationship with them. Rather than limiting the interaction to a PDF report that we sent out upon completion of a project. These interactions are also the best way for us to figure out how we can best contribute to their invaluable work, by getting a good understanding of what matters the most to them and see, based on that, if and/or how we can best help fill that gap through our proprietary services. In terms of the conference, it helps us keep up with the market and stay up to date with the latest research. To get a good sense of how the field is moving overall.
Do you ever get tired of traveling?
I really enjoy traveling! I would do it in my free time as well, but the jet lags do kill me sometimes [laughs]. I think the worst was when we came back from the US in January, and we still had to quarantine in the Netherlands. My apartment does not get a lot of daylight in the winter. So, not being able to leave the house, combined with overcoming the jetlag, was an absolute nightmare! But I do get a lot of energy from meeting people.
Of all the company-related trips, what were some of your favorite destinations?
I would say going to California! Because I had never been to the US before. Since I was traveling with Martijn, who used to live in that area, it was great to discover some places that I wouldn't have necessarily found if I had just gotten a Lonely Planet book! I’m also very much looking forward to the 17th Transgenic Technology Meeting (TT2022) in September, which will take place in Finland. I’m very excited to see more of the genetically engineered related work!
Our readers are probably not aware, but together with Maya Wright Clark (Sales & Account Manager), you are both heading the Social Committee this year! How did that come about? And do you find it exciting to organize these company-wide activities?
Because I enjoyed myself so much at the company outing last year, I decided to sign up and help organize it this year. I had a lot of ideas and emailed the previous organizers (Judith Bergboer - COO and Irina Sergeeva - Scientific Account Manager). I asked them how I could be involved and that’s how I ended up here! I’m having a lot of fun planning activities! And with the surge of new colleagues, this allows for some team bonding time, which I think is pretty cool!
To conclude, what are some of your favorite pastimes?