Meet Our Expert is our newest interview series where you will get to meet the talented people behind Cergentis' success on a personal level. In this interview, Petra gives an exclusive insight into the early days of the company. As one of the true pillars of Cergentis, she has had the unique opportunity to witness first-hand the transition of our business lifecycle! She describes how her responsibilities have evolved over the years and how we are adapting to our rapid and recent growth. With an entrepreneurial spirit and a self-starter attitude, Petra also has experience with launching her own business. Don't miss out on this interview, where Petra lays it all out and shares about her hobbies and her wide range of interests!
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m Petra, I’m 38 years old and I live in Utrecht! My biggest hobbies are going to concerts, which can be multiple times a week if there’s a good week! [laughs] I also enjoy festivals, traveling and bouldering, which is my favorite sport! I sometimes organize bouldering sessions for the entire company. Anybody who wants to, is then free to join. We’ve done that a few times now, resulting in some people who cannot pipette anymore the day after. [laughs]
What is your educational background?
I first did a bachelor’s at Avans Hogeschool in Etten-Leur, which is a small town in the South of the Netherlands. I was enrolled in the Biology & Medical Laboratory Research program and really enjoyed my studies there. A large part included 1.5 year of internships. So, you gain a lot of practical experience. And then, by chance, I ended up in very fundamental molecular biology labs, which matched really well with my interests!
Right after my studies, I found a job in the lab of Prof. dr. Wouter de Laat at Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, as a Lab Technician. I worked there for several years and eventually became the Lab Manager when we moved to the Hubrecht Institute, in Utrecht. Then, after a few years, I decided to do a master’s to gain more insights and knowledge in cell and molecular biology. At the time, I was also considering doing a PhD. So, I went on to do a master’s on Cancer Genomics and Developmental Biology, which was a 2-years research master.
Although I love the field that I’m in, I decided not to pursue a PhD because I don’t really enjoy going into the details of a project. I found out that focusing on just one thing for 4 years was not really my cup of tea… Then, by chance, Cergentis was founded when I finished my master’s. So, I was able to smoothly transition because they had asked me to join the company.
What motivated you to pursue a practical-oriented studies?
I remember when I was about 14 years old, I saw a documentary on TV with my parents about a lab that came up with a treatment for Pompe disease. They had made it via transgenic rabbits. I was so impressed that they were able to make a cure in a lab, that I said “I want to do that!”. At that time in high school, I also had to choose the direction in which I wanted to specialize in. Students had 4 different streams to choose from, such as economics, biology etc. I really wanted to join the biology stream because I wanted to do practical laboratory biological studies. So, I already knew, quite soon, that I wanted to work in research and in the lab.
Did working in a top-notch fundamental research lab (of Prof. dr. Laat) motivate you to return to university for a higher degree?
Yes, I always want to learn and do more! I like to challenge myself. So that was indeed the reason why I decided to pursue a master’s. The program I participated in is popular for people who want to go into research and do a PhD in a high-level lab. Which, I didn’t do in the end [laughs]. But because all the tutors, teachers and professors in this master’s are top-notch in their field, it was really cool to be able to learn from the best!
What made you decide to join Cergentis?
As mentioned, I had previously worked with Wouter (co-founder) and Erik (CTO) at the beginning of my career. In fact, when I started in Wouter’s lab, Erik was already working there. I learned a lot from the both of them. When I finished my master’s, I discussed with Wouter about my next career step. He asked whether I’d be interested in joining Cergentis. I knew that I would enjoy working in a commercial environment, because of some previous experience running my own company. On top of that, I was also looking forward to work with Erik again! So that’s why I decided to join Cergentis.
Can you tell us more about your own company?
During my studies, I indeed set up a company. It was a webshop for nail polish and nail art supplies. I always dreamt of running something of my own. I wanted to know what was involved behind running a company and how it works. Although I didn’t set it up with a thorough plan, it just worked out very well and actually, it even became the biggest nail polish web shop of the Netherlands at that time!
Again, because I had always worked in academia, I wanted to learn something entirely new. I wanted to see what it would be like to work in a commercial environment since it is something completely different. After 7 years, I learned what there was to learn for myself. Further growth of the company was not possible anymore by myself, due to very high level of competition, so I decided to sell it. I felt like it was time for somebody else to take over. But honestly, everything I had learned there: customer service, automation, order fulfillment, marketing, etc., I still use those acquired skills today at Cergentis!
Could you help paint the early days of Cergentis?
The early days were very cool! We were a really small group. There were only 3 people in the lab and everybody was doing R&D and the projects at the same time. We didn’t have any separate departments yet. It was fun, every project that we would get was exciting! Because it was always something completely new!
We only had 2 offices back then. So we would all see each other all day, every day and discuss about everything. The work environment and feeling of the company was just really exciting and informal. The only downside was the old building we were in. Which was quite… dark and lonely. [laughs] I’m so happy that we moved to the LSI building! We now have a corner office and beautiful windows! [laughs]
Can you tell us how your responsibilities changed over the years?
They changed so much! I started in R&D and with processing samples, but the idea was always that I would play a role in customer service. Because I liked that so much from my previous own company. It’s also something I believe I’m good at. In parallel with the growth of the company, more projects meant more customer service of course. So, I slowly switched to spending more time on customer service and started giving technical trainings to our kit customers. I also really love giving those trainings, to go on-site, meet our customers and explain them all the practical details on how to perform TLA.
Besides that, I used to be the Lab Manager but Melinda is now in charge of that since I transitioned to Operations.
According to you, what are some of our most challenging projects?
For me, the most challenging projects are the ones with new sample types. There, I have to assist our customers more, in terms of processing their samples for TLA. Recently we had a really cool new project with primary goat fibroblast! I’m proud to say we’ve already processed so many kind of organisms so far.
Other complicated projects include those that have multiple integrated vectors. There, the primer design becomes more challenging because we need to make sure to have unique primer sets for each of them. I love solving those puzzles.
In general, TLA can do a lot more than what people usually think! For instance, projects that involve homologous sequences or large vectors (e.g., BACs, YAC) are also not a problem for us!
Can you tell us about some of our newest service offerings?
One that I really like is vector sequencing. We are currently implementing this option into our customer portal. Indeed, we’re helping a lot of people sequencing their large vectors and verifying if their constructs are correct.
Also, our different turnaround times allow us to tailor every project according to our customer’s needs. So, if they are really in a hurry, we can speed it up! We always make sure to keep them updated via the portal, regarding the status of their project.
We have also introduced a sample pickup service in January and a lot of customers are using it! They find it really easy and convenient, because we take care of all the paperwork. The only thing they have to do is to have their samples ready for a courier that comes by with a box of dry ice. Their samples are also kept safe during the entire transit because the dry ice is replenished. So, there’s no fear of “losing samples” when they for instance get stuck, for some reason, at airports/customs. I think this new addition really improved sample shipment for our customers.
Can you elaborate on how the firm is adapting to its recent and rapid growth?
Over the years, we have definitely been working on making our TLA protocol suitable for a lot more different sample types. We have also been working on making the process faster internally. In fact, we’re hoping to soon release an even faster turnaround time! We’ve also been working on automation. For example, with the launch of our online customer portal, to make it easier for customers to submit their samples. But it also means, that we can process the samples faster because it directly links to our internal systems, thereby preventing mistakes. And of course, we are also working on quality, which is very important. We are currently in the process of getting an ISO17025 certification. Although we always have been successfully audited by many of our customers until now, getting this accreditation will definitely allow us to prove to all of our customers that we work according to standards. Who, in turn, will hopefully be more confident and comfortable implementing TLA in their existing workflow for GxP.
How are you enjoying the growth of Cergentis?
I like it very much! It’s so nice to see all the new people joining the company! Until now, it has always been a good match. So, it really gives a lot of energy to have all these intelligent and international people around!
Cergentis has really moved to a different phase. We got so much bigger and have all these departments now! This really gives me the confidence that we can grow a lot more and become even better! So, it will be really cool to see what developments are coming up next!
How is the work atmosphere at Cergentis?
I love it so much! One of the reasons I wanted to leave academia was due to the very competitive atmosphere. Which I think is not always encouraging for people. I love how at Cergentis the atmosphere is so nice and how we’re all really working together as a team. It doesn’t matter what your position is, everybody values your opinion here. And I think everybody has great ideas. Also, everyone is being put in a position where they are flourishing best, which also really helps. I’m always impressed by how intelligent everybody is.
I like that the company allows me to find out what works best for me and that I get the chance to develop in the direction that I want! For instance, the fact that I’m in contact with our customers a lot, really allows me to enjoy my position and therefore, to love my job! Cergentis is really a nice company! I also really appreciate that they encourage us to invest time in sports for instance.
Since you always give great recommendations, what one-day activities would you suggest to someone visiting Utrecht for the first time?
As a big fan of food and museums, I would definitely recommend some of the restaurants here. Especially the Water Tower (WT) Urban Kitchen, where we also celebrated our Christmas dinner with our colleagues. Actually, I love that place so much that I go there at least once a year. I would also recommend to go kayaking. You can rent some kayaks in the city center and can kayak through the center of Utrecht but also outside of the city. The city is beautiful to see and it’s a relaxing activity to do. You can then anchor your kayak along the way to go for a drink at a bar and/or eat at restaurant. That’s really cool to do! And I would of course recommend going for a concert at Tivoli at the end of the day.
Speaking of Tivoli, is music a big part of your life?
Yes, music is a really big part of my life! I used to play a lot in bands when I was younger. I started playing the drums when I was 16. So I learned it when I was a bit older but I took lessons for many years. I still love playing the drums, but I don’t have one at my place anymore because I live in a flat. [laughs] Playing in bands also really makes you appreciate more what’s happening on stage during concerts and performances. Besides music, I also love board games! [laughs] Another important hobby of mine.