“Embrace new opportunities.” With Mitch Russo & Graham Mills

If all the social and economic implications of the coronavirus have taught us anything, it is that agility is paramount. Businesses that haven’t adapted or responded to the changing environment — new opportunities, new policies and regulations, new ways of working — have probably already felt the consequences. I had the pleasure of interviewing Graham […]

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If all the social and economic implications of the coronavirus have taught us anything, it is that agility is paramount. Businesses that haven’t adapted or responded to the changing environment — new opportunities, new policies and regulations, new ways of working — have probably already felt the consequences.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Graham Mills, co-founder and managing director, .

Originally starting out on a path in academia, Graham Mills is co-founder and managing director of, where he heads up the company’s commercial functions and international expansion strategy.

He started his career with a PhD in pancreatic cancer chemoresistance at the University of Cambridge, having worked previously within oncology R&D at the leading U.S. biotech organization, Genentech. Graham’s commercial experience comes from roles in venture capital at J&J’s corporate fund, Seroba Life Sciences, and Abingworth, while his entrepreneurial endeavors began as co-founder of the smoking cessation startup Abdicare. This venture was followed in 2015 by the founding of Biotechspert, which has evolved today into, after recognizing the power precision-matched insights can have in driving innovation globally.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Growing up in Ireland, I spent a lot of time exploring the outdoors, which sparked a lifelong interested in nature and science. It led me to study Genetics at Trinity College, Dublin, where I sought to understand the hidden ‘code’ behind genetics and cures for disease.

After moving to London for postgraduate study, I joined the Cancer Research UK (CRUK) PhD program at Cambridge University, focusing on pancreatic cancer chemoresistance. So, how did I end up co-founding a tech start up?

My background in medical research, coupled with venture capital roles in some well-known life sciences corporates, sparked my entrepreneurial spirit. I co-founded a smoking cessation venture with David Holden-White, which didn’t turn out to be the success we’d hoped but did teach us a great deal about creating a company and the value of expert knowledge in the business environment.

It also became clear that academic knowledge was incredibly slow to transfer into the business world.

Where I had previously sought to build knowledge through research, I now realized that there was a business opportunity for a technology solution that democratized the currency of information and helped organizations to gain the insight they need to de-risk critical decision making.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

Through my PhD studies and roles in investment, I gained the academic and commercial perspective to realize that problems didn’t necessarily pose a challenge because the answer wasn’t known, but because we didn’t know who to go to for the best answer.

It felt crazy that an industry as advanced and impactful as pharmaceuticals still relied on personal connections and search engine results as sources of critical information.

David and I found our challenge was to find a way of intelligently indexing all the zettabytes of data on the web and objectively calculating who the best experts are on any subject, at any time. Our conviction that ‘there must be a better way’ led to a realization that AI held the key, and our business was born from there.

The idea was strong and people were keen to support and participate, but it took a while to find the right proposition.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

The early days of were tough. I was splitting my time between completing my PhD and a business that was taking off at unexpected speed.

The first year was tough, as it can be with many start-up companies. We were targeting other start-ups with our proposition and getting nowhere. But we never lost faith in the core proposition and giving up simply wasn’t an option.

I’m a scientist, and scientists believe there is always an answer — we just need to find it. So, each time a challenge arose I had fun deconstructing it to find out how to solve it.

We also knew that our proposition was solving what we believe to be one of the major bottlenecks to societal advancement and innovation globally — knowledge exchange. It’s a rare opportunity to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right tools and we were spurred on through difficult times by the chance to be the first to apply cutting edge AI technology to the problem.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success? is in a strong position. We were fortunate to close Series A funding with a consortium led by Nauta Capital just prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, so we have a degree of stability and very aggressive growth plans ahead. We are continually developing our technology advantage and pursuing our ambitions for market and geographical growth.

But I don’t ever see our business as being ‘settled’ and this keeps us agile — even in unprecedented times. is always evolving, and not just how we build the business but how we perceive things. Our mantra is ‘never stop pivoting’ and I believe this is the key to our resilience and success.

We are continually embracing external advice and adapting to the changing environment around us, evaluating and adopting new technological advancements and staying alert.

By never feeling ‘that’s it, we have our final product’, I believe we’re able to rapidly evolve to become ever more relevant and effective in our space.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

We knew our business had a problem to solve. How do we speed knowledge transfer from academic minds into the business community? The mistake we made initially was to follow the same model of similar ‘expert search’ businesses by building a private social network for the biotech industry.

People joined our network because they supported its mission, not because they thought it would work! Before we knew it, we had 300 people on a database and felt on top of the world…until we realized that competitors had 700,000+ listings and we weren’t even in the game!

We still believed in the value of expertise but were trying to sell the wrong product to the wrong market. In fact, we weren’t even trying to sell it — we tried giving it away, we tried offering to pay THEM to use US!

That’s the point at which we saw 99% of our assumptions were completely wrong! We knew we had the right idea but a funny feeling that everything we had built and assumed about our market were heading right back to square one!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our technology is a massive differentiator in an otherwise traditional market.

Our static social network was going nowhere, so we looked at how technology could make us stand out. Today, our competitors might have impressive numbers on their database but that’s nothing compared to the hundreds of millions of individuals across 170 countries and a million specialisms that our Artificial Intelligence (AI) powered technology can dynamically analyze and profile within minutes. Each query prompts a fresh search to make sure the outcome is the best, up-to-the-moment information.

How many of the experts on a static database are still at the top of their game? Has their research been challenged or superseded by others in the field? How many are retired or even still alive? Are they the best experts on the subject? The answer is ‘no one knows’. The best that these services can deliver is who they know, whereas we deliver who you need.

For example, it was on December 31st, 2019 that the World Health Organization (WHO) China office received first reports of a previously-unknown virus. Days later, answered a request for connections to key opinion leaders and healthcare practitioners with experience in infectious viral respiratory illnesses in Hong Kong, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK.

It would have taken days, even weeks, of manual search to identify experts that met these specific requirements. Our deep search AI technology precision-matched a shortlist of experts within hours. In a rapidly evolving environment such as this, timely access to the best expert insight is paramount.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I find motivation in my fundamental belief that knowledge transfer is the key to evolving humanity itself.

If you believe in the mission of your company, bring that motivation to work every day and surround yourself with an energized team…then the fire will keep burning.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I co-founded with David Holden White. We both have backgrounds in life sciences, but that’s where the similarities end. We’re like chalk and cheese, both seeing and analyzing the world around us in such different ways. The early start up days were challenging, with frequent disagreements, but the learning I took away was to respect and listen to opinions that contrast with mine. I stopped trying to persuade people to join me in my way of thinking and learned to embrace differing ideas and approaches.

It’s been a journey, but one that has seen success — not only in remaining close friends and ally with David but also in business through my approach to engaging with teams, clients, investors, and so on.

I’m also grateful to my dad for raising me to always see the good in other people and have belief in my own abilities. He is one of the most pacifist, intelligent people I know, even after the years I have spent immersed in academia, and the teachings he passed on have ended up being instrumental strengths in founding a company and building a team. Without his influence, I don’t think I would have the confidence to do all of this, today.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community? currently has around 50 regular clients, all with multiple users, which means around 1,000 people have access to our knowledge search service.

The companies that we work with range from niche consultancies through to global organizations across a range of industries, because insight-empowered decision making is critical for businesses of all shapes and sizes.

Building our business from day one has taken a commitment to building relationships. We focused on:

  1. Creating open and frequent dialogue with prospective customers to understand their problems and perspectives
  2. Presenting a minimum viable product (MVP) to prospects quickly to showcase core features, engage early adopters and create a feedback loop for product development
  3. Nurturing these initial relationships and valuing the human — as well as technical — interactions.

With this approach, we have grown predominantly through referrals, even into some of our largest global customers, because people love to refer not only when you solve a problem, but when you leave them happy.

What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those? currently charges on a commission-based pay-as-you-go model, meaning client’s pay us a fee per engagement — whether that is an hour of 1:1 time with a single expert, a focus group or a research panel matching an expert profile. From this, we pay the experts and retain a percentage-based fee.

Our plan has always been to expand out to a licensing model, which some large organizations have already expressed interest in. In this case, would charge a fee per ‘seat’ for the usage of our identification technology. In the early stages of our business, this would have been too large a commitment to engage customers, but we are at a point where our technology and service proposition are proven and demand is there for a more scalable contract model.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SaaS? Please share a story or an example for each.

You have to be 10 times better — or more — to win

The ‘knowledge search’ industry was alive and kicking well before AI arrived on the scene. Existing companies have considerable advantages of brand equity and loyal customers, which — in any industry — means that any new entrant can’t be just 2x or 3x times better to win customers, you need to be 10x better. Better, faster, cost efficient and more.

In our market, competitors’ business models were stagnant. They continued to rely on a manual search of static databases and subjective professional network tools, and it would demand significant investment to radically redesign their business model to wholly embrace new technologies.

In contract, is built with AI and NLP technologies at its core, making it faster, more precise and capable of searching significantly larger, more diverse populations to find the right expert matches.

You can only succeed in an established market if you introduce a significant step change to make your proposition 10x better and that’s the advantage AI brings to

Make it a ‘no brainer’ for customers

‘No one ever got fired for buying IBM’ has long been a catch phrase in the IT industry and this is how we strive to be perceived as well. If you become a product that people not only want but feel their boss will fire them if they don’t start using — in other words, make it a ‘no brainer’ to choose your solution — you are in a winning position.

Stay agile, keep pivoting

You’re never done pivoting. The world changes every day and we have to maintain the awareness, agility and responsiveness to adapt our business to new conditions.

If all the social and economic implications of the coronavirus have taught us anything, it is that agility is paramount. Businesses that haven’t adapted or responded to the changing environment — new opportunities, new policies and regulations, new ways of working — have probably already felt the consequences.

The second you stop being open to iterations and opportunities to change, and start being confident that you know it all, your business will wither.

Nurture your early employees

The people that take a chance and join a young start-up business, bringing their expertise and experience into an unproven, unknown company are your real heroes. These are the employees that bought into you and your mission and have taken a massive step in their career to join your company on its journey.

Here at we are proud to have most of our early employees still with us, two years into our journey. Our team has grown from 3 to 35 and we’re delighted to welcome fresh faces to the team, while still celebrating the commitment and loyalty of the first ones to join.

Nurture them, reward them and they will be the anchors that your business needs through the rough and the smooth. They will be the advocates, the ones that attract more like-minded talent and work hard for your vision and business to be a success.

If you don’t have sleepless nights, are you even an entrepreneur?

Everyone has peaks and troughs. No matter how successful or high-flying a company is, regardless of its sales figures and stock market valuation, every founder still has sleepless nights and days when they think it’s all going to fail. That never stops!

It’s the people that learn to thrive in moments of chaos and leaders that navigate their team through tough times that are primed and ready when the peaks come around.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I believe everyone is an expert in something, and everyone’s insight is valuable to someone.

A movement I would start would be a program through which everyone had to connect with another stranger around the world to provide their advice and insight once a week.

Knowledge is critical to human, social and economic development, in fact it is the most precious ‘wealth’ that we possess. But it is far from equally available throughout the world. This initiative would create powerful connections, foster innovation in far flung regions, and remove a key bottleneck to advancement faced by many countries, governments, businesses and individuals around the globe.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @techspertio


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