Earlier in the month I had the opportunity of interviewing Thomas Whitfield, founder of Oxford Biolabs. Thomas talks me through his entrepreneurial journey, sharing with me his experience studying at Oxford University and how it inspired him entrepreneurially.
Hi Thomas, how are you doing? Great to have you on YHP.
Thanks Joseph. I’m doing great.
Can you give us some background information about yourself?
In 2008 I completed a DPhil (PhD) in Biochemistry at Oxford University and subsequently founded Oxford Biolabs. We focus on the research and development of novel health and beauty therapies. We currently market a product called TRX2 , which is a revolutionizing treatment for men and women suffering from hair loss. We are also actively involved in clinical research in the field of anti-ageing.
Prior to Oxford Biolabs I co-founded Designthetime.com (later called Miomi.com), which received venture capital backing and was ranked as one of the top 10 web-startups in the UK by The Registrar in 2007.
How was your experience studying at Oxford University, what were the key things that you took away from it?
Oxford has been a transformational experience for me: Thanks to the support of the university and my supervisors Prof Nicole Zitzmann and Prof Raymond Dwek I was able to follow my entrepreneurial aspirations besides of my doctorate. Before I got to Oxford I was thinking about a career in academia or a job in corporate. After the 5 years at Oxford I acquired the skills, experience and self-confidence to startup a research based company.
Tell me about your early experiences starting a company in oxford and what you learnt from it?
During my doctorate I co-founded DesignTheTime.com (later www.Miomi.com) – a website, which featured a timeline where memorable moments were posted - similar to what facebook has recently implemented. After winning Idea Idol, the flagship business-plan competition at Oxford, my two partners and me were able to secure venture capital investment. We all moved to London for one full year - me from Oxford and my co-founders from Germany.
It was a challenging time for all of us as we still were in the middle of our education. Myself I worked in London with the company during the week and spent the weekends in Oxford trying to keep up with my doctorate. After doing this for almost one year I decided to step back from the company and focus again full-time on my DPhil. It was the right decision as otherwise I never would have been able to finish university. There also were some clashes between me, one of my co-founders and our investors.
My first company was financed by Venture Capital. My second company was funded by own resources and public grants. If somehow possible, you better go for the second option.
Tell me how the idea for Oxford Biolabs came about?
My doctorate at Oxford focused on potassium ion channels. Those small proteins play important roles in various fields, for example Hepatitis C or heart diseases. They also play a major role in hair loss, which has just been discovered a few years ago. I was intrigued by the idea of specifically targeting potassium channels in order to come up with a more effective treatment option for hair loss. The idea of our first product TRX2 (trichos=ancient greek for hair; 2=second generation) was born just after I finished my DPhil in 2008.
When did you actually realise this was something serious? When did it all get to you?
Initially we were trying to develop a new drug. However, we quickly learnt that developing and marketing a new drug would be quite difficult as it would involve multiple years of clinical trials and millions in investment in order to meet the strict regulatory requirements. Consequently we focused on natural substances as those could be regulated as a food supplement rather than a drug.
We collaborated with several universities and after around 12 month of research and testing we found that certain natural substances would help stimulating potassium channels. We patented our findings and we were able to market our first product TRX2 in January 2011. Results of clinical tests are impressive with an average increase of hair density and hair thickness of around 40% after 9 month of TRX2 usage.
Tell us about your early days starting up, setbacks, and difficulties?
In 2009 I moved to the USA after receiving a NCGE-Kauffman Entrepreneurship Fellowship. This was a fantastic experience and together with 11 other fellows I spent several months at the Kauffman Foundation and various educational institutions such as Harvard, MIT SLOAN and Stanford University.
Later I moved to Silicon Valley and started working together with Mir Imran, who is the inventor of the first implantable defibrillator and chairman of Incube Labs. He and his partner Andrew Farquharson helped me tremendously – not only on a personal level but also in shaping the vision and concept for Oxford Biolabs and our first product TRX2.
What’s your business model?
One-month supply of TRX2 contains 90 capsules and costs around GBP 40. The hair loss treatment is suitable for both men and women of all ages. We distribute our products through pharmacies, clinics and practitioners but also through our own website www.trx2.com.
Our main market is the EU but we have customers from more than 60 countries – some even from very exotic locations, such as Papua New Guinea.
How were you able to fund the business in the early stages?
Initially, the business was funded through my own personal savings and proceeds, which I gained through DesignTheTime.com. However, later on we also secured various public grants, e.g. by NCGE and NESTA. We have also received exceptional support by the University of Oxford and the Oxford Science Park. Currently the company grows organically and the revenue covers our operation costs and research projects. However, if it would mean that our research projects could move on faster, we would consider outside funding in the future.
What would you say has been your most memorable moment so far running the business?
Probably the first sales after launching TRX2 in January 2011. Prior to launch we received more than 1000 pre-orders and back in the days we still didn’t have logistics setup properly. These were crazy days and every available company member, including myself was helping to get these first orders fulfilled.
What can we be expecting from Oxford Biolabs in 2012?
Recently, we have gained exciting results from our hair pigmentation study (i.e. how to turn grey hair into fully pigmented hair again). We also expect good news on our other hair loss related research projects during the course of 2012/2013.
We aim to build Oxford Biolabs towards a global leader in the development of novel health and beauty therapies.
What key advices would you give to young entrepreneurs looking to start their start their business?
Don’t wait. Start now. I believe being young and naïve is a great advantage. Don’t get into the habit of “having to feel comfortable” in the first place. Just start. And just keep on going.