Falling Walls from the startup-perspective – the experiences of Vaxxilon and Oxford Heartbeat

The startup world is currently thriving and in recent years has fast become the epitome of “hip” and “cool”. Fittingly, the majority of startup events are as trendy and loud as many believe the startup world to be. However, one of the competitions WUNDERDING has been visiting over the last years – the Falling Walls Venture in Berlin – seems to be in direct contrast to this trendy world. Whilst some startup events put emphasis on being modern and stylish, Falling Walls ensures that it showcases a certain prudent seriousness down to the smallest detail and the event in general emits a serene vibe. In 2017, WUNDERDING accompanied the Venture for the third year in a row and we’ve come to find that this serenity and to-the-minute scheduling really work to Falling Walls’ benefit.

Over the last three years, we’ve gotten to know a vast number of interesting startups and founders at the Falling Walls Venture and we recently spoke to two such entrepreneurs about their Falling Walls experiences – one of these is Tom Monroe.

Tom is the CEO of Vaxxilon – a young company established in 2015 that develops vaccines based on synthetic carbohydrate technology. These are faster to create, cheaper to make, and easier to store than traditionally manufactured vaccines. After a fast-paced day of pitching and judging, Vaxxilon was chosen as the winner of the 2016 Venture out of 20+ startups, by high-calibre jurors representing industry and academia alike.  Consequently, Tom got the chance to present Vaxxilon’s work during the Falling Walls Conference.

WUNDERDING: Tom, what did you and Vaxxilon take away from winning the Falling Walls Venture? 

Tom Monroe: From one perspective, we gained a lot of exposure. We were contacted quite a few times by the media, gave some stimulating interviews and appeared in the press. We received a lot of interest from potential funders, which at the time, and even to this day, we aren’t quite looking for, because we have a good funding agreement for now, but I at least was able to keep those contacts.

So, it provided a great foundation and great exposure, but the second, major perspective that I really appreciate, is that it’s an external validation of the science that we’re doing. This had a tangible impact inside the company. People take a big risk in their lives by joining a startup with novel science, which, let’s face it, you never really know if it’s going to work or not. Therefore, it was very motivating and encouraging for my team to see this external validation. Falling Walls is quite well known in Berlin and since we have labs here, and as this is where the bulk of our employees is, this was very motivating and encouraging for them. Quite frankly, we made a big poster out of the award certificate and put it on our walls so they see it every day.

Tom representing Vaxxilon at the Falling Walls Venture, Berlin 2016 [Photo: Falling Walls]

Since winning in 2016 things have been developing rapidly for Vaxxilon. They completed the industrialisation of their technology – a process which, as Tom let us know, can be quite time consuming when trying to make an academic product adhere to the highly-regulated standards of the pharmaceutical industry. In addition, spurred by winning the Falling Walls Venture, the Vaxxilon team has now started working on a second project, which also is well on its way.

WUNDERDING: As the winner of last year’s Venture, you were now invited back as a juror this year. What did you learn from these experiences?

Tom Monroe: To answer that question I’d like to quickly go back to last year when we were competing as a part of this fantastic scientific Venture-day. It’s very stressful to synthesise what you do into a 5-minute talk and to explain what you’ve been working on. It’s tougher when you are coming up after learning about so many other exciting technologies. You’re not really paying attention, you’re thinking about “oh, I could say this or say that”. This year, one of the main benefits for me being on the jury, was the ability to really think through what all of these different companies are doing, all of the exciting science across a range of different potential applications, and to really feel the motivation. And to not just experience the people that are presenting and the excitement behind their work, but also think about the different cross linkages and how we might be able to do something differently ourselves by thinking about how other startups have progressed their work.

The second thing is being part of the jury – this was a new experience for me. It’s tough to pick favourites because there are so many great ideas and so many really good presenters who are able to articulate their work so well. So, it was interesting to be part of the process to select a winner.  

The second person, which we asked about her Falling Walls experiences, is Katerina Spranger. Katerina founded Oxford Heartbeat – one of the startups Tom was to judge during the 2017 Venture. Oxford Heartbeat’s aim is to improve the preparation and decision-making in minimally-invasive cardiovascular surgery. This is done by utilising predictive computation to make models of patient’s brain blood vessels and of the medical devices. Oxford Heartbeat was eventually placed as one of the runners-up of the competition, but Katerina nevertheless rated her 2017 Falling Walls experience as a success – as she told us when we met up in London for a chat, three months after the 2017 Venture.

Katerina Spranger: It was definitely an amazing experience and the conference just opens your horizon. The people that are presenting are addressing very important issues and are raising awareness. It is almost like an injection of inspiration, but also like a vitamin of “social consciousness”. I think people need things like that and Falling Walls does an amazing job by, once a year, bringing people together who are at the forefront of the important areas that humanity needs to address and who do not just want to make a good earning out of it. People are thinking globally – it gives you an amazing motivation to contribute and to go through the challenges that you are facing in your own journey. 

Other than Tom, the Venture was not Katerina’s first Falling Walls experience. She first participated whilst still working on her PhD thesis by pitching her idea for “breaking the wall of cardiovascular disease” during the 2013 Falling Walls Lab – another event hosted within the frame of the Falling Walls Conference. Here, scientists, which have an idea how they could turn their research projects into a potential business proposals, are invited to present their thoughts to a jury with 3 minute-talks. Up to 100 pitches can be heard during the precisely orchestrated day-long competition. Next to cash prizes, the three finalists are also granted the opportunity to talk about their ideas at the Falling Wall Conference. It was within the frame of the Falling Walls Lab that Katerina took her plan out of the laboratory and presented it to a larger, not purely medical, audience for the first time.

WUNDERDING: Katerina, you won the Falling Walls Lab in London and were one of the three finalists at the Berlin Lab in 2013. How did this influence the commercial development of your idea?

Katerina Spranger: When you are a PhD student, even if you are interested in commercial applications and in taking your project into that direction, you are in an academic environment purely interested in the science of things and you are communicating, again, with other academics. You have no idea whether your idea or what you want to do, has any kind of commercial interest or maybe is big or exciting enough for a wider audience.

Katerina pitching her idea for Oxford Heartbeat at the Falling Walls Lab, Berlin 2013 [Photo: Kay Herschelmann, Falling Walls]

So, when actually preparing to pitch the idea for a wider audience at the Lab and when making it understandable, you go through a kind of process of distilling of what it is that you do and what you want to do. And then, when you’re successful at communicating it at the Lab, suddenly you think “wow, it’s actually interesting enough so that people find it fascinating” And after hearing the judges’ feedback from the commercial perspective you think “Maybe I should really do it, it’s actually possible”. It gives you a lot of confidence, because you think it’s not just interesting for me and for my niche but it’s interesting for a lot of people, and especially for people such as the judges who have a lot of experience, and have been there and done it.

In the following years, Katerina focussed back on her scientific life and finished her PhD in Oxford. When she was invited back to Falling Walls, this time to be a judge at the 2015 Berlin Lab, she by chance learned about the Enterprise Fellowship at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London. As she was still interested in pursuing the commercial aspect, she took the advice and successfully applied for the fellowship, which entailed funding, training and mentoring on how to develop an academic idea into a company. It led to her founding Oxford Heartbeat in 2016.

Since the first Lab event in 2011 and the first Venture competition in 2013, an amazing number of around 700 researchers and 100 startups have competed against each other, for the honour of presenting at the Falling Walls Conference. All of the people involved have profited from the impressive organization, planning and smooth execution of the Falling Walls events and have hopefully all come out of the experience buzzing with enthusiasm and new energy to pursue their ideas, as Katerina and Tom did. And whilst we can only speculate how Vaxxilon and Oxford Heartbeat would have evolved had Katerina and Tom not participated inFalling Walls, it seems safe to say that both benefited from the experience.  

WUNDERDING: Tom and Katerina, as Falling Walls-alumni, do you have any tips for people who would like to compete in the Venture and be part of this inspiring event?

Katerina Spranger: I would definitely recommend them to participate – both the Venture for the startups and the Lab for the PhD students. It’s a great experience – first of all, it makes you think how you would communicate what you are doing in a very concise way to a wider audience, and about what is it that you’re actually doing.

And from my experience as a judge, I would say that the great presentations always have a story. It’s not so much that you have do this perfect pitch, with the kind of formula of “problem and solution”. You need something to wow people. Of course, the presentation has to answer the basic questions, but there should really be more to it. Find, what it is that fascinates you about what you do, and then communicate it. Also, I think visuals help a lot as they can say so much more. Basically, the pitch should be juicy and fascinate people. And people are always doing fascinating things – if you have been doing something for three or so years for your PhD, you probably love what you do. So, for sure there is a way to communicate it, so that it ignites the attention and interest of other people. You just have to find it.

Tom Monroe: Since time is so short, technologies are so complex and jurors are of different disciplines, think about it really simply and explain your startup to your mother or a teenager. If they get it, then you’re on the right track.

WUNDERDING: Thank you very much Tom and Katerina.

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