Insightful takes on scaling your business

3 lessons for every newbie founder competing with industry veterans

It's tough to succeed as an underdog, but not impossible.

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Erik Gatenholm
Story by
Erik Gatenholm

CEO and Co-Founder, CELLINK — Erik Gatenholm is a serial entrepreneur who co-founded CELLINK, the first company to commercialize a universal bioink for 3D bioprinting of human tissues and organs. Today CELLINK is focused on provid… (show all) Erik Gatenholm is a serial entrepreneur who co-founded CELLINK, the first company to commercialize a universal bioink for 3D bioprinting of human tissues and organs. Today CELLINK is focused on providing technologies, products and services to create, understand and master biology.

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It’s hard to believe it’s been almost five years since I began my entrepreneurial journey within an industry I had heard was nearly impossible to break into, let alone as a young entrepreneur in my 20s.

The 3D bioprinting industry has been dominated by professors with decades of experience and pharma giants, but I knew with enough passion, grit, and determination, I could break through. I had always been fascinated with 3D bioprinting technology and the life changing opportunities that could emerge if this industry was democratized. 

In 2016 my co-founder and I went full speed ahead to pursue our dream of turning our vision of a world where 3D bioprinting technology was readily available and affordable to the masses into reality.

While outsiders may see CELLINK as an overnight success story with our recent $1 billion valuation and exponential growth, from an insider’s perspective  the notion of an overnight success is far from reality.

My team and I are extremely thankful for the success we have had but achieving this has meant a lot of sacrifices and we have had to overcome multiple hurdles to get to where we are today.  Below are three things I believe every entrepreneur should consider when breaking into an industry dominated by industry veterans.

1. Do your due diligence

No matter what you want to be successful in, you need to do your due diligence to get a full comprehensive picture of how you can disrupt and contribute to the industry and/or  problem you are trying to tackle. If you’re going after an industry run by a few key players with decades of experience, this is even more imperative.

Instead of seeing the experience others possessed as a challenge, I saw this as an opportunity to learn. I was maniacally focused on grasping the full picture of the industry I wanted to break into. 

What did they do well? What could they have improved upon? You need to study the history of your industry and take note of the various milestones achieved. Ask yourself, what did it take to get here and why have they not reached the next milestone? What’s holding them back? 

Take small yet impactful steps towards breaking into your industry if you want to truly innovate it in the long haul. Our first step into tackling the 3D bioprinting market was to create a universal bioink for bioprinting of human tissues and organs. We knew that aside from the exorbitant costs of most 3D bioprinting systems, the other challenge scientists faced was having to develop their own bioinks. 

My co-founder and I saw this was a heavily asked question online and decided to take action. Before we even fully launched CELLINK, we set up a webshop to evaluate the demand from our target customers, within 24 hours of launching our universal bionk, we were sold out. At that moment, we knew we were onto something.

In a matter of months, we decided to take the next leap to developing cost-effective 3D bioprinting technology to accompany our inks and become a full 3D bioprinting solutions provider. It was time to enter the big leagues!

2. Stand your ground

When I started CELLINK, I was 25 years old. I was hungry, motivated, and felt a burning drive to truly disrupt this industry. As my co-founder and I went to raise money, we were quickly met with scrutiny and an onslaught of questions relating to our ability to make a real impact in this field. 

Did we have the experience needed? Did we really have a game changing business model on our hands? Regardless of the numerous negative responses we received, this only made us stronger and more determined to show the world what we were capable of. Giving up simply wasn’t an option.

We decided to take what many see as an unconventional route of raising money and went public. We took CELLINK public on Nasdaq First North only 10 months after we launched. This to date is one of the earliest IPOs in history.  

We may have been met with a lot of skepticism but found leading industry experts who believed in our technology and us as a team. We began to grow at a rapid pace and started securing partnerships and customers with world renowned research institutions and pharmaceutical companies around the globe. For every shred of doubt we received along the way, we took it with grace and used it to further push us towards our goal.

Even after a $1 billion valuation, acquiring four companies and building a team of nearly 400, we must still be persistent and stand our ground. We continue to have to prove ourselves on a daily basis. It’s part of the job. 

3. Collaborate

Who knows better than your customers? Taking a collaborative approach to work alongside our customers has been instrumental to our success.

Within the first few months of launching, we developed a Collaborative Partnership Program where in exchange for a discount on our technology, our customers provided us with in-depth feedback on a regular basis and together we explored what it would take to have them reach their goals. 

We knew we had to approach our business through a collaborative lens in order to build products that were not only coveted, but needed. We took a deep dive into the challenges our customers were facing and have continually worked closely to give them what they need to succeed and move the industry forward.

You can’t play guessing games if you want to succeed, never assume. Taking the time to really get to know your customers and those who you wish to work with can be the differentiating factor that will make or break you. 

Creating our Collaborative Partnership Program has led us to a customer base of over 1,800 labs in 60+ countries.  We now have partnerships with almost every major pharmaceutical company and are working with world leading researchers on groundbreaking drug development, disease model analysis, cosmetic development, and more.

Collaboration is essential to effectively building relationships, learning, and making an impact. Never underestimate it. 

As I enter my fifth year as the CEO of CELLINK, I look forward to the challenges and victories that lie ahead. As our team and portfolio of products continue to expand, we are taking this next phase to become a bio-convergence company and further provide technologies, products, and services in order to create, understand, and master biology to change the future of medicine.

Always remember to listen, absorb, and reflect in order to make the right choices to propel your business forward, especially in an industry where you’re seen as the underdog.  Never stop hustling! 

Published November 10, 2020 — 07:00 UTC