The family business that fights disease
Entrepreneur Elaine Warburton talks about her journey to founding a biotech business with her husband.
2 min read
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Elaine Warburton is co-founder of biotechnology company QuantuMDx and was CEO for 12 years until she took a step back from the business in January 2020. She now sits on the board, with special responsibility for commercialisation.
We spoke to Elaine about what inspired her to start the business, and the upsides – and downsides – of co-founding a company with her husband, Julian. She also talked about her experiences with the Coutts Investment Club and how it helped her find new opportunities.
What does QuantuMDx do?
We’ve developed the Q-POC™, the world's first portable molecular laboratory. It’s basically a little device that offers sample-to-answer testing for diseases in minutes at any time, any place, anywhere.
How did the idea come about?
My journey started when I was a little girl and my mother unfortunately developed breast cancer at a very young age. My father also went through tuberculosis in his childhood and lost family members to the disease. So I was always destined to go into health care in some form.
My career took a meandering path through nursing, genetics, accountancy, marketing, several start-ups and running hospitals. Eventually, I realised that to diagnose diseases early when something can be done, you need to be able to take the test to the patient and get a result in minutes.
This concept really hit home when my co-founder Jonathan O’Halloran and I visited South Africa and saw first-hand the terrible diseases prevalent in the townships with minimal access to good quality labs. That's where the initial development of the Q-POC™ took off, before settling in Newcastle.
What's your approach to business?
It’s much like being a mother. I believe a company is all about raising a family. You have to teach everyone and be there to wipe up all the messes. But also be there to celebrate the proud moments as well.
You go through all the various stages and care for your precious staff until eventually they are empowered to make the key decisions that will take the company through the next stages and beyond.
How have you balanced your personal life with your business commitments?
It was actually quite easy to begin with because I founded the business with my husband, Julian. At times, it was really tough, particularly when we had no money and our personal finances were at stake, but we rode the rollercoaster journey together.
Could I have set up QuantuMDx on my own without Julian? Categorically, no. It was absolutely integral that I had my life partner by my side, and I was by his side as well.
Why did you decide to transition from CEO to board director?
You have to be totally honest about whether or not you're the right person to take your baby forward. And I think there just comes a time – I’d had 12 years at the helm and I'd gone through cancer, as had my husband.
I remember I was going on a particularly brutal journey from China to Singapore to Australia in five days. I was exhausted. I was dying to see the Sydney Opera House – that was the one big thing on my tick list. When I got there, I sat down with a cup of coffee and I just thought, “This is it. Enough is enough.”
I don't mind saying I cried my eyes out when I left, because I was grieving for something I'd lost. But over the months, you come to terms with it and you realise it's the best decision you could have made. I watch with pride as QuantuMDx blossoms and I embark on the next exciting chapter of my life with Julian.
Did your husband help you make the decision?
Yes, he was always by my side. In fact, two years before he had left his position as chief finance officer to help the business along. Once you establish a company, the husband and wife optics don't work as well. It works fantastically when you're a start-up, but not as a commercial company.
How has Coutts Investment Club helped QuantuMDx?
In 2014, one of our shareholders introduced us to Coutts, which was in the process of setting up the Coutts Investment Club. They loved the idea of QuantuMDx and Q-POC™, so we went through a three-month due diligence process and were then presented to the club.
Coutts circulated the business proposition and we could pitch to anyone who was interested. From around 15 pitches, we received a number of offers to invest and raised about £2 million – a huge amount of money for us at that stage.
We’ve had numerous business and commercial introductions from our Coutts investors including being introduced to a group of investors from Singapore, and ended up setting up an office in the country. We’ve since relocated our cassette volume manufacturing line to Singapore.
What advice would you give to other people looking to finance their business?
Use your networks and organisations like the Coutts Investment Club to help find finance. There are so many ways to expand your network – social media, conferences, even a casual conversation on the train. Every meeting is an opportunity.
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