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Product | People | Potential – our chat with PhenUtest Diagnostics

We caught up with Srijan Jindal Co-founder and Chief Research Officer (CRO) at PhenUtest Diagnostics, revolutionising diagnostics and clinical decision-making for Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) by providing a rapid point-of-care AST diagnostic kit.

The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with great potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real-talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.

Jazz @ADLIB: Can you please introduce yourself, what PhenUtest Diagnostics does, what stage you are at currently and what makes your business and offering unique?

Srijan: My name is Srijan Jindal, I am the Chief Research Officer (CRO) at PhenUtest Diagnostics Ltd.. PhenUtest was Incorporated in April 2021 from a technology idea that was patented in November 2018, during my PhD. The service that we are offering a rapid (under an hour), point of care, Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) diagnostics. Our instrument can accurately confirm if a patient has a UTI, and the correct antibiotic that works against it, all in under 1 hour. These automated diagnostic tests can be performed at the GP surgery requiring only a urine sample – within just 10 minutes the test shows if the patient is suffering with a UTI, and the causative organism. Within an hour, the instrument correctly predicts the antibiotic that would treat this infection.

Standard UTI diagnostics require the urine sample to be sent off for testing, the results can take anywhere between 2 and 7 days, after which the GP prescribes the correct antibiotic.  

UTIs affect over 100 million people every year, one of every two women is likely to have a UTI at some point in their life – it is known that in the UK, about a quarter of all community antibiotics (prescribed by GPs) are prescribed to treat UTIs. Our aim is to make the diagnosis and treatment pathway faster, cheaper, easier, and more accurate.

Jazz @ADLIB: Can you share the story behind the origin of PhenUtest Diagnostics?

Srijan: The idea behind PhenUtest was initiated during my PhD which had a different focus (artificial intelligence). In the initial testing stage, we found that we could see bacteria grow very quickly using the modern tools of flow cytometry so we looked into the applications for this, which is when we found that UTIs are a major application where the benefits of rapid bacterial growth can be used. From here we did a lot of clinical studies and found that our results were 100% accurate (a rare feat in biology), which was exciting. In November 2018 we filed a patent to protect our technology, ideas, tools, and protocols. At that point I had a chat with my boss (and the co-founder of PhenUtest, Prof. Douglas Kell) to agree that I would finish off my PhD first, then at some point, we would try and commercialise this idea. At this stage, I did not know the extent of this disease, so I had a chat with a few girls in my friend circle who told me how horrible and common UTIs are. When I realised that we had the potential to produce something that will make such a huge positive impact this was my call to action – we can make something that will really help people, which, at the end of the day, is why we are in the research field. It’s been 5 years since then and I am still chasing my dream.

After finishing my PhD, in 2020, I moved to Liverpool and started my Innovation to Commercialisation of University Research (ICURe) journey to explore market research and potential timelines. This took about 7 months, during which we got £300,000, and on the 1st April 2021 we incorporated the company. This could not have been possible without Dr Shona Jones, William Wijnberg, Kai Hoettges, and Guy Reynolds. Since then, we have come really close to having our first prototype. We have grown from just myself and Professor Doug Kell 10 months ago to a team of 10. We have also received £1 million grant funding to continue our product development.  

Jazz @ADLIB: To discuss People, can you share some challenges you have faced, are facing or are anticipating around scaling and growing your team? Do you have any top tips you could share with those businesses faced with the same issues?

Srijan: People and team expansion have actually been the biggest challenge for us. The investment comes after people; people are the first challenge because you need to have a team to get investment. Building a team is very hard because the kind of company’s culture depends on the people coming on board.

We had the challenge that although we could find people to come on board, we want people who believe in technology and aspire to the same goal. Most people looking for a new job prioritised financial gain, so how do we instil the same passion that we have? We had a lot of setbacks in our recruitment process for this reason. But the advice I would give is that no matter how long it takes choose the person who you think will fit in with the company culture more than the talent, because you can teach them how to do certain jobs, but you can’t teach them culture. Especially for start-up, every person you add is about 10-15% of the company so each hire effects the overall company culture.

Jazz @ADLIB: Moving to Product, what has been your approach to understanding the patient needs and implementing product within the healthcare sphere?

Srijan: Our product, the rapid UTI testing kit is a point of care testing kit whereas most of our competitors are trying to speed up the laboratory-based process. Our aim is to put this instrument in GP surgeries however the NHS is a very resistant environment to any kind of change, so our aim is to first target private hospitals and private clinics. Once we see the effects there, we can translate that into walk-in centres, care homes, and surgeries. Since our device needs no technical skills or knowledge to run, it can be used by anyone to gain fast results in remote and unskilled locations.

We aim to run on a service model, providing the instrument for free and charging per cartridge (per test). Our business model indicates that within three weeks we should get all the money back that we invested in the instrument.

Jazz @ADLIB: And then Potential, can you share some challenges or barriers you have had to overcome so far on your journey to develop a diagnostic device with potential?

Srijan: There are challenges in all areas as a start-up – financial, technical, admin – but let’s focus on technical. Everything was proven in a flow cytometry set up which is a bulky instrument costing about £100k+ and taking a lot of technical knowledge to operate. From there we realised we needed something simple and cheap, so we moved to fluorescence microscopy (basically a camera in a box). This translation took us about 8 months, and we are now in the place where we can do better than Flow Cytometry.

The patents were also an initial challenge. Although our competitors are targeting the lab-testing process it was hard to secure a patent within our space, but this is something we are managing with few additional patents, and we have overcome a lot of barriers.

We also have the challenge of overlapping both biology and engineering, and when you overlap two fields there is just so much chaos. We are overlapping biology, chemistry, engineering and AI with people coming from different backgrounds working together, which can prove challenging (but also fun and you learn so much).

Jazz @ADLIB: Investment can often be a challenge for start-ups & scale-ups. Do you have any piece of wisdom you could share around best approach?

Srijan: Investment is a big big challenge as everyone wants it, but I would say make a team before chasing investment. If the team cannot work without investment, then there is no passion, and it is the wrong team. In terms of investment, we have already had a couple of people on the board who are ready to give us funding but we are not accepting all of the offers because I think one should be very careful in selecting which investor they bring on board. These people will have a very major say in the company.

One area to think about when choosing investors is how much they focus on financial growth vs how much focus is on tech viability. You want people on the board who can question your tech at every stage, not just those concerned with their financial gain. I think anyone looking for investment should really prioritise focusing on choosing the right investor – if you have an option, go for the one that is giving you technical advice. It will help you in the long run.