How do you get a ‘foot in the door’ as a start-up?

Getting Started

It was a combination of working with medical charities and speaking with contacts in the healthcare industry that first sparked Alistair Crombie and Nick Thomsitt’s idea for One Research. As communication experts, they realised that they could translate their skills into a whole new market.

In conversation with colleagues in the pharmaceutical sector, they heard about the challenges the industry faced recruiting volunteers for clinical trials. Recruitment was expensive and time-consuming, and a high percentage of participants also tended to drop out once trials had begun. Alistair and Nick began to ask the question: “Why is the process like this?”.

When there was no definitive answer, they became convinced of a gap in the market. They recognised that communication with patients was the crucial step in the process that researchers didn’t have the resources or skills to manage themselves. Recruitment could be made easier for everyone, from the research sites to patients themselves. 

Alistair and Nick resolved to create a research communications agency that would specialise in the development of effective recruitment strategies, increasing patient participation through better communication. In 2009, they convinced a European pharmaceutical developer to trial a pilot project using their approach, and the results were immediately positive enough to justify setting up a company.

Working with Sussex Innovation

Alistair didn’t have any preconceptions before visiting the Sussex Innovation Centre; as a former student of the University of Sussex, he had come to campus umpteen times, but had never been to that corner of it until he arranged his first meeting with Mike Herd. Mike could see the potential of the idea, and left Alistair with one crucial question to consider: was he fully committed to running a business? 

By now, Alistair and Nick were increasingly confident that the idea had legs. That confidence grew with a virtual tenancy at the Centre, which enabled them to hire out the boardroom for important meetings. The professional environment meant that they were giving off the best possible impression to potential clients, and the academic address helped to boost their credibility in the hard-to-impress pharma sector. 

Nick and Alistair made the conscious decision to fund their business themselves, as opposed to taking loans out. Having a resilient financial model helped them, and defined them as different to other start-up companies, many of whom rely on investors. Their financial model was independent, and could support itself, which was key to the growth of One Research – as their new company was named. Financial support and book-keeping from the Centre’s accounts team helped to give the model resilience.

In 2014, the Centre secured ‘Wave 2’ grand funding that helped to subsidise the cost of intensive growth support projects, and used this for the senior support team to conduct a ‘360 review’ of One Research. One of the biggest challenges the review helped to identify was in getting a ‘foot in the door’ with the pharma industry, so the team created a plan to build the reputation of the business. The market research team interviewed several key figures in clinical research on the company’s behalf, and published the results in a white paper which was featured in the industry-leading publication Pharma Times. As a direct result of the project, One Research partnered with a US organisation and has tendered for several new research contracts since.

The community of like-minded entrepreneurs at the Centre also proved useful – One Research employed a neighbouring marketing company to help them recruit patients, as well as finding a web designer and software designer to develop their offering further. 

Growing a Business

One Research have grown in every year of the business, which they see as a benchmark of their success. Providing people with full-time employment is something that the business is immensely proud of. While they’re out of the ‘start-up’ stage of business, they still have lots of work to do, and are conscious that they need to be diligent over the coming years to get to the top of their game. 

The more established One Research became in the sector, the more challenges they came across that they could take on. When they started, they had a core speciality in patient recruitment, but as time has gone on they have discovered other services which are currently very sought-after. As one part of the company becomes secure and established, they are constantly discovering new paths which the business can take, which must begin from start-up stage. The flexibility of owning their own business means that, if they decide, they can take their business off on a tangent and pursue other areas that might help people. 

Looking to the future, Alistair and Nick hope to fill out a lot of the team management positions to help share the work of running the business. They acknowledge that, no matter how big the company gets, you’re never safe – even big companies can go into liquidation. However, they aim to reach a stage where the company is as safe as it can be as their personal measure of success. Their vision is to be a “business that’s good for everyone involved in it” – in other words, a company that benefits clients, staff and themselves.

As opposed to being a ‘disruptive company’, One Research is one that has helped people to do their existing jobs better. Their innovation has begun to be accepted within a very conservative and cautious industry – they stress that they haven’t come into the clinical research sector to put other people out of business, but to solve problems. 

The company has recently launched a prepaid card which helps research sites and patients to quickly and seamlessly manage expenses during trials. This product came about after industry partners brought the problem directly to One Research; evidence of their growing reputation, and the trust that has begun to be placed in them.

While some businesses develop innovative products and then try to match them to a solution, One Research have ‘worked backwards’ in this sense, identifying problems and then solving them. Both Alistair and Nick are focussed on coming to work to do something of value, and One Research is an example that a business does not necessarily need to disrupt an industry to be innovative – sometimes all they need is to support existing businesses to perform better.