WHO? Marcel Gehrung co-founded Cyted with his PhD advisor, Rebecca Fitzgerald, Professor of Cancer Prevention at the University of Cambridge and with Maria O’Donovan, lead pathologist for upper gastrointestinal cancer and diagnostic cytology at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

WHAT? A rapidly growing start-up, Cyted combines AI with a new technique for detecting oesophageal cancer, invented at Cambridge by Rebecca Fitzgerald.

WHY? Oesophageal cancers are the eighth most common cancer and the sixth most common cause of cancer death. Fitzgerald's Cytosponge (or 'sponge on a string') identifies people who may go on to develop it.

But analysing the samples creates extra work for an already overstretched health service. Cyted uses deep learning pathology techniques to do the leg work, so that human pathologists need only look at the cases that aren't clear cut.

WHAT NEXT? Finding markers for oesophageal cancer is just the beginning. The platform technology can be applied to lots of other diseases including prostate, skin and bowel cancer.

You came to Cambridge to do a PhD and ended up founding a company. How did that happen? It may be helpful to know that when I was 18, I started a software consultancy company and ran that on the side while I did my undergraduate degree. I had up to 15 contractors working for me but it was all project-based so, in theory, manageable around my studies.

That's still a major undertaking. What did you learn from it? That I wouldn't recommend it. With hindsight, I should have given it to someone else to run. At certain points, I was spending all day firefighting because people escalated their problems to me.

That's always going to happen when you are working with freelancers and contractors. If they are not dedicated to the company, it's hard to build a culture where taking responsibility for problems is the foundation. It's completely different now with Cyted.

So where did the idea for Cyted come from? My background was in data science, particularly applying machine learning to healthcare data. My PhD advisor was Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald who had invented the Cytosponge, a diagnostic for Barrett's oesophagus, a pre-cancerous condition that can increase the risk of developing oesophageal cancer.

I had the idea for the business pretty much straightaway and took it to Rebecca. We incorporated the company in 2018 but it sat there for a while doing nothing while I got on with my PhD.

By the end of 2019, when I was halfway through, we started to raise funds. By January 2020, we had raised just under £9 million and we started hiring in March. By the time I submitted my PhD that September we already had 13 people working for Cyted and were about to acquire another company.

You make that all sound very straightforward. Was it? No. It certainly was not. Although we had a clear strategy, we needed quite a lot of money in order to de-risk something that was actually very high risk. But we knew that if it worked, it would work quickly. It wasn't until we started talking to American investors, Morningside Venture Capital, that we got what we needed.

And just as that was all falling into place, COVID struck which meant we had to do everything remotely, including hiring all our staff. We now have more than 60 people, working across two sites, the vast majority of whom were recruited during lockdown.

That sounds tough. It was. Towards the end of last year it was intense. It's not often talked about but it's a very lonely job being at the top of an organisation. You are the person who ultimately has to make the decisions and that isolates you.

You need to make sure there's a balance between the things that give you energy and the things that drain your energy. If someone says to me that they are always positive and nothing ever upsets them, I don't believe them. In fact, I would be concerned about them. Healthy self-reflection is important.

How do you cope with the isolation? I seek help. Martin Frost, who founded CMR Surgical, is a non-exec director and he has become both a personal mentor and a friend. I am also working with an executive coach.

What do you think are your greatest strengths? It turns out, I'm really good at selling the company, particularly to job applicants. This proved useful when trying to recruit during lockdown.

Even though the company has grown, I'm still involved in the later stages of recruitment. Hiring the right people is critical.

What's your greatest achievement? The cheap answer is being able to hold everything together while the company is growing so quickly. The more considered answer is getting myself out of the operational sink I was in last year by weaning myself off the 'my baby' syndrome.

You have now moved to bigger premises in Huntingdon. Have you been involved in deciding what the new offices should look like? That's very much a 'yes'. I love all that, going back and forth with interior designers, talking them through the brand guidelines and how they will be realised. We are doing this again for our new Cambridge offices which will be ready later this year.

Do you have a piece of advice for someone thinking of starting their own business? Have at least one other full-time person in the trenches with you from the start. I didn't - and paid the price.

Has it been helpful to be part of the Cambridge ecosystem? Cyted wouldn't exist without the University. It's where the Cytosponge was invented and where I did my PhD. And it has built an environment in which founders have been thriving for decades. Most importantly, it encourages people to try.

Where do you see Cyted heading? We have realised that what we are really good at is the diagnostic infrastructure which takes tests like Cytosponge to market. Our vision is to become one of the big diagnostic providers in the UK but also in the US and Europe.

To do this we are embarking on a quite aggressive funding round. Because the business is already generating revenue and is operating in a growing market, we are getting a lot of positive signals which is exciting.

What do you do in your spare time, if you have any? I'm into aquariums. I spend a lot of time aquascaping – creating intricate underwater landscapes.

Quick fire

Optimist or pessimist? Realist.

People or ideas? People.

The journey or the destination? The destination. People + destination is more powerful than ideas + journey, in my opinion.

Team player or lone wolf? Team player.

Big picture or fine detail? Both. I work best where they meet.

Risk-taker or risk-averse? Probably more risk-taker, these days. I used to be more risk-averse when the company started.

Be lucky or make your own luck? I'm a 'make your own luck' kind of person.

Work, work, work or work-life balance. Work-life balance. Aquariums are beautiful places.

Enterprising Minds has been developed with the help of Bruno Cotta, Executive Director of the Entrepreneurship Centre at the Cambridge Judge Business School.

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Published 7 April 2022