Founder-CEO Interview Series

/

Antoine Espinet

Antoine is the CEO at MicrofluidX, which he co-founded in 2018. Prior to this, he worked as a management consultant at McKinsey, in Brussels and Sydney, with projects spanning the technology, pharma and hardware sectors across the manufacturing, procurement, commercial, and strategy functions. He graduated in 2012 with PhD in Engineering from Cornell University, USA, specialising in fluid flow, applied computational model optimisation, and uncertainty quantification. He holds a Master in Engineering from Ecole Centrale Paris, France, where he was also part of the varsity crew team.

Founder-CEO Interview Series

with Antoine Espinet

Tell us about yourself and MicrofluidX.

I am an engineer by training so I was always interested in science and the application of science to concrete world problems. I did spend some time in management consulting because I felt it was a way to learn about business; I wanted to get a wider view of the world as opposed to going very deep on one technical topic (PhD was a far as I was willing to go).

I think this ability to understand both the technical and business aspects has served me well so far and MicrofluidX was a result of this: it was about bringing a new area of engineering to a field where there was a huge business need. MicrofluidX develops a platform for automated cell culture and data analytics applied to cell therapies, which are currently manufactured very manually, with every cell therapy companies developing their own “home-brew” to make their therapeutics at a small scale and then struggling to scale up beyond a few hundred patients.

Automation is of course not a new thing, but the innovative idea behind MicrofluidX is a scalable bioreactor and analytics platform that could accompany cell therapy developers from research into high-intensity manufacturing seamlessly. Today, only 5-10k patients are receiving cell therapy a year, tomorrow it could be millions!

Did you know that you were built for business? Did a career in consulting help?

I don’t know that I am built for business but I like business as a way to leverage a meaningful societal impact. In management consulting, I learned the mechanics of business, and the impact can be great but is usually targeted towards shareholder value maximization. I wasn’t passionate about that.

Once I understood how the engine worked, I felt I could build your own, and gear towards a purpose that was more meaningful to me. Of course, lots of people start and build successful companies without a business background and learn business on the way, but it’s definitely an advantage to know a bit more upfront!

What drives you? 

I am driven by leaving a positive mark on the world, but also enjoying myself along the way! I think MicrofluidX’s purpose is definitely a positive one, and starting my own company allowed me to build a way of working that I enjoy. It’s nice to have that longer-term purpose but also enjoy the day-to-day.

What has been some highlights in your career thus far? 

I have had many high-intensity moments in my career but the top three would be:

1) spending 6 months in the Sahara improving the throughput of an iron ore mine. We had work in the heat and the dust and only had rest once every two weeks because the location was too remote to fly back home every week. I experienced a new way of living and even owned a camel at some point(!);

2) getting the seed round together for MicrofluidX back in 2020. This was the result of 3 years of hard work and quite a bit of career and financial risk, so getting funded was definitely a big milestone for me and my family. Looking back today, I am so proud of the progress we have made on such a short period of time and of the quality of the team (17-people strong!). To be honest, the last 3 years have been a highlight in and of itself;

3) the last one would have to be meeting my now wife on a company training halfway across the world. 😊

What are the next milestones you are looking to achieve? 

Our focus is now to get our prototypes in the hands of clients and get commercial traction. We just announced a collaboration with Immatics, one of the leading cell therapy developers in the world, but we also have about 10 other partnerships ongoing or about to go ahead so we are fully focused on making sure our clients like us 😊. 

What does a typical day look like for you? 

I try to get a workout done before the workday starts, usually spend the morning on individual creative work and the afternoon on collaborative work (problem solving, calls, etc). I usually ring-fence in a couple of days to go home earlier and spend time with my son until his bedtime and pick up work again afterwards, usually the less brain-intensive tasks (cleaning up the mailbox etc.).

Of course, there are lots of exceptions! I find that getting a workout done early is the best way to ensure I actually do work out, and I also find that I have more creative energy and productivity in the morning, so avoiding too many calls then is key.

What is your view on failure?

I think failures are a forcing mechanism for learning and self-improvement. The three principles around failure that I (try to) apply are:

1) acknowledging what is outside your control and not dwelling on it. There is a big luck factor with start-ups, maybe you meet the right person at the right time at a Christmas party and that propels your business upwards… or maybe you don’t;

2) asking yourself “would I have regrets if I did or didn’t do this?”. To me, this is a good acid test to know whether you should or shouldn’t do something. It’s much easier to deal with failure if you feel like you did your best. Your best might look very different day to day, in fact your best might not be very good at all some of the days, but to me, regrets after failing is much worse than failure itself;

3) having a self-improvement mindset. I think it’s fine or even desirable to fail if what comes out is a better you! We all have different starting points but the ones who improve often end up surpassing those who started with high skills but didn’t work on honing them. 

Any final remark/advice to share?

I often hear that entrepreneurs or CEO are obsessive workaholics. I haven’t had a successful exit yet so I might be wrong but I would like to believe that it doesn’t have to be the case. I personally feel the need to enjoy time with my family, on holiday, exercising, socialising around a beer, and even (would you believe it) sit on the couch and do nothing!

I feel there is a stigma about not being all about work in start-ups and I don’t think it’s healthy or desirable. This is not to say there isn’t a lot of work to be done to be a successful entrepreneur, and some people are workaholics and perfectly happy being so, but I don’t personally find myself in tune with this image of the overworked founder slaving away nights and weekends.

Insights

Related articles

Margrit Schwarz

Who inspired you to get into the life sciences? My interest for life science was nurtured by my father, who was both a chemist and a photographer; he took me along on hikes and then to the lab where I spent hours staring through a microscope, examining the things I had just picked up on the trail. It instilled in me a deep fascination for all things ‘Nature’, from patterns of life that repeat regardless of scale, to endless curiosity for – simply put – why things are the way they are!

Read More

Klaus Dugi

Tell us more about your background and what is your team building at Vandria. I am a physician by training. I spent four years as a PostDoc at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, USA, and subsequently received my clinical training at Heidelberg University Hospital in Internal Medicine and Endocrinology. Inspired by the opportunity to develop new medicines to improve outcomes for patients, I moved from academic medicine to pharmaceutical drug development in 2003.

Read More

Erik van den Berg

Could you tell us more about yourself? I enjoy working with dedicated teams of highly skilled professionals to develop innovative products whilst achieving ambitious goals. You could say I am very result-oriented and a team player. Privately, I love playing sports and enjoy good food and company. Professionally, I am and have been involved in creating and growing high-technology companies where I have led several large deals and financing rounds from seed financing through IPO.

Read More

Detlef Schumann

Could you tell us more about yourself? Quite early in my life, I got introduced to the world of big pharma. It was a fascinating experience which helped me in my decision to study pharmacy. In the early phase of my study, people started to think about “tissue engineering” and innovative “drug delivery” solutions. By coincidence, I read about a young surgeon who just returned from the USA and was about to establish a team to continue his research in personalized stem cell technologies towards cartilage reconstruction. I had an inspiring discussion with him and decided to join his team for PhD, prepared for a startup company and helped to set up the Center for Medical Biotechnologies.  After several international business assignments and now 25 years later I have the pleasure to be the CEO/CFO of Tetec AG focusing on innovative therapies for cartilage reconstruction, immunotherapy and beyond.

Read More