Timothy L. Robertson, Ph.D: CEO & Co-Founder, Vium

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Dr. Tim Robertson is Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of Vium. He has more than 20 years experience in all stages of technology start-up process, from invention and product development to commercialization and monetization. Most recently he was VP of Product Applications at Proteus Digital Health, responsible for management of alliances with global pharmaceutical companies, core technology coordination and software development. He is the holder of more than a dozen US patents and author of more than 40 scholarly publications in diverse fields. Tim has an A.B. in experimental physics and cosmology from Princeton University and Ph.D. in quantum physics from the University of California, Berkeley.

How did you get into the industry?

I am an experimental physicist who has always pushed the boundaries of technological possibility. I combine this passion and experience with a zest for entrepreneurship, which is why I have spent a large part of my career managing innovative start-up companies. Over the last decade, my drive has been channeled into finding technology solutions so that people live longer and healthier lives.

At one point I discovered that my friend and neighbor Joe Betts-LaCroix, a technologist and fellow entrepreneur, was aiming to go in a similar direction. Joe runs the Health Extension Foundation, an organization that brings scientific thought leaders together to share aging research. And through my wife, a veterinarian, I was familiar with issues in the handling of animals for drug research. The convergence of our knowledge led us to identify a major issue in preclinical in vivo research – which is that the manual methods in which data was being collected hadn’t changed much in decades. These methods, based on subjective human observation and excessive animal handling, cause undue stress on animal research subjects and make study results difficult to reproduce.

We set out to change this by creating a fully automated rodent research cage that records data continuously, 24/7, and leaves nothing to chance. We now have thousands of these cages equipped with intelligent sensors, video, and a high-definition camera network in our state-of-the-art lab facility, called the Vium Digital Vivarium™. All information is transmitted to our Vium Cloud where we use computer vision and machine learning techniques to extract meaning and insights from the massive amounts of data generated by the platform. Researchers can observe their studies and access data at anytime, from anywhere through our online Research Suite from any computer device.

Our approach both improves animal welfare and enables researchers to get more viable drug candidates into human clinical trials as quickly as possible. This is simply stated but explains in a nutshell how Vium got started.  

Any emerging industry trends?

There are many growing trends in clinical research related to healthcare technology applications, which run the gamut of early genomic sequencing and high throughput drug screening, to digital solutions that enable better management of patient health care. “Big data” has been garnering a lot of buzz, as software and hardware developers continue to build cloud-based systems that can compute huge volumes of information. While many companies are finding ways to leverage this across human health, Vium is the only company doing this in the preclinical space. Think of the automated cages we built for mice and rats as the equivalent of a human wearable Digital Health device that continuously captures and reports biometric information. This is very important because we can accurately capture animal breathing rates, subtle behaviors and weight changes that cannot be detected by human observation. Often it’s these subtle signals that can trigger a researcher to change the course of a study or discontinue a drug candidate that would have cost millions of dollars to research before failing in human clinical trials.

Any industry opportunities or challenges?

The biggest opportunity is also our biggest challenge, which is convincing drug researchers to adopt new technology. We are operating in a $6 billion industry that is ripe for disruption. We continue to work with all of our early customers from when we were in stealth mode, and we are growing our work with organizations that have signed on since we officially launched in June 2016 - including five of the top 10 global pharmaceutical companies.

Even though the issues with preclinical data collection are very well known, we are asking for a big shift in how researchers are used to operating. It always takes some time to institutionalize new ways of doing things, especially in a highly regulated environment.  Our early adopters and current buyers tend to be visionaries who are eager for new solutions. We envision that our offerings, combined with other technology-based advances in drug research, will eventually become the new gold standard.  

Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?

To build upon what I said earlier, Joe and I realized that experts in aging research were skeptical of preclinical in vivo research because of the difficulties in translating discoveries in animals into viable therapies for humans. We connected with Clifford Roberts, D.V.M., DACLAM, former President of the American College of Lab Animal Medicine, now one of our top advisors and attending veterinarian, to show us how an academic vivarium (animal research lab) is run. With this and some additional research, it became very clear to us that modern technology could improve upon traditional methods. We then built a rough prototype of the Digital Vivarium in my basement, which helped to prove our concept to pharmaceutical industry leaders and investors who shared our vision and confirmed that we had a highly unique and important offering.

Our vision was to apply modern technology used in other industries to the field of early drug research to bridge gaps in science and animal welfare. And this is what we’ve created. Our goal now is to enhance and/or replace traditional methods in early drug development so that better therapies get into the clinic quicker.   

What's next for the Business in the near future?

We continue to grow and enhance commercial, scientific and technological activity. We have also been broadening our executive team to manage this growth and expand our business. This past January we hired our first Chief Scientific Officer (CSO), Dr. David Hutto, who was previously CSO at the largest global Contract Research Organization, and recently brought on a Chief Commercial Officer. These hires reflect another trend in our industry, which is a desire for traditional researchers, technologists and commercial healthcare experts to be at the forefront of Silicon Valley startup innovation.

We also recently announced a partnership with Japan’s Central Institute for Experimental Animals (CIEA) to co-develop humanized mouse models of disease, which Vium will offer as a fee-for-service to clients around the world. Our collaboration with CIEA is very exciting as it opens up a lot of potential for us to advance scientific research across various diseases.

Also, we will soon be offering our technology platform directly to researchers. They will be able to install our sensor-enabled cages in their facilities to make their own Digital Vivarium. Vium will handle the data management and analytics, so that a customer can start Living Informatics research quickly and easily.

These are just a few examples of our more imminent business dealings and opportunities, but the list goes on.

Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?

Currently we are selling discovery services - our unique tools and platforms that enable researchers to conduct preclinical animal research studies anytime, from anywhere through our online Research Suite. This year, we plan on expanding our offerings to also deploy our proprietary Digital Vivarium in our customers’ own labs. These physical entities will mirror our existing site in the San Francisco area using Vium’s proven physical and digital infrastructure, fully vetted by our expert staff. We will also provide all necessary training, systems requirements, and governance oversight.

All vivariums utilizing Vium’s technology will leverage our Vium Cloud, and will be accessed and managed by study managers through our online Research Suite. With this, customers will receive all the same monitoring and services that they get using Vium’s Digital Vivarium, but will have even greater transparency and control over their studies. 

Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)

The most difficult moment for me was transitioning from a startup co-founder and CEO to running a full management team and staff. I had to learn how to let go of certain things and trust others to take the reins, foster better communications across the company, and ensure I make myself as accessible as possible. In the early days of a company you need a team leader, who can harness a small group of capable individuals to take on a task that seems impossible.  As a start up grows beyond about 40 people, the dynamics change, and you need to change how the work is segmented and how everyone communicates and trusts each other.

I had read about this transformation in business journals, and seen it in other start-ups, but Vium was the first time I experienced it as a CEO. I learned that it’s a big shift from having all the answers and driving hard, to empowering the team and communicating a shared vision – especially when the need for this shift happened unexpectedly quickly, over just a few months.

Ideal experience for a customer/client?

Ideally, our customers should be blown away by their ability to conduct preclinical drug research in a whole new way.

We are competing with companies whose services have become commoditized. With a traditional contract research organization, customers are kept somewhat at arm’s length until they receive their study results and then have to do a lot of retrospective work to fill in data gaps. At Vium, researchers can work hand-in-hand with our in house experts to design and execute studies, so we offer a more collaborative approach. With our technology, customers view, monitor, or alter their studies from anywhere, at any time in real-time. This offers them much more control and flexibility over their studies, as well as greater confidence in the results.  

How do you motivate others?

I motivate by example. I am surrounded by bright and talented professionals who are intrinsically motivated by challenging and rewarding work. I make sure that those around me are in positions that they value. Once we align on their goals I give them enough autonomy to meet them and am there to provide whatever support they need along the way.

In addition, and this is very important - I empower our office manager to ensure there’s enough food at the office to keep everyone nourished and alert!

Career advice to those in your industry?

This probably sounds like a cliché, but I would tell those in the health and/or tech startup world to dream big and follow their passion. However - and perhaps this is less cliché - it’s also important to be realistic. Make sure your idea is well vetted and truly unique or MUCH better than what’s already available. It’s hard to come up with new ideas in our digital, Big Data-laden universe, but there are also always overlooked areas where the right person or people with the right offering and at the right time, can succeed.

Also, seek investors who are aligned with your vision and values. They must believe in what you’re aiming to do to weather the ups and downs of building a company. Finally, think about the role you want to play as you grow your business. The best form of leadership is knowing how to play up your strengths and giving up control in areas where others can do a better job.