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Pharma journey

From Greece to Scotland Yard to providing drugs for clinical trials: Cambridge MBA alumna Vanessa Dekou (MBA 2002) built a global pharma business from scratch.

Pile of blue, green and white pills.
Vanessa Dekou.
Vanessa Dekou

Cambridge MBA alumnus Vanessa Dekou re-mortgaged her London house to set up her pharmaceutical business Clinical Services International (CSI) from scratch in 2017. With revenues expected to reach £20 million this year, she hopes to soon retire the mortgage loan.

“I needed a lot of working capital, and presented an excellent case to the bank, and managed to get £1 million in overdraft facility – but they needed collateral, so our house became the collateral,” she says. “To do this with the house of my children meant that I really believed in this and am willing to make it work.”

And work well it has.

The company, which provides “comparator” and other drugs to pharmaceutical companies conducting clinical trials around the world, now supplies some of the top 10 pharma companies (Vanessa can’t name them for confidentiality reasons), supplies three of the top five clinical research organisations, and three top global manufacturers.

Comparator medicines are commercially available drugs that pharma firms need in order to do clinical trials of new compounds – in order to compare a new product to the “standard of care” of what a doctor would currently prescribe to a patient. Big pharma companies often need big supplies of such drugs in multiple countries, so they use intermediary companies like CSI to help ensure supply while preventing rival drug firms from knowing too much about their commercially sensitive research.

As an example of how CSI works, one case study involved a pharma firm doing an allergy drug trial in six countries – the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Ireland. The pharma company sought to use the same comparator drug in each country for consistency but was concerned about obtaining sufficient quantities. So, the pharma firm worked with CSI to arrange supplies of a comparator drug that was “unlicensed” in some of the test countries – a procedure that requires approval by those countries’ regulators.

Vanessa says CSI will start 2020 with a £13 million order backlog and hopes to reach revenues of £30 million in 2020 – with double-digit margins and relatively low overhead as there are only three employees currently including her scientist sister plus an unpaid part-time financial director, her husband.

“My rule number one from the start was to build a financially robust company, so cash flow is key,” she says.

Vanessa, who hails from the northern Greece city of Drama and moved to the UK in 1991, already held a PhD in Cardiovascular Genetics when she learned about cash flow and more in her MBA studies at Cambridge Judge in 2002-2003.

Among the lessons she remembers well from her time at Cambridge Judge and subsequent reunions are treating employees and co-workers collegially, gleaned from her “Organisational Behaviour” class with Dr Philip Stiles, University Senior Lecturer in Corporate Governance, and the possibility of doing more with less – the “Frugal Innovation” teachings of Jaideep Prabhu, Professor of Marketing, who wrote an influential book by that title.

“I ran into Jaideep at a class reunion a year and a half ago. He spoke of frugal innovation and I’m a prime example. I had zero external investment, only some savings, so we built a website for only £1,200 – but it’s a very professional-looking website, and a great marketing tool, and you’d be surprised how many people find us on the website.”

Says Jaideep: “Frugal innovation encompasses all kinds of innovative thinking, and this is really important for many young firms as shown by the impressive record of Vanessa’s company. What is particularly inspiring about Vanessa’s company is how she has applied frugal logic to various aspects of the business, from its core business model to its marketing and communication. CSI is a shining example of how a small team using ubiquitous resources can quickly do things that only large companies could do a decade or so ago – and she has done this in a ‘traditional’ sector like pharmaceuticals and healthcare where innovation has traditionally been an expensive, slow affair.”

Prior to enrolling at Cambridge Judge, Vanessa’s career included a year at Scotland Yard (London’s Metropolitan Police), where she used her genetics background to develop DNA profiles from degraded samples at crime scenes, and the LGC Group (Laboratory of the Government Chemist). After getting her Cambridge MBA, she worked in business development and sales for several pharma-linked companies, before taking the plunge to set up CSI.

The company got a wholesaler authorisation license in mid-2016 from the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), rented part of a specialised medicines warehouse in south Wales, and began operations in several temporary shared workspaces before securing offices in central London.

Owing to uncertainties over Brexit, CSI has also opened bases in Berlin, Germany and the US city of Philadelphia, and also plans to set up an office in Switzerland.

Vanessa says CSI’s biggest current challenge is to add more products to its portfolio, in order to reduce dependence on a few big customers. “Until recently my worry was sales, now it’s concentration,” she says. “But I know the market and am confident that we have developed a solid business that will succeed. I am hugely proud of what we have achieved and collectively we will continue to grow and improve patients’ lives”.

Vanessa is interested in hearing from…

…people in pharmaceuticals, biotech, manufacturing and any form of healthcare where we can work together.