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.
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
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’
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
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
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
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.
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.