Helping local business Stemnovate innovate

Magdalena Zawisza

As an emerging local business working with stem cells, Cambridge firm Stemnovate had a fantastic product, but their disruptive technology presented some marketing challenges - until our Innovation Bridge put them in touch with researcher Dr Magdalena Zawisza.

Not long after setting up her company, Stemnovate, Dr Ruchi Sharma hit a problem. She knew that she had an exciting new product that could enable pharmaceutical companies to develop more effective drugs. When she spoke to potential investors about it, however, she found it hard to persuade them that it would succeed.

"Investors shared my enthusiasm for the product, but they were sceptical that it would stand up against our much stronger competitors because it is such a disruptive technology," she said. "We were a new start-up, run by a woman and working with extremely advanced technology. We were challenging a lot of stereotypes and that made us a tricky proposition."

Stemnovate, a Cambridge-based firm, applies complex science to achieve clear benefits. It makes use of human stem cells - cells at an early stage of growth that have yet to develop a specific purpose. These can be manipulated and "programmed" to develop a certain way - for example, at the moment Stemnovate focuses on growing liver cells.

The technique allows Stemnovate to create live cell cultures on a chip that model reactions to human diseases and medical treatment very precisely. A drugs company can then test their products on this, rather than on animals, or artificial lab-developed imitations of the real disease. This means that they can make better judgements about whether the drugs will work and lowers the chances of unforeseen side effects during human trials, as well as the need for animal testing.

Ruichi realised that it was a considerable challenge to generate more public interest in this very technical work, in order to attract skilled employees, good investors, and promote her company's commitment to raising the profile of women in science. Which is roughly where Dr Magdalena Zawisza, from our own Department of Psychology, enters the story.

Magdalena's research focuses on consumer psychology - examining questions such as what makes advertising effective, and why consumers like certain brands. She is also interested in the social impact of advertising: "It's not all about how advertising can make money, but, crucially, how it can do so responsibly," she says.

She has, she adds, "a craving" to make sure that her research benefits wider society. As a result, she has set up a marketing consultancy called Insights: Brand, Advertising and Society, which is run from within our university.

The company was itself established with assistance from our Research and Innovation Development Office (RIDO), which oversees several knowledge exchange programmes. Magdalena was therefore already on RIDO's radar when the call went out for academics to participate in another initiative, the Innovation Bridge, through which locally-based small and medium businesses are offered free academic support to help them innovate and grow.

This programme brought Ruchi, with her marketing needs, together with Magdalena, through one of its local business networking events. Magdalena was immediately interested in Stemnovate's predicament, and a partnership was forged.

Magdalena worked with Ruchi to overhaul Stemnovate's communications. She reassessed the company's offering based on something called the "stereotype content model", which examines both how warmly we feel about a brand, and how competent the brand seems at delivering on its promise. It became clear that they could do more to profile Stemnovate's benefits to patients, as well as its positive impact on reducing animal testing, to add more warmth to an image that had previously been built around their work's technical benefits.

The collaboration will come to fruition later this year, when Stemnovate are launching a new and much more user-friendly website. It has also already had other benefits. A successful press release, written by Magdalena and Ruchi to announce new funding, has, for example, helped to raise their profile both in the industry and on social media.

While Ruchi has gained a more targeted marketing strategy, Magdalena has been able to test some of her research ideas, and also help a cause that matters. "I've always wanted to apply and share knowledge," she says. "If I can also help a business to promote a product that will benefit society, that's even better."

The stereotype content model

Much of Magdalena's initial work with Stemnovate examined their brand using the "stereotype content model".

The idea, in summary, is that we assess people and organisations using an almost evolutionary response that judges them according to two central criteria:

  • Warmth: Whether we consider them to be helpful (higher warmth) or hurtful (lower warmth).
  • Competence: Whether they seem capable of delivering on this potential to be helpful or hurtful.

The assessment is often made subconsciously, but is a key tenet of effective marketing. "Brands that are seen as both highly capable and warm are generally the most successful," Magdalena says. As her research shows, the right balance between the two criteria is not easy to strike, as it depends on the product type, the target group, and the aim of the campaign.

A hard cell? Three ways Stemnovate sharpened up their marketing act

Magdalena's consultancy work with Stemnovate involved several strategies, but these are some of the key things she helped them to do:

  1. Segmenting the audience. The company was trying to persuade several different groups - such as investors, distributors and patients - about the merits of its product in exactly the same way. Magdalena developed recommendations on how to target each as a distinct group.
  2. Jargon-busting. The biggest change involved cutting out scientific terms and focusing on the product's benefits in simple language. "Often this is ignored or overlooked when you launch a start-up, but it's crucial," Ruchi says.
  3. 3. Focusing on impact. Although the company was perceived as technically competent, Magdalena helped them to put some of their work's public benefits front and centre - such as its potential to reduce the need for animal research in drug testing.
  4. Want to partner with us on a future research or innovation-based project?

    Get in touch: 01223 695878 Email: rido@anglia.ac.uk