Business Journey: Alex Ebinger of Hart Biologicals
Taking over as Managing Director of Hart Biologicals in July 2019, little did Alex Ebinger know that he would have a global pandemic to navigate within his first 18 months in the role. The company sustained a full order book and grew 1.5% in 2020 - a huge achievement and a testament to the team's tireless work to make a difference to people's lives. Alex tells us about his business journey.
Tell us about your business, what does it do?
At Hart Bio, we are coagulation, reagent and contract manufacturing experts. We work extensively with the NHS and UK hospitals to provide efficient and effective diagnostics for anticoagulation (blood clot prevention) and haemostasis (prevent and stop bleeding) testing and monitoring.
One of our business cornerstones is the Manchester Capillary Reagent, which gives us a commercial edge in a highly competitive market. It has resulted in the business becoming renowned partners in the UK and global international normalised ratio (INR) market. INR is a laboratory measurement of how long it takes blood to form a clot.
We have grown from a humble Hartlepool startup founded by industry veteran Alby Pattison, to a thriving company operating in 34 countries worldwide, ranging from Europe to South America and Asia. We have an impressive turnover of 2.3m turnover, 80% of which is driven by export sales.
What did you do before you started this business?
I knew Hart Bio’s founder Alby Pattison through a family connection. My father was the CEO of one of Hart Bio’s major customers, and they had a longstanding business relationship.
I decided to work in industry after graduating from university to put my scientific knowledge to good use. I worked on various projects with Hart Bio during my studies to gain hands-on practical experience of industry life.
When I finished my degree, I returned to the UK to co-found Hart Innovations back in 2012. A sister company of Hart Biologicals, Hart Innovations focused on providing bespoke research for organisations in the biomedical sector, who would not normally have the time, capacity, or the expertise to conduct it themselves. Hart Bio and Hart Innovations always had a close working relationship, and after Alby's retirement, I took over Hart Bio in July 2019.
What inspired you to start up?
I decided after leaving university that I wanted to focus on research, rather than academia. I found the cut and thrust of commercial life more stimulating and rewarding.
I also like the positive atmosphere and working culture of the commercial world. I am a driven person, and I found the more goal-focused, target-driven industry culture, where teams work collaboratively to deliver shared objectives really fulfilling.
Where do you get advice, support or help?
My father was the CEO of a diagnostics company in Germany for over 30 years and was a source of inspiration and a mentor to me during my early career.
I was also lucky enough to work alongside renowned industry figure Alby Pattinson for several years, and we have a positive relationship where I can call him for his insight if I want his perspective. Alby was a great scientist, and I learned so much from his many years of experience in the sector. One of the key things I learned was to develop a collaborative team ethos and a culture of open communication to get the most out of my colleagues.
I also received fantastic support from Thomas Ebinger and Chris de Pijper, who were an integral part of the Hart Bio team when I stepped up to become CEO in 2019. Chris de Pijper is one of Hart Bio’s key shareholders, with years of global expertise in patient blood management diagnostics. His knowledge of finance and sales were particularly useful and have helped us drive the business forward commercially.
I also feel it’s important to appreciate the experience and perspectives your employees can provide. For example, Jack Doyle, a Key Account Manager at Hart Bio, was instrumental in improving the business' sales and communications side. He has a rare combination of strong scientific background, languages skills and a commercial brain that have proved to be a real asset for the company.
How did you access any finance you needed?
When Alby started the business almost 20 years ago, he received a small startup investment loan from UKTI to get the business off the ground. Alby’s ethos was all about focusing on growing the company naturally, so it may not be the fastest way, but it’s certainly sustainable and gave the business the foundations for long-term success. Our main investor is Jon Packer, based in the USA. We have regular contact with him, and his support has helped us expand our manufacturing capabilities and enabled us to make a significant investment into new equipment to grow the business.
What has been your biggest achievement so far?
One of the things I am really proud of is increasing the sales and profitability of Hart Bio during my first year as MD. 2020 was a year of challenges for us but we adapted quickly and made sure business continuity came first amid the restrictions presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
We increased sales by 1.5% in 2020 even within a challenging operating environment. Despite the combined disruption of COVID-19 and Brexit we maintained a full order book and continued to grow and flourish. We had to work in new ways, such as introducing homeworking for our non-lab-based employees, and we increased our use of digital communications solutions to keep in touch with our international network of distributors.
How do you differentiate your business from others?
One of the things that really gives us a competitive edge is our scientific capabilities. Our knowledge of the haemostasis and anticoagulation market is the key driving factor behind our commercial success.
We can also support other businesses as a contract manufacturing and development organisation. Our contract partnerships can help companies take their concept or product to the next level by tapping into our team’s extensive knowledge and industry experience at any stage in their product journey from concept development through to validation.
The fact that we offer bespoke 'one of a kind' products is another key selling point of Hart Bio. Our reagents offer something genuinely unique that is tailored to the individual customer's needs and not just a generic off the shelf product. We also pride ourselves on having personal customer contact. We have a close-knit team, many of whom have long service records, which fosters long-term relationships with our clients.
What’s it like to be your own boss?
I like being MD, taking over from Alby was a slightly daunting task, but I feel I’ve adapted to it quite quickly. I built on my experience of running Hart Innovations, and the senior management team accepted me and were very supportive so that was a very positive experience.
One of the things I have tried to foster is a culture of openness and transparency when it comes to communication, especially with sales and accounts.
I have enjoyed getting more involved with the company's day-to-day financial running and keeping an eye on the bottom line. Taking over from Alby was a natural transition in many ways, as I had a year-long run-up before becoming MD.
Where do you see your business in five years’ time?
We have ambitious plans to double Hart Bio’s turnover by 2025, with a global export drive, by expanding into the Indian and the Eastern European markets in 2021.
We will continue to build on our innovation and haemostasis testing strengths and take the business to the next level. Diversifying our client base is another key priority. We are proud to work with two of the biggest in vitro diagnostic testing companies in the world. However, we want to expand the business by broadening the scope of our work.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
My advice is simple: Do what makes you happy. If you enjoy science, there are many diverse jobs available throughout the science and healthcare sectors. If you are interested in working in a more goal-driven environment and working collaborative with a team, the commercial world may well be for you.
I currently serve as a member of the Biomedical Board at Teesside University. One of the main things we’ve worked on over the last years is the focus on quality and regulation management, as a dual understanding of both is crucial in the healthcare field today.
If you have a good idea to start your own business, then go for it and get investment to get it onto the market quickly. However, people need to remember that being a biotech entrepreneur involves being in it for the long haul. It can take four to five years to get any sales and start making a profit, so if you are after a quick win, this may not be the right move for you.