Meet Kinga Matuła: Founder of QurieGen, the company that decodes cellular response one cell at a time!
Hi Kinga, FEM-START is happy to have you with us today! Tell us, what inspired you to start your own business, and how did you come up with QurieGen?
My mother is working in the healthcare system, and she inspired me to take the first step in a more biological direction. Ironically, I have a fear of blood so I became a scientist instead. I realized that as a scientist, developing a platform for cancer screening could help millions of people. With a background in biotechnology and chemical and process engineering, I decided to embark on this path.
After my PhD, my path led me to the Netherlands to join a startup specializing in developing an early diagnosis platform for metastatic cancer. In 2018, while actively participating in the development of this platform and using my blood for experimentation, we uncovered some “undesired cells” that required oncological intervention. My own scientific experience and being a patient became a compelling force guiding me toward my calling. Additionally, the opportunity emerged when a pharmaceutical company approached us with a drug-related challenge—patients were experiencing relapses, but the reasons remained unclear. This case showed the need for a comprehensive understanding of why the drug was failing.
We created a tool to better understand complex biology. This led to collaborations with big companies like Acerta Pharma from a group of AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, and Janssen Pharmaceutica. These partnerships enabled me to decide to make a final decision about leaving academia and starting QurieGen.
What are some essential steps and actions you took to get your business off the ground?
I have a scientific background, but starting a business requires a whole new mindset and skill set. I enrolled in six accelerator programs to shape this concept and gain the abilities needed to manage a startup. It’s primarily about developing soft skills. As a scientist, you have to set aside some of what you’ve learned and focus on becoming an entrepreneur. The crucial step is gaining those business and interpersonal skills. There’s so much to learn, from sales, marketing, finances, and legal matters to business development, and more. You also need a good amount of emotional intelligence and the determination to persist, even in the face of numerous rejections.
Was there a specific time or instance where you had to pivot your business model? Or maybe quickly implement changes in how you work as a CEO and with your team?
We initially developed a comprehensive workflow, encompassing various laboratory steps, combined with bioinformatic analysis. While we managed the entire process, we realized that this might not be the most appealing business model for investors, especially if presented as a service. Thus, our goal was to make it more exciting for investors and emphasize its impact on society.
We evolved from a contract research organization to a Pharmatech company. This transformation harnessed computational power to enhance efficiency and deepen our understanding of biology, helping to select the most promising drug candidates as early as possible in the drug development pipeline. Integration of technology – high-quality data, and AI is pivotal in ensuring sustainable change.
You have a large ecosystem of partners around you and have been to Silicon Valley. How did this influence your business and customer base?
In 2022, I had the opportunity to participate in the Draper Hero accelerator program in Silicon Valley. Your mindset and personality are very important. I always say the Bay Area is not a spot on the map, it’s a mindset and you absorb the mindset by being out there, doing crazy things, connecting with people and networking at high speed. So imagine, 55 startups from all around the world under one roof for almost two months! After the first week, we were sent to a survival camp with Navy SEALs 5 days in the middle of nowhere. Our first challenge was to sell a very intimate product (I will avoid spoilers just in case someone is motivated to join the Draper Hero program) in the heart of San Francisco on a Sunday morning to raise money for our transportation to a survival camp. The challenge was that people didn’t have cash on hand. Well, it was an accelerated course in acquiring skills for fast and efficient sales under time constraints. At the survival camp, we slept in tents in sub-zero temperatures, built boats, learned to meditate, practised shooting, and axe throwing, and even dealt with tasks like slaughtering chickens. All of this was done while being deprived of food, showers, and sleep. After 5 days of wildlife, we had a short break and then we started – HEROthon. Within just 48 hours, we needed to build a brand new company using generative AI. We needed to develop the solution, build a website, demo and approach medical professionals to get some traction and opinions and then pitch the idea in the competition.
Throughout the entire program, we built strong connections among our fellow participants. We also had the privilege of attending lectures and courses led by highly successful individuals from Silicon Valley and founders of unicorn companies.
What are some of the biggest mistakes you made along the way, and what did you learn from them?
To me mistakes or failures are lessons (“I will fall, and fail again until I succeed” – part of the pledge from Draper University). I think selecting team members is very important. We started with a small team, but things changed along the way. Building a startup is tough, and you need to be surrounded by people with a similar mindset. I have learned how important it is to have a team that shares the same goals, and can handle different tasks so choose your people wisely. QurieGen went through a lot of changes in the team, business plan, and commercialization strategy.
QurieGen operates as a pharmatech company, which means it’s not a traditional pharmaceutical company, and it doesn’t follow the typical SaaS model even though it utilizes AI. This unique business model isn’t very common in Europe, which can indeed make discussions with potential investors more complex and demanding. You need to be prepared for countless ‘NO’s. That’s when you keep going. As an entrepreneur, you will have to pivot and very often experiment with new strategies. Remember, the key is to persevere, build the right team, stay laser-focused, and maintain belief in yourself
What is your biggest achievement since founding the company, and how did you get there?
I hope Quriegen will have the first drug pipeline in the company soon. I’m most proud of not giving up even when things were tough We won a few competitions, and one of them gave us the opportunity to participate in the accelerator program in Silicon Valley. We placed 2nd in the Demo Day led by Tim Draper where we selected from 55 companies. Right now, Right now, we’re working on getting more investment to grow our team and scale up our business idea.
What advice would you give to aspiring female entrepreneurs, particularly those who do not seem to believe they can do it?
Be kind to yourself and remember that this is a journey of learning. Keep moving forward and stay focused on your goals. Learn from unexpected situations, stay open-minded, and challenge yourself. Listen when life is “whispering” to you. If you’re willing to adapt and try new things, you’ll discover new possibilities. I spent a lot of time reflecting on what I truly wanted, and I realized my mission was to bring innovation closer to patients. Your inner purpose is essential. Take the time to understand yourself better and structure your life accordingly.
What’s next for QurieGen? What can we expect?
We’re currently in the fundraising phase, working on securing investments to shape the company and further develop our concept. Our long-term vision is to create a company dedicated to making treatments more accessible to patients. Our plan includes collaborating with more pharmaceutical companies to mitigate risks and accelerate the development process. Additionally, we aim to enter the U.S. market, possibly expanding part of our operations there due to its significant size. We intend to work closely with pharmaceutical companies, address industry challenges, and create innovative solutions for treating diseases. One of our key goals is to build the initial version of our AI navigation tool for the platform. Throughout this process, we’ll concentrate on organization, attracting talented individuals, and partnering with experienced investors. We’re determined to surround ourselves with the right people for success!
If you’d like to know more information about Kinga’s company QurieGen, click here!
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