Automata: Behind the Scenes
At Hummingbird, we invest in exceptional founders at the earliest stage of their journey. Our obsession with people doesn’t stop there: we’re convinced that hiring is the most important skill for a company to get right to reach outlier outcomes. Our intention for this “Behind the Scenes” series is to put a spotlight on a few special people — the builders who work tirelessly alongside founders to turn dreams into reality. We hope that their stories can inspire yours and that, in their words, you find a realistic picture of what the startup journey is actually like.
Something in the air
I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes… Is it Christmas all around me or is there something in the air at Automata HQ? I spent a day with their team just before the winter break and my answer is clear: there is something special going on here. Automata is a 170-person deep tech company based in the heart of London, solving the problem of automation in life sciences. Vaccine development, cancer diagnostics, virus testing: life sciences are still reliant on manual labour which doesn’t scale. Automata developed proprietary robotics technology, offering a unique platform combining hardware and tailor-made software which is making automation a reality for every lab. Their customers include the NHS, the Francis Crick Institute and BitBio. When we invested in the company a few years ago, the picture looked very different. They were building Eva, a simple, affordable robotic arm built for professionals of any kind. The company’s CEO and cofounder Mostafa was originally an architect in the Zaha Hadid practice who quickly turned into a robotic expert and, more recently, into a healthcare founder. As impressive as his journey is, he hasn’t done it alone – today, we shine a light on the crew members of this particular ship, as they head into one of the most exciting chapters of their journey. Action.
Nick, VP of Product and Strategy
The founders have always been great at empowering their team to really own their work. The company wasn’t only theirs.
Nick is a mechanical engineer at heart. He worked at Rolls Royce but the long (8 years!) development cycles didn’t satisfy his impatient nature and he moved to Newton as an operational consultant. There, the engineer thrived, working on aircrafts, nuclear submarines and data analytics tools. Above all, he loved physical products and seeing the fruit of his labour in the real, physical world. This led him to google “best robotics startups” in 2018 and cold-email Mostafa. The rest is history. The first thing Nick did when he joined was to take a look at the financial model, then investigate how to manufacture and sell robots. At the time, Automata was still selling generalist robotic arms. He realised that the company would have to do 3 things to be successful: 1) build a complete solution that solves a whole automation problem rather than delivering “just” a robot, 2) be paid for value rather than on a cost basis, 3) specialise in a market and really nail it. Nick investigated a few potential markets and lab automation for life sciences was the clear winner. When the covid-19 pandemic hit, the company had an opportunity to test this thesis and try to help the NHS with testing automation. The initial contract with the NHS was for 7 robots, then 40, and they ended up landing a £3M deal. Nick remembers that as a pivotal moment for the business: it was the very beginning of the transition to a full-stack life sciences automation company. He isn’t still around just because the company is doing so well. He also feels that the founders have always been great at empowering their team to really own their work. Today, as VP of Product and Strategy, Nick is responsible for delivering a high quality lab automation platform (with hardware and software elements, which are two separate teams) and bet on strategic applications which so far have been genomics and cell culture. He’s excited about screening as a potential new use case and chemistry in general.
Connect with Nick on LinkedIn here.
Karian, Head of People
Mostafa reached out on LinkedIn, saying “I haven’t made a robot yet but I’m going to”. That was audacious enough to get me excited.
Before joining Automata 5 years ago, Karian was in people operations at music-tech startup Roli. Mostafa reached out on LinkedIn saying “he hadn’t made a robot yet but was going to” , which was audacious enough to get her excited and she joined as the first talent hire. Initially, it was all about getting robotic aficionados on board. There weren’t that many robotics startups around and the team was excited, albeit a bit naive. They were bringing in enthusiastic people at an impressive pace but not thinking as strategically about commercial progress yet. As just mentioned, the pandemic changed everything and Automata’s first NHS deal was an inflection point. The company completely changed — and scaled massively. Today, Karian is Head of People, leading talent acquisition, people operations, and workplace and experience. Scaling the company from 10 to 150+ has been challenging at times. It has been a core topic last year as the last few early employees have transitioned out. She is proud to say that every single one of them feels they’re leaving under good circumstances. Karian and the wider leadership were empathetic to the fact that the new version of the company was going to be uncomfortable for everyone, not just for early employees. They knew that some wouldn’t be as excited to continue in this pivot: a recent re-focus on healthcare, and a company that is much larger than it used to be.
Karian believes that Mostafa is a unique CEO: he is personally very close to some of those early stage employees, took them out and had direct conversations with them. “You contributed to something that isn’t here anymore. If you don’t want to be on this journey anymore, how do I make this transition easiest for you?”. Overall, the company has done tremendous work when it comes to managing and supporting talent. They recently introduced a performance bonus and managers have 2 monthly meetings with their reports: one about general happiness and fulfilment, another one about delivery. They also spent 6 months redesigning their career development framework which is transparent by design. Automata’s big next challenge is entering the US market. With the first few hires made, Karian thinks a lot about this big opportunity: how will they translate their culture (this magic in the air..) successfully, and how will they make people feel like they’re truly part of the team? Stay tuned.
Connect with Karian on LinkedIn here.
Craig, Sales Manager
“You guys understood the problem better than anyone else” is something that we hear a lot.
Craig started the craft soft drinks business Kitsch while in university, which you might have seen on the shelves of Selfridges. After building a drinks factory in Edinburgh and trying to scale it (unsuccessfully), he worked at a mental health startup before meeting Automata in late 2019. He liked the frank, transparent approach but knew they had to do the tough job of selling a product while developing it on the journey to product-market fit. At the time, he was the second salesperson and has since then gone on to take a sales leadership role on the UK/Europe side. Craig has been at Automata for 3 years. He worked on the first NHS project and was able to drive a lot of the big early deals with HMR and Royal Marsden. Scaling up from 2, the team now counts 13 people. The big topic last year was to diversify the pipeline post-covid. The pandemic gave Automata a jumpstart into life sciences and an initial large contracts, but the company obviously wanted to move past this episode, and they did – there is practically nothing left in the pipeline that has to do with covid. For Craig, this year will be all about taking the bit of magic that exists in the sales culture and turn it into something that scales with a larger team. “You guys understood the problem better than anyone else” is something Craig and his team are used to hearing, and it makes them win deals. They want to make sure they’re able to do that at scale. A big part of their success has been in storytelling: rather than offering a scripted technical solution like others provide, Automata thinks first principles and then uses the platform to paint a picture. And it works.
Connect with Craig on LinkedIn here.
Oli, Chief of Staff
We bring customers onto the journey and guide them through their automation story.
Oli is an operator: after working at consulting firm Newton for 4 years on defence, maritime and healthcare projects, he got interested in the power of data and joined Palantir – one of their products was responsible for the covid-19 vaccine rollout. Focused on the UK business post-IPO, Oli decided to build out a commercial team and develop a market understanding of industries most relevant to them. Quickly, this turned into a series of questions: How do we hire sales people? How do we onboard and train them? How do we manage a pipeline? He was going through the motions when Automata reached out. Oli knew Nick from his Newton days and has a lot of respect for him. Though he wasn’t at all looking to move, he thought the company must be special if Nick decided to join them years ago. This led to a first call, and Oli joined the company in the summer last year as Chief of Staff. This type of role varies a lot from company to company. In Oli’s case, he invests a lot of thinking on what he’s giving time to – and reassesses every two weeks. Some of his initial projects are still ongoing, some others have changed. He works independently from the founder Mostafa but makes sure to communicate everything internally. Current responsibilities include internal governance, fundraising, and Oli leads development in genetics and cell culture for the applications of Automata’s platform.
Connect with Oli on LinkedIn here.
Sven, VP Engineering
You go away for two weeks.. And come back to an entirely different company.
Sven grew up in South Africa. His dad, an electronics engineer, gave him a programming manual when he was 8 years old – and then began his coding career. After dropping out of his computer science degree, Sven joined a web development startup in the first dot com boom and that’s where he caught the bug: having access to director-level people at 20 years old was eye-opening and confidence-boosting. The following 10 years were spent on-and-off work in various kinds of startups, more recently as FarmDrop CTO. Sven ended up joining Automata 1.5 years ago. Combining the physical and digital worlds felt exciting to him. Moreso, he believed that the software agile development methodology could be successfully applied to hardware, and this was a challenge he wanted to take on. As VP Engineering, Sven is responsible for organisation and delivery, whereas a CTO would be responsible for the technology itself. He spends a lot of time making sure they have the right people in the right seat, and collaborates a lot with product and design. The company changes rapidly, which is both a source of inspiration and anxiety at times: you can go on a two-week break and come back to a different company. Keeps things spicy!
Connect with Sven on LinkedIn here.
Karen, Head of Brand Marketing
I can’t put it into words but when you get a customer on site, you know they will come away thinking “I want to work with these people.”
Karen is in charge of marketing at Automata. In her previous career in PR and communication – agency-side – she worked on a piece on the opioid crisis in the US for a client, together with McKinsey. This was an inflection point: she became passionate about “tech for good” and when she met Mostafa, she knew Automata would be the right next step. It was important to her to have marketing buy-in from the founder, and Mostafa was PR and communications savvy. He had stories to tell and people wanted to hear them. So what does marketing look like in a lab automation business? Karen’s three main audiences are new customers, talent and investors. If you follow the company on social media, you’ll see some of her great content to attract talent both in Europe and in the US. A big story for this year will be Automata’s US expansion, and Karen is especially excited to announce some of the work done with their partners at the Crick Institute and BitBio.
Connect with Karen on LinkedIn here.
We hope you enjoyed getting to know Automata. The company is hiring actively, please visit their careers page for more information. They always welcome spontaneous applications too!
We would also love to hear from you: please reach out to Lola here.