André Choulika, Chairman and CEO of Cellectis
André Choulika, Chairman and CEO of Cellectis, is one of the pioneers in the development of nuclease-based genome editing technologies.
Created in 1999, Cellectis uses gene-editing biotechnologies to address the medical and food needs of a growing global population. It is the very first and most advanced gene-editing company in the world, recognised for its pioneering use of CAR-T cells to target and destroy cancer cells. In December 2015, the company applied its technology to succesfully cure cancer in a baby with lymphoblastic leukemia—a world first. In July 2017, the biotech leader was granted a core patent to further develop off-the-shelf cancer immunotherapies. Clinical trials are currrently underway to bring the technology to mass market.
What led you to become an entrepreneur?
André Choulika: I’ve always wanted to start a research company, as it seemed to be one of the most exciting adventures one could go on. Every place on Earth has already been explored, even the North Pole. It’s really only the world of research and innovation that still offers unchartered territory. It’s a human adventure!
How did you start your company?
AC: It all began in 1998 when I was working as a Harvard researcher in nuclease-based genome editing. One day, I received a letter from the French government about a new initiative to encourage citizens to start their own business. At the time, it seemed like all of my collegues were patenting their research, so I decided to try it myself.
I first submitted my business plan to the French ministry of research, and then traveled to the Pasteur Institut in Paris to try to negotiate the patenting and licensing around my previous research. They agreed to allow me to create a spin-off technology company if I was awarded the investment. Soon after, the government accepted my proposal and I formed my company, Cellectis, in December of 1999.
How has HEC contributed to your success?
AC: In 2000, I applied and was accepted into the HEC Challenge+ programme which proposed accelerated entrepreneurship training. The programme was a huge support as it helps entrepreneurs avoid all the pitfalls when starting a company. Each student benefits from fantastic courses in every area of business, and is able to apply the lessons directly to their business plan. The program doesn’t guarantee success, but it does give you all the tools you need to be succesful!
What are some of the key lessons you learned at HEC?
AB: When I started my company I already had significant experience in my field of research, but little knowledge of finance and business. Thanks to HEC Challenge+ I was able to understand concepts around equity, agreements, shareholders and more.
One of our professors, Karim Medjad, was a brilliant lawyer who helped demystified agreements. He taught us that every agreement reached by two parties, whether on paper or in person, was a reflection of our desired outcomes and the result of a delicate balance of power. Another professor, Etienne Krieger, taught us how to manage equity and shareholder relations during our company’s lifetime. He also showed us how to protect ourseves from giving away too much equity in the early stages.
What is your contact with HEC alumni today?
AB: I still maintain many relationships with former professors and colleagues. For example, I now formally share my entrepreneurial experience with students in the MBA programme. I love the interaction with them! I also know that whenever I need help, I can reach out to my former professors or fellow Challenge + collegues. We are all busy, but there’s a sense that you can rely on them for trusted advice.
“Ask yourself, what will create value in the market?”
What advice would you give to new entrepreneurs?
AB: Know where the value is. The management and execution of a business plan are important, but not as important as following the value. Ask yourself, what will create value in the market? Here’s another secret: innovation is where you can find the value of the value!
#1 most advanced gene-editing company in the world
Over 111 biotechnology patent families owned
Over €3 billion euros in financing raised in 2014