Cellen: 21st Century Painkillers
Updated: Jul 6
Our advisor, Stephen Bourke, interviews our co-founders Eric Bystrom and Dr Benjamin Viaris de Lesegno.
From L-R: Arnaud, Haggai, Ben and Eric are working to solve UK patients’ unmet need for medical cannabis. I chatted with Eric and Ben.
What’s your name and what do you do?
Ben: I’m co-founder and Chief Medical Officer. I deal with patients and regulators. I’m originally from Paris and, due to Covid19, am still a practicing obstetrician at St. George's hospital in Tooting.
Eric: I’m co-founder and CEO. I’m originally from Sweden and have spent most of my career in finance. I deal with the money, partners and all the non-clinical aspects of what we do.
And your company?
Total funding raised to date?
Bootstrapped, with support from leading angels including Taveet Hinrikus from Transferwise and Melanie Smith from Ocado.
Who else is in the original team? How did you meet?
Eric: We met through mutual friends on the London tech scene and just clicked. I was an early stage investor in TanTan (sold to Momo) and wanted to get into HealthTech. Ben is well known in digital health circles, having helped a number of start-ups, so he seemed like a good guy to found a business with.
Ben: I come from an entrepreneurial family and had been juggling my NHS work and start-up work for some time, supporting firms like Echo, Doctor Care Anywhere and Daye as well as accelerators like HS Ventures and TechStars. When I met Eric I knew that we shared a lot of the same values.
We both have family desperately looking for a better way to deal with pain, so what we’re doing at Cellen is personal. We’re also data nerds, and want to make Cellen a platform for scientific discovery for new medicines.
Eric: The medical cannabis industry doesn’t have a great reputation. There is a lot of fast money and strange characters. This is holding the sector back, so it was important to me that Ben and I had the same sense of right and wrong, shared the same long-term vision. One partner jokingly describes us as “the safe, boring, reliable guys” of medical cannabis. We’re happy with that.
Ben: Once we got comfortable with each other, we made a beeline for Haggai Sharon, a world renowned expert in pain and medical cannabis, to join us to chair our clinical board. From his practice at the Institute of Pain Medicine in Tel Aviv, Haggai has probably treated more patients than anyone in Europe.
Finally, there is Henrik and Jørgen, our Danish partners, two former pharmaceutical executives who gave up corporate life to focus on producing best-in-class medical cannabinoids.
How many people work there right now? Who are they?
Eric: Four of us are on this full-time, with the other three helping on specific projects. We’ve recently welcomed Arnaud from Peak, to lead product and help turn our vision into a platform patients love, and Mala, an NHS-trained doctor and Forbes 30 Under 30, to help us get the message out there.
In six-ish words, what problem does your startup solve?
We provide patients with access to medical cannabis.
And TLDR, what’s the actual product?
Ben: We use technology to personalise medical cannabis formulations for patients. For example if a patient requires a high CBD concentration or a THC / CBD blended product, we liaise with our partners to manufacture and deliver to their exact needs.
Who is the end user?
Ben: Patients with unmet clinical needs. For instance, children with Dravet syndrome, who have hundreds of epileptic seizures every day, can use medical cannabis to reduce this to as low as around five seizures a month. Right now, patients have to rely on illegal channels to obtain cannabis, where there is no guarantee of potency, quality or safety.
There is also a gap in chronic pain management and far too many people are addicted to opioids. It is often seen in Europe as an American problem. Believe me, it’s here too. Cellen provides a safe, effective and regulated alternative.
Who is the customer?
Ben: Patients and their carers, but also pain specialists looking for a safe and legal way for patients to obtain medical cannabis. Despite the fact it is legal for 60% of UK doctors to prescribe, medical cannabis is still deeply misunderstood by the profession. And even if the patient gets a prescription, where do they take it? We aim to solve these problems for patients and clinicians alike. We also want to break-out of private healthcare and help NHS patients access life-changing treatment.
How do you (or will you) acquire users?
Eric: We’re one of five companies involved with Project TWENTY21, one of Europe’s first and biggest national medical cannabis registry. Its aim is to enrol 20,000 patients by the end of 2021, creating the largest body of evidence for the effectiveness and tolerability of medical cannabis.
We also strongly believe in collaboration and working with best in class partners. Our approach is to partner with existing healthcare providers as an add-on service. This allows us both to focus on delivering the best care for patients.
It's 2026. IPO, Exit or stay private? Why?
Ben: We are going to stay private. We need the freedom to learn and grow, complete our mission and treat as many patients as possible. We need the freedom to work with the NHS, which will add complexity that some investors won’t like. Our goal is to make medical cannabis available to any patient that needs it. We also want to make our service available across Europe, I would personally love to take Cellen to France. And finally, we are building a platform for scientific discovery, understanding how patients react and adapt to treatment. This will require patient investors, but the impact we will have on society is huge.
Right now, what aspect of the business keeps you up at night?
Eric: Making sure that we don’t disappoint our patients. We want to underpromise and overdeliver as there is a lot of hype in this market. People see an article in the press and expect to be able to get cannabis from their GP the next day. Right now, that’s not how it works. We want to be known as the reliable guys.
Ben: Regulation is moving forward but at a glacial pace. The CQC is particularly sensitive to online providers following the closure of a glut of websites selling sleeping tablets and opioids online. Timing is everything in this space, it’s a question of when not if.
Biggest accomplishment to date?
Ben: Treating out first patients. It’s amazing how grateful people are, how much they need this service.
...and biggest mistake?
Eric: We overestimated our ability to build a product. We went straight into technical build mode, when we should have focused on designing the user journey using simple tools.
If you could have equity in any other HealthTech Start-up, which you choose?
Ben: Livi or Babylon, because in Healthcare, AI and big data will drive efficiencies and change.
I am a magic Leprechaun and can grant your business one wish. What do you want?
Ben: A change in the public’s perception of cannabis. It’s not just a recreational drug, it has the power to transform lives.
Covid19. What’s changed for Cellen, if anything?
Eric: Right now the NHS is understandably canceling routine clinic appointments. Life-changing operations have been halted and it is hard to get to see a specialist. This has left many vulnerable patients without prescription medication. We’ve had numerous patients reaching out to us with third party prescriptions that they have not been able to fulfil.
What question should I have really asked you?
Eric: Knowing what you know now what advice would you give yourself?
Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give yourself?
Eric: Before you build anything, make sure you really, really understand user requirements.
How should people get in touch?