Meet Biomatters' new CEO

Biomatters’ CEO found his own replacement: a big-thinking Texan from Telecom

How do you get a company to perform past the startup phase? The conventional wisdom has a simple answer: shoot the founder. Auckland’s Biomatters took a different tack, as startup CEO Daniel Batten set himself the task of finding his replacement. He found just the person: a big-thinking Texan at Telecom

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Photograph by Alistair Guthrie

When we profiled bioinformatics startup company Biomatters in Idealog #1, we were new, and they were not much older. But it had taken Alexei Drummond, inventor, chief scientist and ‘father’ of Geneious, and founding CEO Daniel Batten nearly three years to bring their baby out of the lab and into the world of real, paying customers.

Since then, the Geneious software that allows bio-researchers to manage and share their data for gene sequencing has gone through three major versions. And like all startups, the company has gone through some changes too: Batten has left, and although Drummond is still chief scientist, his day-to-day involvement is limited.

It’s all part of moving out of startup mode, says Batten (an occasional contributor to Idealog). “As a shareholder I’d wanted a change in the type of CEO, so [leaving] was a selfish [decision] to ensure my shares would still be worth something.” He set about finding his successor.

So meet Biomatters’ next-stage CEO: Candace Toner, an American now resident in New Zealand. Toner had introduced scientific advisory board member Howard Asher (then group director of global life sciences for Sun Microsystems) to Biomatters. Batten and Toner had kept in touch, but still his phone call to her in late 2006 was out of the blue.
“I was at that time at Telecom, undergoing a big restructure,” says Toner. “I’d just got married, we were building a house, and then I’m asked do I want to take a pay cut to become the CEO of a fledgling startup. Hmm, let me think about it,” recalls Toner. The challenge and interest won her over, and by early 2007 she was in the hot seat.

Toner breaks more than one stereotype: from Austin, Texas, she stopped by New Zealand for a year en route to law school. Ten years later, she’s still here, complete with the house in the country and a postgrad business degree from Massey. Entrepreneurship was her passion: her now-languishing Master’s thesis is on the emotional intelligence required of entrepreneurs. She is now both subject and researcher.

“In a large company you have 100 peers that you can talk to,” she says. “You’re surrounded by people so you can ask questions, be vulnerable. You can tell people you don’t know what to do next. But in this industry it takes emotional intelligence … can you identify the people traits that make an entrepreneur a success in technology? How do they cope with stress? Creativity? They’re here to turn on the heat or turn out the lights, answer 150 emails but still be creative and strategic.”

Biomatters is profiting from world of mouth—more than half of Geneious sales are from customers referring their colleagues. The company is now working on building credibility with academic journals and partnering with prestigious institutions (Stanford is an early convert—a couple of top end deals are in the pipeline as we go to press). By transitioning Geneious users from freeware to an $89 basic desktop version to a top end network package, Biomatters now boasts 100,000 users and is aiming for break-even by the end of the year.

“Daniel painted a great picture, Alexei backed it up—we had a great story,” says Toner. “Now we have to paint on a bigger piece of canvas … we need to build a model that is a lot bolder. What would we do differently if we had $5 million or $10 million? What would I need to innovate with, who would I partner with?”

Nothing a smart girl from Texas, the original home of thinking big, can’t handle.