Category Archives: Author

Pitching for Investment: Our Journey to the Den

It all started in September 2012, when I decided to fill in the online application form for BBC2 Dragons’ Den.

Screen shot 2014-02-16 at 15.10.45Our novel DNA artwork company PlayDNA had been going commercially for about 6 months, and while we had had some successful patches following (expensive!) exhibitions in London and Oxford, with a non-existent marketing budget we were struggling to gain any momentum in terms of sales. This was not part of our original plan – we did allocate a marketing budget from the small pot of cash that was originally intended to be our first home deposit– but issues with lab work soon gobbled that up.

So what to do? How to round up that marketing budget and simultaneously generate as much interest in what we do as possible in a short time-span, at minimal cost? “Well”, I thought as I sat down at the computer, “this seemed as good a punt as any”!

I spent an hour or two filling in the application, fired it off into the abyss of the internet and waited. I heard absolutely nothing for several months, and by February 2013 had pretty much forgotten all about it. It was not a good time.

My amazing nan

My much missed, amazing nan at my PhD graduation

My seemingly indomitable and energetic nan had just passed away after a short illness and we were all feeling very down. I was back at my mum’s house the night before her funeral when I got the phone call.

It was a representative from the BBC, who wanted to have a chat about my application. I shut myself in my old bedroom and answered his questions, in what turned out to be a phone interview. At the end of it, he declared that they would be interested in seeing our pitch, and, after completing another (Pre-Audition) Questionnaire, could we come along to Television Centre at Shepherd’s Bush in London in a couple of weeks time?

“Sure” I said, before heading downstairs to explain to boyfriend and business partner Stuart what I had just got us both into! I couldn’t help thinking about what nan would have said if she were with us still, she had always supported us and I like to think she’d have been quite excited by it all.


Like cat-nip for girls apparently.

It was the weekend of Comic Relief 2013 when we pulled into BBC Television Centre to make our pitch to the Dragons’ Den production team. I distinctly remember the massive queue of young (and, shamefully, not so young!) girls snaking around Television Centre waiting to get a glimpse of One Direction.

It didn’t start well when I narrowly missing John Bishop’s car in my fluster getting into the poorly signposted concrete BBC carpark. After pulling ourselves together, we headed to reception (star spotting some ‘Lewis’ cast members on the way and musing on the irony of seeing them so far from our home town of Oxford) and within ten minutes or so were being shown in to the room we were to present in.

It reminded me a lot of my old school classroom: quite small, full of desks, chairs and decked out in carpet tiles. The unimposing room, and the friendliness of the production team members set us both at ease immediately. We ran through our 3-minute pitch, props and all, in front of a single camera, and managed it in a single take (it was a relief to get it all out!). We then answered a string of personal questions while the camera continued to roll, about our background and motivation for starting our own business, as well as why we wanted the money.

Sign life awayFinally, we were sat down and taken through the paperwork. There was quite a lot of it and it was all quite thorough! All done, we were thanked and shown the door, being told we would hear shortly if we were picked to go through to the final show. It was quite surreal being back out on the street afterwards. We rewarded ourselves with a burger at the Westfield Shopping Centre over the road before heading home.

Another 6 weeks passed before we heard from them again. We had once more assumed that we hadn’t made the cut, when a phone call at work one Thursday told us they had shortlisted us for the final week of filming, to start the following week. “You may, or may not get on” we were informed. Well that put us in a pickle! We were in the midst of quite a busy period, so should we take time off to prepare for something that might not happen? We decided not, and to prioritise our customer orders instead. The following day they called again. “You’re definitely on, and we’ll need you up in Manchester on Monday to prepare for filming the following day”.

Now it was time for panic stations!! It was Friday morning, we had pre-arranged plans for the weekend and we were expected to be ready to pitch to the dragons next Tuesday. Oh, and did I mention the reams of paperwork we were sent through to complete?tons-of-paperwork An 18-point list of information we would need to provide them with beforehand, from outline business plan, to evidence of domain ownership, legal approvals, insurances, market research on competitors, evidence of sales, it went on and on! It took me until Sunday afternoon to complete the paperwork. Meanwhile Stuart worked on the improved pitch, and pulling all our figures together. If there was one thing we were certain of it was that we weren’t going to be caught out on the figures or valuation.

We know how to argue like cat and dog

We know how to argue like cat and dog

We drove up to Manchester on Monday late afternoon. The BBC had arranged for us to stay in a hotel the night before, as we were being picked up early the next day. We were getting quite stressed by this time and starting to bicker over the detail – at one point during our journey Stuart threatened to jump out of the car while we were on the motorway!

Suffice to say after 17 years together we’ve had enough big bust ups to know when we’re over-reacting and made up shortly afterwards.

We ran through our pitch for the first time that evening – it wasn’t the only pitch we had our minds on that night though.

Like Villa's motto - we did our best to 'Be Prepared' (after the match of course)

Like Villa’s motto – we did our best to ‘Be Prepared’ (after the match of course)

Memorising the figures was made all that much harder by there being a rather exciting Villa game on in the background. Villa demolished Sunderland 6-1 in a vital relegation battle match, so we consoled ourselves that the week couldn’t be all bad!

The morning came. It was Tuesday 30th April when we were to finally get in front of the dragons. The car came at 7am to pick us up and whisk us to the studio at Media City, Manchester…

Find out more about our ‘day in the den’ this time next week!

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Filed under Dr Samantha Decombel, Media

Dragon Duncan misses the bigger picture!

By Kelly Lea

Oxfordshire couple and co-founders of PlayDNA, Dr. Samantha Decombel and Dr. Stuart Grice, were seen on BBC2’s Dragons’ Den last night pitching for £50,000 investment in their business which creates artwork from DNA at Cherwell Innovation Centre. 

Screen shot 2014-02-03 at 12.19.00

Dr Stuart and Dr Sam face the dragons

Together for 17 years, the couple had an attractive business proposition if only the expert panel of entrepreneurs were able to keep their mind on the business in hand. Instead, viewers saw the Dragons probing for personal information about Sam and Stuart’s marital status rather than focussing on PlayDNA’s business potential, ending with Peter Jones offering the sum of £50,000 to Stuart if he proposed to Sam on the show.

group upgraded

Spot the scientists!

Undeterred by the TV experience filmed in May 2013, the business savvy couple have recently launched MuscleGenes, a sports specific spin-off company of PlayDNA, established to analyse genes that impact on fat burning, endurance, speed, metabolism and aerobic capacity.

The company already boasts celebrity clients including professional rugby player, Roger Wilson and TV presenter Andi Peters, both of whom have endorsed MuscleGenes via testimonials and social media. Celebrity doctor Dr Christian Jessen of Embarrassing Bodies fame is also known to have taken the test. Jessen

Dr. Samantha Decombel explains: “MuscleGenes has taken us to a whole new market.  Our sales have already eclipsed PlayDNA in our first few months of trading and we have experienced significant growth and appetite for our product in the UK and US.  We feel Duncan Bannatyne definitely missed a trick by not looking at the bigger picture, especially with his knowledge of the sports sector.”

The MuscleGenes test focuses solely on the information contained within an individuals DNA to help fine tune training programmes, performance and nutritional advice, with no artwork involved.

Swabbing 8-times Mr Olympia Ronnie Coleman!

Swabbing the legendary Ronnie Coleman!

The idea for MuscleGenes came about shortly after the den experience in a chance meeting with co-founder, Dr. Dan Reardon, a medic and former personal trainer.

Within 3 months MuscleGenes was formed and the impact was immediate. “Our sales went through the roof and we had to take the product off sale because we couldn’t manage the demand!” says Dr. Samantha Decombel. “In May, we were despondently walking out the den without investment. By September, we were in Vegas at the Mr Olympia event swabbing 8-times Mr Olympia Ronnie Coleman!”

MG team, Stu, Bernie, Mark, Sam, Dan

The MuscleGenes team in their lab space at Cherwell Innovation Centre

The team is already five strong with plans to recruit an additional two people to join the Cherwell Innovation Centre HQ following further investment in high-throughput equipment. Commenting on her journey to date, Dr. Samantha Decombel continues: “It is difficult for scientists to have the ability to start-up a company due to the significant investment needed in lab space and equipment.  We have been very lucky to discover Cherwell Innovation Centre, as rather than funding an entire lab, we have been able to just rent a bench in addition to sharing equipment and office space with scientists who are in a similar situation.  This has enabled us to invest in other areas, such as our branding and marketing, vital for product sales and the success of the business.”

Cherwell Innovation Centre is one of the only facilities in Oxfordshire to provide a flexible agreement for start-ups interested in lab space, office space and meeting room facilities.

MG Nation pics

The MuscleGenes Nation!
The sharp-eyed amongst you may spot a few IFBB Pros amongst the happy MG customers

MuscleGenes new website is now live with the aim of capitalising from primetime TV exposure gained through the Dragons Den appearance.  To find out more about the company and how genetics can help improve your sports performance, visit:  Alternatively, visit PlayDNA for a family DNA portrait.


A happy ending!

For people intrigued by the Dragons’ probing into Sam and Stuart’s personal life, the University of Oxford DPhil Geneticist proposed to his business partner and girlfriend last November in Stratford-upon-Avon, the location of their first date just before Sam’s 16th birthday.  The couple are now both 33.  Dr. Samantha Decombel concludes: “We are (finally!) very happily engaged to be married and after 17 years of waiting I wouldn’t swap Stuart’s eventual proposal for any amount of Peter’s money, it was much more romantic than a TV studio!”

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Filed under Customer stories, Dr Samantha Decombel, Events and exhibitions, Genetics, Media, New Products, Science, Update

Doctors told us our twins were non-identical, but our DNA portraits revealed the true story

Oliver and Oscar, or is it Oscar and Oliver?

Oliver and Oscar, or is it Oscar and Oliver?

When John and Liz O’Neill were told they were going to have twins they were over the moon. During their scans they found out the twins were developing inside separate amniotic sacs, and as a result were told by the medical staff they would be non-identical.

The adorable Oscar and Oliver were born on 9th February 2012. Both parents were understandably smitten, but also amazed at how alike the tiny siblings were.

O'Neill twinsOver the next 12 months Liz and John were constantly stopped in the street or the supermarket where strangers would coo over the twins and say ‘they must be identical!’ Although they would explain no, they were actually non-identical, the twins striking similarity meant they themselves had always harboured some doubt. “I think I might have even mixed them up during bath-time once” jokes Liz.”I felt like a terrible mother because I couldn’t tell them apart!”

Shortly after the boys 1st birthday, while reading an article on twins, Liz discovered that it was actually possible for identical twins to develop in separate sacs if the egg splits very early on during development. With this new information and a sneaking suspicion that their initial instincts had always been right, Liz contacted PlayDNA to ask for help.

“I went to school with Sam, and knew through facebook that she had started a business creating DNA artwork with meaning. I thought her forensic artwork might offer some clue as to whether Ozzy and Olly were identical or not” said Liz. We agreed to help, and took samples of DNA from each family member, including the twins older brothers Jack, age 8 and Josh, age 5.

“When I saw the photos of Oliver and Oscar I too had assumed they must be identical” says Dr Sam. “I thought it would be a wonderful project to have a peek inside their genes and see what that told us about their story, and also make a wonderful family memento!”

The O'Neill family DNA Portrait

The O’Neill family DNA Portrait

Dr Sam prepared a bespoke piece of artwork for the family, which looked at ten different genes related to particular traits, such as eye colour, memory and whether you’re more likely to be an early bird or night owl. The results were pretty conclusive.

“Olly and Ozzy shared all ten genes in common – which combined with their amazing likeness is a sure sign that they are actually identical twins!” says Dr Sam. “This is made more apparent when we see their DNA portraits alongside their elder brothers, who very obviously have several differences in their DNA. We calculated the odds of them sharing these genes by coincidence, and it works out at 0.39% – in other words, less than a 1 in 200 chance. The O’Neill family now has their colourful DNA portraits framed and on the wall for all to see.

Mum Liz told us: “Thank you so much for taking the time to explain what it all means despite being so busy. We really appreciate it. It was so interesting and is all we’ve talked about since. We’ve named ourselves team night owl and are putting together our owl names and power rangers style salute! The kids are loving it. We’re so excited about having the artwork in the house and being able to explain it properly to all our family and friends. It’s a brilliant thing for the kids to be able to grow up around and learn from. I just wanted to let you know how grateful we are”.

Personalised DNA art company PlayDNA will be on Dragons’ Den on Sunday 2nd February 2014 – tune in to see how they got on!

The whole O'Neill clan!

Team Night Owl: the whole O’Neill clan!

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Filed under Customer stories, Dr Samantha Decombel, Genetics, Media

Komodo, the Magic Dragon

by Dr James Sleigh

To celebrate the appearance of PlayDNA on the BBC’s Dragons’ Den, we are diving into the mystical world of dragons…

Here be dragons

Here be dragons

Powerful, fearsome, venomous. A rare breed of predator with sharp claws, razor-like teeth, and an insatiable appetite. No, we are not talking about Deborah Meaden, Peter Jones, or even Duncan Bannatyne of Dragons’ Den fame. We are describing the Komodo dragon, the largest living lizard, and native of the Indonesian Islands of Southeast Asia. But, do they deserve their dragon moniker?

They have no wings, and they can’t breathe fire, you say. Nor do they live for centuries, or like to hoard gold.

A real dragon

A real dragon
Photo courtesy of

Not a real dragon

Not a real dragon
Photo courtesy of

Nevertheless, these creatures, which can grow to over three metres in length and eat up to 80% of their body weight in a single feed, do possess an almost mythical ability worthy of the dragon name.

0117_MALO_Komodo_Eggs_013A_t607Miraculously, in separate zoos in the UK (Chester and London), two female Komodos, which were completely isolated from males, laid clutches of eggs that resulted in lots of baby dragons. This ability for females to produce offspring without mating with a male is known as parthenogenesis, and is very rarely seen in vertebrate species (those with a backbone like you and me). In fact, only about 1 in 1,000 vertebrates can reproduce in this manner. It was particularly unexpected that such a large animal as the Komodo dragon would join this rather selective group.

Intriguingly, all the virgin baby dragons were males. This is because of the interesting genetics of Komodos. Much like we have X and Y sex chromosomes (XX = female and XY = male), Komodo dragons have W and Z chromosomes. However, rather than females having two of the same sex chromosome like humans, female Komodos have one W and one Z chromosome while males are ZZ. When female dragons are isolated from males, through parthenogenesis they are able to duplicate either their W or Z chromosome (along with the rest of their non-sex chromosomes), resulting in eggs that are either WW or ZZ. The WW eggs do not survive, but the ZZ eggs produce viable male baby dragons.


Hello mummy!
Photo courtesy of BBC

It is believed that this ability to switch between sexual and asexual reproduction has evolved as a strategy to be able to survive in the Komodo’s natural habitat of isolated islands. Females finding themselves washed up on unpopulated islands are able to reproduce asexually, producing males for future mating.


Not quite cloning, but I’m sure some of the BBC dragons would be interested in making similar duplicates of themselves so they could make twice as much money! What’s that? You want to know the outcome of PlayDNA’s adventure in the dragon’s lair? Well, you will just have to wait until Sunday to see how Dr. Sam and Dr. Stuart fared…

PlayDNA is on Dragons Den Sunday 2nd February BBC2 at 9pm.

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Filed under Animals and Plants, Dr James Sleigh, Genetics, Media, Science

Happiness is in the genes of the beholder

It’s a grey miserable Friday the 13th, so what better time to think about happiness! james2 copy

The always cheerful (no matter what the weather!) Dr James Sleigh explains how recent research suggests that happiness and health are actually linked on a biological level…

How often do you feel happy?

How often do you feel that you have contributed something to society? How often do you feel that you belong to a community group?

CharlotteWell, the answers to those questions now appear to affect more than just your mental and social well-being. New research suggests that your level of long-term happiness and self-satisfaction also has a significant effect on your genes.

A team of scientists in the US decided to study how positive psychology impacts gene expression levels in humans.

centraldogma copyGenes are short sections of your DNA that are copied to produce intermediate molecules called RNA, which can then be used as templates to create proteins, the fundamental components of all cells. When we talk about gene expression levels, we are describing how many intermediate ‘RNA’ copies are made from a particular gene.

When a gene or sets of genes are expressed at different levels to what is expected or normally observed in a particular group of people, this can sometimes indicate that something is perhaps not quite right.

Jo and familyv1In the study, the researchers took blood samples from 80 healthy people and looked at the expression of all the genes in the human body.

They also asked the volunteers a range of questions about their psychological well-being in order to determine whether their happiness was more due to having a deep sense of purpose in life, or perhaps more due to instant self-gratification, for example through going on regular holidays or getting to eat your favourite food.

sam and stuThe study found that those people who believed that they had a greater meaning in life had low expression of genes involved in unwanted inflammation and high expression of genes linked to a healthy immune system.

The opposite was true of the group of people whose happiness was mainly a product of immediate self-satisfaction.

These differences can have a major impact on general health because having high expression of inflammatory genes is linked to cardiovascular and other diseases, while having low expression of immune system genes can affect your ability to fight off infection.

Kel and Scotty

Interestingly, both groups had similar positive feelings about their lives, indicating that the subtle differences in happiness have a greater effect on the genome, and therefore your health, than they do on the conscious adult mind.

So the moral of the story is that doing good by others and trying to live a meaningful life is perhaps better for your long-term health than making yourself feel happy in the short term.

Reference: A functional genomic perspective on human well-being (2013) PNAS

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Filed under Author, Dr James Sleigh, Science

A genome’s junk is a gene’s treasure

Research Profile Picture James Sleigh

By James Sleigh


2012 was an eventful year.

We saw Queen Elizabeth II mark 60 years on the British throne, Team GB excel at the fantastic London Olympic and Paralympic Games, the re-election of US and Russian presidents, and Gangnam Style conquer the world, all while managing to survive the Mayan apocalypse.

The year will also be remembered for a number of considerable scientific achievements. But which is the most important?

The landing of the Curiosity Rover on the surface of Mars? The discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN? Or perhaps even Herr Baumgartner’s record-breaking skydive from 24 miles above the New Mexico desert?

Deciding is almost as tricky as picking last year’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year!

As the newest member of the PlayDNA team, I’ve decided to begin the year by highlighting the research from 2012 that I think has the greatest impact on our understanding of what makes us human.

The Human Dictionary

Spot the difference?

Spot the difference

You may think you’re quite different from a grasshopper, the mould growing on your week-old loaf, or your Mum’s cheese plant. And you would be quite right. But, despite the instructions to create each species being different, the pen with which they are written is the same.

That is, we all share a universal genetic code – the DNA (the instructions) of all organisms is made from long strings of consecutive molecules known as nucleotides, which come in one of four different flavours (A, C, T, or G). The order in which these nucleotides are arranged within DNA affects how the inherent information is read, and what creature is eventually produced.

This happens because relatively short, distinct stretches of DNA known as genes, are copied to produce intermediary molecules that are then used as a templates to create proteins, the fundamental components of all cells.

Original cartoon by Daniel Paz

Original cartoon by Daniel Paz

Thanks to the Human Genome Project (HGP), the entire instruction manual to build a human was mapped and published in 2003. This landmark scientific collaboration unravelled the sequence of all the letters in our DNA, and identified that each of us possesses a unique complement of about 3 billion nucleotides, including some 20,000 or so genes.


However, the term “genome” is perhaps somewhat of a misnomer, as unexpectedly genes were shown to account for only approximately 1% of the total DNA. The remaining 99% has since often been described as “junk” because it had not been linked to any particular function.

That is, until now.

The Human Encyclopaedia

ENCODE nature cover 1Picking up where the HGP left off, the Encyclopaedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) project is a decade-long study, involving over 440 scientists in 32 laboratories, and costing in excess of £180 million. The primary results from this large international collaboration were published late last year across 30 scientific papers, and have earned the ENCODE project my pick for the breakthrough of 2012.

The main aim of the ENCODE project is to build upon the human lexicon described by the HGP, by improving our knowledge of the grammar that weaves the directory of words into meaningful sentences. That is, the ENCODE project is attempting to better our understanding of how our genome of 3 billion nucleotides fits together, how the genes are controlled, and what all that “junk” is actually for.

dnaUsing nearly 150 different cell types, the scientists studied on a very large scale many different properties of human DNA sequences. They looked at which regions were active, which were silent, and what sequences appeared to be important for driving the production of proteins.

Each type of cell uses different combinations and permutations of these DNA sequences to produce its own unique biology. By comparing these differences, we are able to better understand how the genome is put together, processed, and read.

The upshot from what is the most detailed analysis of the human genome to date is that approximately 80% of our DNA has now been assigned a biochemical function.

junk dna

Image credit:

It’s not junk!

Why should I care about that?!

Well, understanding what all the regions of the human genome are doing can help scientists to pinpoint certain genetic risk factors that predispose to different conditions. In the past, many studies looking at patient DNA sequences have found hotspots that appear to contribute in some way to particular diseases. Intriguingly, many of these regions were not found in genes but in the “junk,” making it hard to deduce how and why these seemingly unimportant parts of the genome were being correlated with certain diseases.

In light of the ENCODE results, it is highly likely that these regions are functionally impacting genes that at first glance did not appear to be involved in disease.

Just what the doctor ordered?

Just what the doctor ordered?

We are a long way from understanding the wealth of data that ENCODE has produced. And it’s not going to get any easier, as it is estimated that the project is only about 10% complete.

Nevertheless, by highlighting the importance of our genome’s “junk” for the function of our genes, this breakthrough project will undoubtedly lead to a deeper knowledge of diseases and how to treat them.

Dr James Sleigh is a published research scientist at the University of Oxford currently working on diseases that affect the nervous system. His interest in genetics and neuroscience was sparked while working in a lab at Harvard Medical School as an undergraduate, and he has never looked back! James is passionate about communicating science, and has even won awards for his science writing. He is the research correspondent for the SMA charity The Jennifer Trust and has recently joined PlayDNA as Chief Communications Officer – so no doubt you will be hearing plenty more from him!

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Filed under Author, Dr James Sleigh, Genetics, Science