Succeeding as an entrepreneur is tough, you will have to deal with failure and learn from it along the way. Many new science startups, including biotechs, face similar problems during their early steps, so here are some tips from experts on how to avoid them.

Last week, I had the opportunity to meet Mark Hammond and Dominic Falcao, who have extensive experience working with early-stage science start-ups at the pre-accelerator Imperial Create Lab in London. They are now launching Deep Science Ventures, a somewhat different high-tech incubator in London where no specific teams or ideas are required, just scientists keen to build a company from scratch.

Fig. 1. Dominic (left) and Mark (right) are launching a new accelerator concept this October

Fig. 1. Dominic (left) and Mark (right) are launching a new accelerator concept this October

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They organised a meetup for the launch and shared their best advice for entrepreneurial novices. Here it is:

1. Solutions. A successful start-up will focus on solving a problem and fit the technology to it, not the other way around.

Solutions in search of problems generally do not make it very far: choose a problem and work to solve it. Mark and Dom have worked with start-ups like FungiAlert, which is developing devices to sense fungi that destroy €9Bn worth of crops per year. They have also worked with CustoMem, a startup that uses synthetic biology to create cost-effective cellulose membranes that remove hormones and heavy metals from water.

Fig. 2. Customem uses engineered bacteria to create water filtration membranes that can capture micropollutants that are highly toxic and particularly difficult to remove

Fig. 2. CustoMem uses engineered bacteria to create water filtration membranes that can capture micropollutants that are highly toxic and particularly difficult to remove

2. Context. You should know the industry and build a solution for its present struggles.

Even if you’re sure your idea is already perfect, you will need to adjust the product for the customers. Be aware of current regulations, keep up with any economic changes and always know who is in charge of the budget!

For example, a start-up with a healthcare product needs to get approval, from the EMA in Europe, from the FDA in the US and from the TGA in Australia, which can delay or even cancel the product launch. Companies like Fractyl, MindMaze, VitaDX or TROD Medical had to consider this within their timeline before starting sales.

3. Timing. Buckle in for the ride.

Newbies tend to forget the market is constantly changing. Each technology has a hype curve during which the investment drastically varies.

Fig. 3. The Gartner Hype Cycle for technology describes how new technologies are perceived over time. Although visibility grows quickly at first, the hype decreases over time due to unmet expectations. Stability arises when second- or third-generation products get established in the market.

Fig. 3. The Gartner Hype Cycle for technology describes how new technologies are perceived over time. Although visibility grows quickly at first, the hype decreases over time due to unmet expectations. Stability arises when second- or third-generation products get established in the market

To surf the wave, you’ll have to identify when hype turns into serious investment. Though this is difficult, some indicators can give you a clue. A great example is precision medicine, which Mark reckons is 2-3 years away from this tipping point:

  • Pharma is beginning to talk about companion diagnostics
  • The first products are completing trials
  • Health as a consumer purchase is becoming the norm
  • Even US President Obama spoke in its favour!

Companies like InnVentis, Syapse or Seven Bridges are already starting to get an advantage of this hype.

4. Teamwork. Build a squad of driven and reliable experts.

Set clear aims and define what success and failure means for your company. Since there will be many choices along the process, established principles can save you a lot of trouble.

Never fear bringing new people on board when you need their skills for the next step forward, and build up a strong advisory board. Follow the example of Eva Diagnostics: whilst their expertise was in blood testing, they brought in an experienced marketing lead during pre-investment to adapt their market strategy. Desktop genetics, which is basically CAD for CRISPR, has attracted Jonathan Milner (who built AbCam) and strategic investors from Illumina.

Fig 4. Desktop Genetics advisors

Fig 4. Desktop Genetics advisors

5. ProgressReal progress is just the successful development of a product worthwhile to your audience.

Some start-ups can get plenty of press releases and awards despite not moving forward at all, while others do not get any and give up. Be confident; listen carefully to all feedback but do not rely too much on external approval.

There is a good reason incubators and accelerators are on the rise at the moment; start-ups are currently the main drivers of the newest technological and scientific applications. And investors are keen to take part in such promising projects.

As Dominic says,

The most common cause of science start-up failure is not starting in the first place

If you want to know more about how to make the move from scientist to founder, drop a line to Deep Science Ventures. Go through these pointers and get moving, the world is awaiting your amazing solutions!


Figure 1: Deep Science Ventures
Figure 2: Imperial Workspace
Figure 3: Graph by the author with data from Gartner
Figure 4: Desktop Genetics

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