Top ten tips for life science startups

Yesterday (10th September 2015) the Pistoia Alliance President’s Startup Challenge hosted a webinar featuring two life science entrepreneurs and asked them to give advice for others considering starting their own companies. A recording of the webinar and copies of the slides are available here.

Claus Stie Kallesoe, CEO of grit systems A/S, and Sanskriti Thakur, a serial entrepreneur based in New York, joined the chair Nick Lynch of the Pistoia Alliance for an hour-long discussion and audience Q&A. The conversation was wide-ranging and touched on almost every aspect of setting up and running a life sciences startup, and there were a number of interesting questions raised by the audience at the end.

There were so many useful points made that extracting any kind of ‘top ten’ was tricky, but we have given it a go for the benefit of our time-strapped readers. Here they are:

  1. A startup is not a company, it is merely a temporary stop along the way to creating one. It is a research project to understand how to create a sustainable business out of your initial idea. Don’t try to run it like it is already a large company. Unlearn everything you learnt if you worked for a big company before.
  2. Avoid external funds as long as you possibly can, and even avoid having a board if you don’t really need it. Bootstrapping and going it alone gives you total control over the way you do things without having to justify your actions to anyone.
  3. When you do eventually raise funds, seek investors who can give you genuinely useful advice and expertise, even if that might mean a slightly inferior financial deal. A wrong-headed investor is far worse than being slightly short on cash.
  4. Nothing is ever set in stone. If your potential customers tell you that your product isn’t quite right for them, then change it. Adapt, adapt, and adapt again. Nothing is ever finished.
  5. The founders must do the selling for at least the first ten major customers. In the early days you are selling not just your product but your team, trust, and ability. Persistence is key to gaining new customers, as is personally looking after your customers once you have them. Don’t hire salespeople until you have a reputation and track record that they can reflect.
  6. If you don’t make money, don’t spend it. Profits are not just about revenue but also about minimising cost.
  7. Life science companies are fundamentally different from other businesses you might read about in glossy entrepreneurial magazines, especially if dealing with patients, their data, or other regulatory hurdles. Navigating the complexity of healthcare regulation and understanding the many players involved needs a completely different approach than most other types of startups.
  8. The founder might have the vision but they might not be the right person to know best how to reach their customers. Don’t be afraid to hire or seek marketing advice from those who have the specialist skills and knowledge needed to position the product and navigate the marketplace, although the founder must still be the one doing the selling.
  9. Teams can and must change as your needs develop. Life science startups that are commercialising academic IP might start with mostly academic or research driven teams, then move on to teams of software and hardware developers, then move on again to a more commercially-focused team. Change is inevitable, embrace it.
  10. Everyone will tell you their opinion, and everyone’s opinion will be different. Stick to your vision regardless and have the courage to see it through no matter what anyone says. Persist, and don’t give up.

We hope that those who attended the webinar or who have watched the recording online might be inspired to enter their own startup for the Pistoia Alliance President’s Startup Challenge 2015 before the deadline on 13th September – only two days to go!

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