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News and Events: Life Science Innovation Northwest [Panels- Recap Start Me up]
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June 19-20, 2014
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Start Me Up: What Mick Jagger and Biotech Start-Ups Have in Common (July 11, 2013)

Recap by Megan Jeffrey, WBBA

The “Start Me Up” panel discussion was moderated by Mike Powell, PhD, a General Partner at Sofinnova Ventures.

Panel Members

What do Start-Ups and rock stars have in common? According to Erik Nilsson, CEO of Insilicos and Rosetta@Cloud, entrepreneurs are “incorrigible,” a word often applied to rock stars. In this context, Nilsson means that entrepreneurs feel the drive to move from project to project, even after they have found success. From where does this enthusiasm for work originate? Tito Serafini, CEO of Atreca, stated it’s from the personal investment entrepreneurs have in making the world better. “If we do our jobs right,” he explained, “we're selling stuff that actually helps people. We have a double-bottom line.”

Moderator Mike Powell of Sofinnova Ventures focused on the “human element” of a start-up, asking each panelist what they look for in start-up employees. Much like a successful rock band, all panelists agreed that it was important to find people who work well together as a dedicated team. “There may be many ‘geniuses’,” observed H. Stewart Parker of IDRI, “but if you can’t sometimes spend 80+ hours a week working with them, it will be toxic to the organization.” Al Luderer, the CEO of Integrated Diagnostics, Inc. agreed, but added that experienced team leaders who know exactly what sort of employees they want, will be well-viewed by investors, especially venture capitalists (VCs). Art Pappas, Managing General Partner at Pappas Ventures, added that in most cases, “‘experience’ is working together correctly; it has to be a strategic, effective and fully integrated team.”

Powell next asked the panel to consider “the phenotype” of an entrepreneur. He queried what characteristics make someone successful in a start-up company. Unsurprisingly, the most common answer was passion for the work. However, as Dr. Serafini carefully pointed out, just as an aspiring garage-band artist needs to spend hours practicing before they play any stadiums, an entrepreneur must be willing to commit to their vision and see it through. Nilsson agreed, cautioning that entrepreneurs “have to be compelled by the work. It is not a quick road to victory.” Powell added that although 24 hours a day, seven days a week may be the schedule of an entrepreneur, it is important to find the right work-life balance, and have colleagues that will support you during the bad times. As a VC, he noted that determining a company’s initial value is ultimately “all about the people, but they are more difficult to evaluate.”

Any rock star can tell you that the job is not all glitz and glamour, and Powell continued the discussion by asking what task the panelists had to do as entrepreneurs that they never wanted to do again. Parker responded that her job was to create the right environment for the science to succeed. “I've dealt with unpleasant people and situations, but that is what you have to do. And you will do it again.” Her sentiments were shared by many on the panel, including Dr. Luderer who added, “You have to learn to do what it takes to make the company thrive.”

A rock star without well-tuned instruments is not going to succeed; such is also the case when the business plan of a start-up doesn’t satisfy investors. Nilsson explained that there is a difference between having a product and a VC-fundable company. He cautioned putting the technology at the core of one’s business strategy because your technological focus will likely undergo major changes during its development. Instead, he argues, “it all comes back to the people; it's about their skills and what they can do.” Tom Clement, CEO of Aqueduct Neurosciences and the founder of Cardiac Insight, cited the challenging timeline of developing medical technology: “Sometimes you cannot predict the problems of the tech, or even understand them until you do months of research, testing, etc. Sometimes you hibernate, see what competitors do and then change direction if something is not working.” Dr. Serafini supported Clement’s stance, encouraging entrepreneurs to develop technologies that are broad, adaptable and responsive to a variety of settings. If something is not working, one also has to know when, and be willing to, shut a project down.

The CEO of a start-up, in addition to making the difficult decisions, should be apt at keeping the company in alignment with the expectations of the board and existing investors. Nilsson mused that although it can be a challenge to get board members to invest early, CEOs need to be transparent and never delay sharing “bad news.” This will encourage constructive discussion rather than yelling. Pappas also stressed that the board, investors and CEO should all be speaking the same language… but not; one should avoid creating an echo-chamber where ideas are never challenged. 

Finally, Powell asked the panel to consider innovative fundraising ideas for start-up companies. What non-traditional sources of capital did they know of and how could it be obtained? Stewart suggested the not-for-profit arena; in-kind-support and funding and public-private partnerships. Whatever you choose to pursue, she summarized, “Be Persistent.” Dr. Luderer encouraged leveraging the company’s research and being able to anticipate and answer investor questions. Clement asked that entrepreneurs not discount SBIRs and grants from NIH; although their cycle times are long, “it gets you down the road towards courting bigger investors.” He also congratulated the Life Sciences Discovery Fund for getting refinanced this year and named them as an excellent resource for biotechnology and biomedical start-ups in Washington. Like Stewart, Nilsson encouraged entrepreneurs to be persistent, but also well-prepared: “risk makes for good television drama, but it is really not the life you want to live.” Outside of investors, Dr. Serafini wanted entrepreneurs to engage with their intended customers: “figure out how they view your tech and what it can do for them; figure out what gets them EXCITED; they may be transformed into your non-traditional sources of funding on their own.”

In short, ever rock star needs a well-rehearsed band, working instruments, a good record producer, and loyal fans. Entrepreneurs not only need drive, they also require a dedicated team, the willingness to do what needs to be done, the right strategy, a supportive board and multiple options for funding.

Rock on Start-Ups! 

 

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