Starting-up in Life Sciences

Zeitgeist, Complexity, and Verticals

Business is hard. Starting up a business is harder. Starting-up in life sciences is…well…very hard. Why? There are a couple of issues making starting-up in life sciences very challenging. I will consider the typical scenario of a university spin-off and share my personal experiences.

But I don’t want to bore you with the typical issues like IP protection, business models, the industry you want to address, competition, and so on. I rather want to share those aspects that were not covered by mainstream resources and hence were underestimated by myself.

The Zeitgeist

Be prepared for an annoying issue. The tech-hype got us all. Almost everybody seems to think that reality can be simulated or digitized. Life science startups are not necessary digital start-ups even though data is of central importance for them.

If you are not a digital startup, be prepared be perceived as one. Craft your pitch in a way that people get from the beginning that you are not a digital startup. Since, all experiments generate data, use words like “data”, “IT” or “automation” very carefully and put them into the right context. Although it might be sexy to sell your idea as if in the digital context, it is up to you how to back up the buzz words with facts.

The Complexity

Technology in life sciences has an immense diversity of applications. I know how tempting it is to brag about the potential here and there. Working with proteins might open endless opportunities, but nobody will believe that until you demonstrate that unlimited potential in reality.

In our first steps, we were given the advice that still resonates: “It sounds like you have a great idea and technology. Imagine that this represents your ten fingers. The next step is to cut off nine fingers”.

The fact is, more complex solutions do not solve those complex problems. Simple solutions solve them.

The Verticals

When selecting your target market, you need to be aware of its potential. Presenting your start-up to people from your core industry is a must. You will get probably insights that you are not the only solution on the market, so you need to communicate clearly your value proposition, uniqueness, positioning, and reliability. And you better craft them before you speak to an expert audience.

But what about adjacent verticals? I found talking to people from adjacent verticals and business development consultants in life sciences very rewarding to anticipate the potential beyond the core industry. For example, the design of industrial enzyme relies on technologies and applications that are also found in pharma R&D. Unexpected to me, but it totally makes sense.

The Balance

It is always difficult to shift the focus from the core idea because it might lead to the loss of focus. So, you need to balance those two opposite perspectives: focus on core business and explore the potential beyond your focus. The best option to achieve it is to have people in the team, who have a talent for one extreme but not for the other. Finding the right balance between the opposites and understanding the other position creates mutual trust, amazing results and opens whole new perspectives, which you have never dreamed of.

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