CCAB blog – The life sciences start-up life

By CCAB - June 17, 2019 11:58 am (leave your thoughts)

Life sciences start-up

Setting yourself up for success

By Marcus Manocha PhD, MBA
Business Development Associate

I recently read that the Toronto-Waterloo corridor ranks as the top Canadian start-up ecosystem. The report, produced by Startup Genome, noted that one of the strongest subsectors in this robust environment is life sciences.

This finding comes as no surprise to me. I’ve had the fortune of working in and with biotechnology start-ups as a scientist both at the bench and in the field. This has given me a front-row seat to some of the exciting and innovative work being undertaken by scientist-entrepreneurs across North America.

In my current role with the Centre for Commercialization of Antibodies and Biologics (CCAB) in business development, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with a number of scientists who are exploring the creation of a new company around a scientific innovation or are in the early stages of having done just that. Here are some of the key points I think scientists should consider when venturing into the start-up space:

Solving real-world problems

Ask yourself: what is the real-world problem you’re trying to solve? The science behind the new therapeutic or new technology should be led by an issue that exists in the world and not the other way around. Consequently, it is important to understand the ecosystem in which you’ll be operating. Is there a market for your technology and how crowded is the space? You need to evaluate if you will be relevant and competitive.

Take Empirica Therapeutics as an example. Earlier this year, Empirica was launched as partnership between CCAB and collaborators at McMaster University and the University of Toronto. The company will lead the clinical development of novel therapeutics for glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer that, even with the best current standard of care, has median survivorship of only 14 months. In this instance, there is a clear and urgent need which is being addressed.

Scale yourself

As a scientist-entrepreneur, science will be your main strength. You know the right questions to ask and can logically find your way over scientific hurdles.

However, it’s likely that you lack some of the skills that you need to run a successful business. Do you know how to work with investors, or clearly communicate your idea to a business audience, or hire the right people? It’s crucial to develop and refine these and other non-scientific skills.

There are a number of resources available through private and public organizations which focus on supporting start-ups. You can also learn from other founders by talking to them about your challenges. And, of course, there are a wealth of online articles and books that provide key insights.

Business, like science, is basically another language to learn with rules and vernacular that is specific to the discipline. Personally, I know my best learning takes place in a structured setting which is why, after many years as a bench scientist, I returned to school and completed an MBA. Others may not require that sort of environment for growth or expansion of their skill set. Either way, the ability to speak eloquently about both the science and the business is imperative for the success of a life sciences organization.

Continue to improve

The unpredictable nature of the biotech business means that a company cannot rest on its laurels. It must continue to improve.

  • Take risks – It’s important to take calculated risks to improve growth or provide a competitive edge.
  • Assess the market – Ensure that you are always responding to a need in the market. Follow the problem, not your technology.
  • Speak to investors – Sometimes you will hear yes and more often that you would like, you’ll be told no, but it’s important to go through the process regardless of the answer. If the answer is no, take the time to reflect on why the investor said no and, if needed, adjust your strategy. And then keep going.
  • Learn from mistakes – The reality is that there will be lots of opportunities and not all will go as hoped, but you can learn from all of them. You will be turned down by investors (see above), your product or technology may not perform as expected, you might scale too early. Making mistakes is an essential part of the start-up life.

The start-up cycle

A deep understanding of the needs of clients is at the heart any organization, including a biotechnology company. The continual cycle of creation, testing and learning from your clients is a process described by Eric Ries in the book “Lean Startup” a must read for any entrepreneur.  As a biotechnology start-up, it is all about building a solution to a problem that people actually need solved.


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