Tag Archives: scientific paradigm

What Is the Biggest Mistake Bioscience Entrepreneurs Make?

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By Melinda Thomas, EIR for NYC.

This is a new title for a blog I wrote and published about a year ago.  In that year, I have met with scientists who are enamored of their technologies but haven’t done the work to figure out what big problem it solves. That’s a huge mistake. Or they think it can solve everything.  Also a huge mistake. Investors invest in solutions, not science.  NIH hopefully invests in science.  But that’s another blog.  So, for a refresher or for those of you new to the EIR for NYC blog here you go…

Fill in the Blanks

As an entrepreneur with an idea, you need to be able to fill in the following blanks: “My ____________does_____________for____________.  For example, “My diagnostic directs physicians to the appropriate therapy for colon cancer patients.” One of the remarks I hear again and again from funding sources is that innovators are so entranced with their technologies that they fail to make clear its value proposition, or to use a digital media term, its “killer app.” Who is going to use it and how?  I met with an entrepreneur the other day where after 35 minutes of listening to her talk about the technology, I finally said, “Could you spend just one minute talking about the benefits of this without mentioning anything about the technology?”  She found this to be a dumbfounding request.  So before you spend hours trying to rework your scientific PowerPoint into a business plan, work on that one simple sentence.  One of the great things about starting a bioscience company in NYC is the number of medical research and clinical organizations here.  So, if you have a nifty new technology, get up out of your chair and away from your lab bench and start asking potential users if your innovation would be of use to them and how. If you don’t think you know anyone to ask, come to one of the events put on by NYC Tech Connect. The point of these events is to help build the community of bioscience innovators and entrepreneurs in New York City so you can be a resource to each other.  I’m at most of the events if you want to try out your “filled in” sentence on me. My service is to provide guidance to entrepreneurially minded bioscientists so that they can start companies in New York City.

Oct 3, 2012

The Best Science is Happening in Small Companies

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By Melinda Thomas, Entrepreneur-in-Residence for NYC.

It’s an exciting time because “Some of the biggest scientific questions are still left to answer…arguably some of them only in industry.” So said Kambiz Shekdar, PhD (CEO of Westside Fragrances, a spinout of Chromocell) at last night’s Riverside Chats. He and Allen Fienberg, PhD (VP of Business Development for Intra-Cellular Therapies) spoke about their paths from academia to startups. Allen had one theory that Big Pharma has been closing divisions, like neuroscience in his case, leaving the small companies to do the innovative work. Kambiz says that one of the ways to make sure your science is of the highest caliber is to hire other great scientists. The CEO of Chromocell, Christian Kopfli, says “We must not be infected by mediocrity.” Kambiz found that mediocre scientists were intimidated by smarter minds than their own, so instead of hiring really great talent, they hired people who made them feel smarter. In my blog Hiring Great People, I state the same finding and give suggestions how to avoid the problem. Kambiz felt that now was the best time to be starting a company in NYC as there are a lot more resources available than when he started ten years ago and “it is really exciting.”

If you’re interested in hearing more about what Allen and Kambiz had to say, you can find the video here.

Apr 11, 2012

How to Be Successful as a Scientist Working in a Startup

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By Melinda Thomas, EIR for NYC.

I could have titled this blog The Five Hardest Things About Working with a Scientist in a Business Environment, but  I chose the more positive approach of speaking to how a scientist can avoid the common mistakes of someone coming right out of academia into a startup. The scientific paradigm and the business paradigm are fundamentally different, so unless you understand the differences, there will be unneeded tensions. Let me remind you that this is also the view from an inherently biased business person’s perspective. That said, I have recently presented this information at a number of forums full of post docs, and there was a lot of nervous laughter suggesting that my observations hit home for quite a few of them.

To be clear, the number one thing you need to do to succeed as a scientist in a company is good science. That is not all you have to do though. In a startup you are also a big part of the company as a whole, since there are so few of you. This is exciting because you get to be part of that bigger whole and play a bigger role, but it does mean that you will need to stretch yourself to accommodate this new blended science business paradigm.

One of the differences between the paradigms is that in science you question everything. You do not take anything for granted. This makes sense because what scientific research aims to do is discover something new and, frequently, only through questioning assumptions can this be done. How this conflicts with the business paradigm is that in business you need to pick those areas in which you have a core competence and then not reinvent the wheel in other areas. For example, I have worked with a scientific founder who wanted to have a 2 hour meeting on how we did payroll. I had to assure him that payroll was handled in a very standard way and that it was not an area in which we could create value for the company or the customer.

A tried and true business paradigm is to celebrate your successes. This was the area I found most disconcerting when working with scientists. They do not like to celebrate. Or even use enthusiastic adjectives. When we had completed a major milestone in a very aggressive time frame with better than expected results, I thought it was time for a party. These guys could only see what they did not accomplish; they used terms like “pretty good” to describe the fantastic results. It is great to focus on problems so that they can get solved, but you also need to balance your view of a situation and give credit where it is due.

Scientists love to discover new things. They wilt at the thought of doing something twice the same way. They are easily bored and always want to be chasing a new idea. In a small company with limited resources, sometimes the scientific people have to be your process development and production people, too. Also, if your senior management team is composed of many scientists, especially those fresh from academia, it could lead to a lack of focus in terms of which markets and applications are best suited to the technology. The scientists will be entranced with all the many different ways that the technology can be used in a customer’s hands and may want to chase after them all. What is required in a start up is to focus so that efficient use is made of the limited resources.

The corollary here is that scientists sometimes get caught up with trying to answer an interesting scientific question without putting their resource-use decision through the rigor of “will the answer be something that will add value for our customers?” This is not Science Camp. At the end of the day, you are trying to develop something that someone will buy.

The last and hardest thing to deal with while working with scientists is that they evaluate everyone according to their scientific abilities. They believe that the science is the hardest part of the process and that everything else is so much easier. This even manifests itself frequently with scientific founders thinking they can do all the jobs better than people who have trained in those disciplines. For example, they think they know much better than the marketing person how to market the technology. Or that because the manufacturing person is not as good a scientist -and they measure this by creative capacity- then that person should not be paid as much. They do not understand that you do not want your manufacturing person to be inventing on the production line. That discipline is all about consistency. I frequently asked the questions, “How many companies do you know that did not succeed because their technology wasn’t good enough? And how many do you know that failed because their execution was flawed?” The answers to those questions is clearly more of the latter, suggesting that actually running a business may not be trivial in comparison to scientific discovery. Therefore, all company functions should be valued.

At the end of the day, there needs to be a balance between the paradigms. If you can achieve this, then you will be successful and have fun in a start up. Both paradigms are effective in different ways. Being a scientist at the beginning of something is so energizing. Figuring out new ways of answering old questions is intellectually stimulating. The breadth of what you get to work on in a startup is wonderful. And the people who are drawn to startups are usually adventurous. I cannot recommend it more highly. Or as my scientist friends would say, “It’s pretty good.”

Mar 28, 2012


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