Negotiating the path from scientist to budding entrepreneur: Tips on how to be selected for a place on the 2018 RebelBio programme.
We are now deep into the 2017 programme, as outlined here previously, and yet my mind is already starting to think about next year. I’m not the only one: expressions of interest are steadily coming in, with most asking the following question: ‘What can I do now to improve my chances of being selected?’ This is, in itself, a good start, as it shows an openness to constructive criticism and a willingness to try and provide us with what we are looking for.
It is easier to get into an Ivy League college than to get into the SOSV programmes. After last year’s extreme-vetting process (I’m not letting Trump take ownership of that phrase), I found that some unsuccessful candidates were disappointed with what they perceived as our lack of love for their dream. On the other hand, some successful candidates seemed surprised to be accepted and were even apologetic at the time of application for ‘bothering’ us.
So, this is for every scientist out there irrespective of your qualifications, whether you are undertaking a PhD, caught up in the postdoc cycle or have your own research group. The big question is do you want to make an impact with your work? Perhaps you have come to the realisation that you have something tangible to contribute to the world. This is a feeling that becomes stronger every year among many scientists as they learn that science is becoming democratised in terms of costs. All the while the numbers of research papers produced each year has surged well past a million and continues to rise. This is a (very) rough guide to what you can bring to us.
But first, a reminder of what an early-stage investor like us can actually do for you and your dreams. This is also what other programmes should do, but usually don’t. SOSV is about spotting the germ of a product – and facilitating the development of both the idea and the fledgling entrepreneur-scientists behind it.
Put simply, we give them a starting platform to accelerate (the clue is in the name) their business.
From speaking to past cohorts, many felt that their environments had worked against them prior to their involvement with the programme. Many reported feeling geographically isolated, far away from the necessary financial and business infrastructure they needed to get ‘plugged in’. The help offered by universities often extended only as far as trying to claim company equity.
SOSV alumni have reported their delight in avoiding the mistakes that so many start-ups seem to wander into, as par for the course. Mostly, they just wanted to make themselves more investible to other VCs/angels, or they wanted the confidence to start dealing with revenues and customers. So, with that in mind, before we help the start-up, here are our considerations.
This isn’t as obvious as you might first imagine. In reviewing our recent entries, I was rather surprised at the number of teams who present a product that actually isn’t. Yet this was more than balanced out by applicants who didn’t realise they had a product already. From my own experience, a ‘product’ comes in a range of forms.
A product for those of us often buried in the world of science is something that comes in a shiny box with a logo, a barcode, and a two-year warranty. It may have arrived at our door without the shiny box, but OACP had a wonderful product fully validated by hospitals in Bologna and surrounding areas, where it was in clinical use and had traction. Similarly, Galactica Biotech had years of development behind their machine learning algorithms and were starting the process of drug repurposing as one looked on. As a result, that was easy to ‘sell’ to us. However, on the flip side there are too many companies have spent too much time and money on the bells and whistles, only to find out there are no customers.
We also accept that many products are not fully complete and yet are fully functional. We are in a good position to recognise when a few a kinks need ironing out and we are generally right as Emilia from Kaitek labs was able to testify to in a recent blog post. These are often easier to manipulate when it comes to further development. This is a point where strong customer feedback is really welcome and should be sought.
This is where we have a prototype that is not fully functional and still requires a little work. It might require tweaking to get a larger yield of a potent compound or a more sensitive detection system for a diagnostic device, for example. This is often where we at RebelBio, in association with our friends at University College Cork and the Tyndall National Institute, will determine whether we provide the means to finish the prototype within weeks.
We love basic research science and blue-sky thinking. However, we don’t fund it. If your product requires a process that is highly likely to fail – for example, expressing a membrane protein on the cell surface – then you are still at the pre-commercialisation stage. That said, if the science is proven, your idea has incredible potential and it’s merely a matter of engineering and assembly, we would consider it.
However, expect a long interview process. If given the chance, its really a chance for a company to show off just how technically proficient it can be. Hemoalgae, a company dedicated to producing better drugs from algae, had not produced any of its flagship product, Hirudin, when it applied to RebelBio. Yet within a few weeks, and before CEO Myrka Rojas Zeledón had even touched down in Cork to embark on the programme, it had created the algae strain. This dispelled any lingering doubts as to how serious and capable were these people.
Novel therapeutic product
A therapeutic product is a long way from the end user. Given there are stages in a therapeutic’s journey, we assess where the product is on this journey. With Khonsu, we loved the wonderful concept of pregnancy proteins and its novelty, and we had seen the laboratory results. Moreover, we know the market well (more on this in an upcoming blog post).
As a first step I tend to ask people to replace the see if the they can comfortably drop the word ‘project’ and even ‘science’ in favour of ‘product’ or ‘perhaps service’. It might feel a bit strange to those of us working in research institutions and yet it should fit well.
If you are in doubt, we are available to discuss what stage your product has reached – and what more might be needed to make it ready for acceleration. Obviously, discretion is part of that.