Author: Sandra Ionescu Edited by: Inês Barreiros
Should I or should I not? This question was the title on the 1st slide presented in the third session of the SIU360 education programme in Oxford, given by Steven Zimmer. The talk touched on the range of career options a PhD student has and explored the different areas of risks associated with translating science in the lab into a new start-up. A successful transition includes: setting appropriate targets, developing the idea, identifying your market, and having a plan if the company fails. Steven, who was trained as a biochemist and molecular biologist and had a long run as an analyst, investment banker, and a portfolio manager, has founded five successful start-ups in his time as a venture capitalist. His current start-up company, MitoDys Therapeutics, focuses on designing a drug-discovery platform, specifically targeted at novel approaches to treat neurodegenerative diseases.
Steven Zimmer shared his views on the choices that young scientists face at the beginning of their careers: should scientists with a research idea stay in academia and minimise their involvement in the running of a start-up or take on the start-up as a full-time occupation? As the second session in the SIU360 education programme touched on, it is not advisable to straddle the academia-industry divide. While statistics on the success rates of start-ups are superficially quite alarming, we must ask ourselves whether taking on a postdoctoral position is actually less risky. Steven reminded us that although the percentage of successful start-ups is very low, the proportion of PhD students that end up in a permanent academic position is in the same ballpark. He mentioned that for some, a postdoctoral research position will represent a dead end. A few obvious challenges today's PhD students, looking to remain in academia face, are: funding scarcity, a shift away from basic research to translational research, and the uncertainty brought on by Brexit and the US election. Steven admits that academia is soul-satisfying, but notes that securing grant funding can be brutal and he suggests partnerships between research labs and companies as a possible way to remain in academia but have a foot in industry to allow both basic and translational research.
Apart from staying in academia, there are options with a potentially higher success rate in the corporate world, which include working for pharmaceutical or biotech companies. Still, Steven mentioned that roughly 50% of the pharmaceutical industry budget is now spent on external research in biotech companies or universities, and pharma companies do not hire as many scientists for the sole purpose of research in their company as they used to. New compounds and concepts emerge infrequently from pharma companies due to what Steven calls a 'bad research model' which often focuses on a very particular target and, because of the narrow scope, misses the big picture. Steven hailed biotech companies as a good place to start and gain experience.
Another popular option that most PhD students have probably considered at one point or another is consulting. Consulting is a good path to pick up communication, analytical, and marketing skills, and insider industry knowledge. Steven says that it is a great training ground for people that want to get out of academia. Additionally, a consulting background is a popular way to transition into ventures, which are fast-paced and equipped with high risk but offer high reward.
Steven spent a good part of the presentation discussing the process, risks and rewards of creating a start-up. He advised PhD students to really question whether they are fit for the role before venturing into the world of ventures and noted patience as the number one deciding factor. He used Adaptimmune, which took over 20 years to develop from a fledgling start-up into the successful company it is today, as an example of how important patience is. If you think you have the stamina, then the next thing you need is a good idea. It is important to note that good science does not equate to translatable science that will perform well in the market, which is exactly what a successful start-up requires. The speaker also stressed that a fruitful venture will require not only the right idea but, even more importantly, the right team. Venture capitalists do not just invest in ideas, they invest in people. Further, Steven's right idea of motivation for a venture is to meet an unmet medical need versus, for example, making a ton of money. Lastly, students looking to form a start-up must ask themselves if they can deal with failure. Although a company may show a proof of concept, embed the concept in pre-clinical work and acquire adequate funding, the vast majority of failure will come when translating the science into humans.
In sum, Steven provided us with a simple yet effective list of questions one should ask themselves before deciding to establish a start-up:
Ideas to the endgame (order of thought):
-Is there a need?
-Will the product be used? Can it be prescribed by a doctor or marketed by a company to a hospital or doctor?
-What are the regulatory barriers?
-How will you test the idea? Testing in some areas can be very expensive, e.g. Alzheimer’s disease studies require a significant number of patients in clinical trials. And VCs want a reasonable way to test the efficacy of your product in a clinical trial.
-Think about IP. For example, University of Oxford has a strict IP policy where the university owns 50% of anything you generate under the university's umbrella.
-De-risking: How can you make the idea less risky than it already is? Most risks cannot be predicted!
Steven noted the three Ps he finds necessary for being successful in a venture: passion, perseverance, and patience. Above all, to be successful in the long-term you must be honest: honest with yourself, honest with management, and honest with stockholders. Even if a lie works in the short term, the truth will come out eventually. He cited Theranos as an example - a company that built a seemingly-successful finger prick blood testing device based on a science that turned out to be ineffective.
To get your foot into the venture world, Steven says the most important thing is to network! Create a LinkedIn profile, attend investor conferences (such as Genesis, Biotech & Money, BioTrinity), become involved in biotech networks (Oxford Business Network, One Nucleus), and participate in accelerator competitions (BioStars). Finally, do not forget your passions but keep in mind what the industry requires. As Steven Zimmer said at the end of his talk, "what you do is a combination of what you are passionate about and what companies value”.