SIUOxford: Pitch your Innovation

Author: Emil Fristed Edited by: Ruth Sang Jones

Does your research or work have commercial value?

The University of Oxford is renowned for its world-leading position in science. Yet, this does not automatically qualify it as a leader in bringing the value of those cutting edge scientific discoveries to the public. As part of its effort to promote translation in science at the pre-venture stage, the Science Innovation Union hosted Pitch for Your Innovation on Tue 19th of March. The event aimed to answer two main questions:

1) How do you identify the market value of a scientific discovery - and what do you do once you’ve identified it?

2) How do you communicate the potential value (that might only be realised many years from now) in an effective way to attract talented people to your mission and raise funding for your new exciting journey?

Zachary Yerushalmi. What makes a scientific invention commercially valuable

Zachary Yerushalmi is a Principal at Oxford Sciences Innovation (OSI), and has worked with companies such as Ultromics, Arago, Genomics PLC, and Circadian Therapeutics. OSI is a preferred commercial partner of University of Oxford, helping spin out deep tech companies based on the scientific discoveries happening in the university. Even though Oxford has been voted best university in the world, it is not (yet) the best place to start a company. What’s been lacking is in part a translatable, reproducible journey - a “blueprint” or pipeline if you will - to facilitate the translation from early scientific discovery to commercializable product. That gap is one of the things OSI hopes to help fill.

Zachary began his talk by dissecting the following question with the audience: “Why is Oxford Nanopore Technologies valuable?” For those who don’t know ONT, it is an Oxford-based next-generation sequencing company. The company is best known for successfully commercialising a novel sequencing technology that has allowed the company to build sequencers the size of a chocolate bar (as opposed to a microwave or an oven). But why is that valuable? Multiple good points were raised from the audience, including that the smaller footprint allows for innovative new applications. But in the end Zach stated that in essence, we actually don’t quite know why it’s valuable. Or at least why it’s so valuable (ONT is currently valued at more than £1.5 billion). He talked about different levels of difficulty or transparency in identifying the commercial value of scientific discoveries. For some, the opportunity and market will be obvious, but others might require more thought; as an example OSI invested in a company that is based on a new technology for writing inside crystals. The scientific breakthrough was clear, but where were the commercial opportunities? One market that was eventually identified- helping jewellers and their customers track their diamonds by writing a unique signature, like a bar-code, inside each diamond. Here was the first market they could try to tap into, which has a defined market and defined customers that will actually pay for the product. Then finally, there’s the really opaque discoveries, like Oxford Nanopore. The commercial allure of these, Zach argued, are often captured in “the dream”. A potential so big that it can’t be missed, even though we don’t quite know what it is yet. What if the mini-sequencer from ONT was the next cell phone? The people who invented the mobile phone sure didn’t dream of the applications that would eventually arise as a result. And the case might be similar with ONT.

 Irene Bejenke Walsh. Bringing yourself into the pitch

Irene Bejenke Walsh is the Founder and Managing Director of MessageLab, a corporate training and coaching consultancy, specialising in presentation and media training. She has worked with more than 500 start-ups in her 18 years as a Venture Coach. Finally, she’s a lecturer at Imperial Business School in London. Irene talked about how to better communicate the commercial value of your scientific discovery, to attract talented employees, customers, and funding. And in her version it had a lot to do with bringing in your personality, focussing on emotions, and building trust and rapport. She first outlined the essential elements of the so-called “elevator pitch” - a one minute sales pitch of yourself or your company. These were:

-     Tell them who you are.

-     Why people need your product or service (or you).

-     What is your “business”?

-     Achievements to date (e.g. are you pre- or post-revenue? Proof of concept? Company growth? And so on. Your audience needs to know where you’re at).

-     The “ask” - tell them what you want (this is often the first thing you should think about and then structure the pitch around it).

She then gave a live demonstration of her coaching. James Ross, a volunteer from the Department of Biochemistry came to pitch a start-up idea he has been contemplating for a long time, where he thinks he’s identified a good commercial opportunity. Following his three minute elevator pitch, first the audience, and then Irene, proceeded to provide feedback on the pitch.

Irene’s ‘coaching’ focussed mostly on increasing the human elements of the pitch; a great pitch is not just about the solid technical background or a sound business plan (though these are both important elements). She recommended starting out with a personal story, or the story of a specific individual who’s suffered from the broader problem that you eventually address. For James, his prospective company is centered on a new cell-staining method, with potential applications in diagnostics. Their first target market is in diagnosing melanoma. In this case she advises to first give an example of an actual inflicted patient, link it to the broader problem, the potential market, and then talk about how your technology can solve it. Another point she stressed was about building rapport and trust. Can you build real trust in a 3 minute pitch? A 15 minute one? One thing is certain - you can destroy trust in much less than 3 minutes. The real mission of a pitch, Irene said, is to build rapport and trust with your audience. Investors are not going to fund people the don’t like, who seem arrogant or untrustworthy. Some of the key ingredients in building rapport were illustrated by the example of a teenage girl promising her father to be home from a party by 10 PM:

-     Sincerity: Do you mean what you say? Will you actually be home by 10?

-     Competence: Can you do what you say? Can you actually (practically) get home by 10?

-     Reliability: Have you done what you said in the past? Have she been back on time before?

Finally she advised the audience to get their own personal pitch story together:

-     What’s your relevant expertise/career?

-     What is your role in the proposed business?

-     What do you bring to this enterprise?

-     How committed are you?

-     What has prompted you to start this business?

 After Irene’s talk the audience engaged in discussion with the two speakers. The event ended with networking over drinks and nibbles, followed by a private dinner with the speakers.