Are their any limits to the scope for Accelerators?
Hallowed publication ‘Nature’ reports on a nine-week ‘Biotech Boot Camp’ in the US, funded by the National Institutes of Health, which aims to get entrepreneurial scientists to get out there and ask potential customers what they want. Its author used to think that his method was applicable in all industries except one – Bioscience! Should the Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst and even the Wellcome Foundation be funding their own Boot Camps?
Next week: I enumerate persuasive examples of intensive support for early-stage ventures; and suggest that a lot can be learned from one another on key aspects like the recruitment and the management of supporters.
Steve Blanks’s I-Corps (Innovation Corps) runs a Boot Camp – a nine-week course designed to teach business skills to entrepreneurial scientists in technology-based startups – that has now been rolled out for biomedical firms as part of an experiment by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Its ruthless pitching tests have encouraged some of the participating companies to change course drastically and others to abandon promising science for something more market-savvy. “You can be a great researcher and you can think you have great ideas”, said one Congressman, “but until you’re forced to talk to a potential customer, you never really know.”
Nineteen teams formed last December’s first cohort. ‘Each morning was spent presenting, and then re-presenting the ten-minute team pitches. Each afternoon, the teams raced to interview experts in their fields, then reported back for more workshops. Nights were filled with class readings, homework and preparations for the next day’s presentations and interviews.’
The interviews are central to the process. Teams needed to talk to scientists, pharma company reps, regulators, doctors, billing specialists and more – essentially any person with expertise in what it takes for companies to get their products to patients and get paid. A time-consuming process, and Blank insists that the interviews be conducted face-to-face, to build rapport and allow interviewers to better gauge their subject’s emotions. If an expert cannot be met in person, the team must hold a video-conference. “For commercialisation, being able to explain it to your mother is what matters”, said Blank.
Steve Blank is a college drop-out who wandered into Silicon Valley in 1978 and has launched eight technology companies there – not all of them successful. From his introspections, he crafted a curriculum for tech entrepreneurs, to teach them to think beyond their own technology and to dive early and deep into the details of commercialisation: who the customers are, what they need and how much they are willing to pay. The technique is said to have swept through the tech industry, though it needs to be guided in order to obviate its tendency towards focusing on incremental rather than revolutionary improvements.
The US Small Business Research Programme had been concerned that top earners of grants were rarely focused on commercialisation, sometimes being used not to further a business, but to continue research. The National Science Foundation was the first to offer the programme to scientists on the threshold of launching a company, and since 2011 about 500 teams have taken the course. Then the NIH followed, first with the National Cancer Institute (NCI).
At first, Blank believed that his method was applicable to all industries except one – life sciences – where the gestation period was too long. But life science companies have cut back on in-house research in favour of early partnerships with smaller firms, effectively turning big pharma [and in the UK the Wellcome Foundation too] into early customers. So startups must deal with the difficulties created by heavier regulation, the importance of intellectual property, and the challenge of payment services.
In order to assess whether to get more companies involved, NIH is tracking the teams’ success over the next five years, monitoring how many partnerships with major pharmaceutical or medical-device firms the companies form, and whether they receive funds from other investors. The NCI is expected to decide within the next two months whether to continue its programme. In the meantime, 82% of participants said that they would recommend the programme to others.
The US Department of Energy has announced a similar project and the Department of Defence is also considering one. Several university technology-transfer offices in the US are interested in Blanks’s methods for aiding academic entrepreneurs; and Imperial College has adopted a similar programme – for startups based on synthetic biology. The Cabinet Office’s second round of funding of Accelerator programmes has been for startups in Healthcare; and its participants recently made their final presentations at an event in London.
There is no shortage of opportunities for these kinds of programmes, but there is a risk that they will not be appropriately adapted to their sector and their purpose, and that there are too few people with the necessary expertise and experience the ensure their success. They have a long way to go.
‘Biotech Boot Camp’ Nature, 26 March 2015
See also: ‘i-Teams: the teams and funds making innovation happen in government’ tells the stories of 20 such teams in various countries.
Nesta, June 2014. http://www.nesta.org.uk/project/i-teams