Man is the only animal that trips twice over the same stone. Nine experts from the BioRegion of Catalonia reveal some of the stones they’ve come across in their path and some tips so others don’t trip over them again.
Man is the only animal that trips twice over the same stone. Biocat held a new edition of the introduction to bio-entrepreneurialism course “Claus per Bioemprendre”, in which experts from the BioRegion of Catalonia revealed some of the stones they’ve come across in their path and some tips so others don’t trip over them again. Lluis Ruiz-Ávila, CEO of Spherium Biomed; Laura Soucek, Founder and CEO of Peptomyc; Marc Ramis, Founder and CEO of Senolytic Therapeutics; Lluís Pareras, Director of HealthEquity SCR; Christian Brander, Co-founder and Scientific Director of Aelix Therapeutics; Judit Anido, Co-founder and General Manager of Mosaic Biomedicals; Montserrat Vendrell, Partner of Alta Life Sciences; Ignasi Costas, Partner of RCD-Rousaud Costas Duran, and Marc Martinell, Founder and CEO of Minoryx Therapeutics, shared some of the lessons they’ve learned along the way.
Laura Soucek, founder and CEO of Peptomyc, has been working on an inhibitor of the Myc oncoprotein, involved in most types of cancer, for more than 20 years. “They told me it was impossible to inhibit this protein without damaging normal cells. This was dogma in biology and no one had ever tried it because they were scared of the side effects it would have.”
Soucek did it: in vitro, the idea worked. She traded Rome for San Francisco and tested it in mice. “They were cured without any side effects, but people told me it wouldn’t work,” she remembers. She moved to Barcelona and got the same efficacy results in tests on human tumors implanted in mice. “I was obsessed with getting it to patients! But everyone said my molecule was too big to get into human cells. They were wrong again.” She patented the capacity of her peptides to reach the cell nucleus, set up Peptomyc in 2014 and the company is now working on preclinical safety and toxicity testing in several animal species.
“Dream big: The difference between a project that goes the distance and one that gets lost along the way is perseverance,” summed up Judit Anido, co-founder and general manager of Mosaic Biomedicals. In her case, the dream is to transfer to patients the discoveries made over years of research in oncology with Joan Seoane. “I wanted our science to become real science. Two small biotechnology firms offered to license our research and I thought: Why don’t we just do it ourselves?”
While at university, Marc Ramis, co-founder and CEO of Senolytic Therapeutics, decided he preferred the world of business. He joined Novartis, and then decided he preferred academia. While he was working on his thesis at Oxford, he saw the head of the laboratory start up a company. “I didn’t even know that was an option!” he recalls. So he started his career as a serial entrepreneur.
Christian Brander has chosen to balance a career in academia and in business: he is scientific director of the IrsiCaixa HIVACAT program and co-founder and scientific director of Aelix Therapeutics. “Working in two worlds can lead to great synergies, but also huge headaches!” he warns. “Your research colleagues consider you a businessman and the investors pressure you to focus on the business. You have to be changing hats constantly.”
“When we’re young, many of us scientists can be a bit overconfident,” recognizes Lluis Ruiz-Ávila, CEO of Spherium Biomed. “When I explained my thesis to my grandma, who was 70 at the time, her response was: ‘Sounds interesting, sweetheart… but what do you do?’”
Because explaining research to society so they see science as a productive activity is one of the challenges that faces any researcher. “You have to understand where we start from. It doesn’t matter how many publications in prestigious journals back your research. That doesn’t account for even 1% of your discovery’s chances of success,” he warns. “When a venture capital firm asks why they should invest in your company, many researchers say because they’ve been published in Nature. And what the investor wants to know is whether you’ve tested the drug’s stability, toxicity, etc.” Plus, investors need a project pitch that is easy to understand: the Target Product Profile. “We shouldn’t be selling them on results. We have to sell them on a story based on the results,” says Ruiz.
Listening to feedback from others is just as important as knowing how to explain your project. “We are often so focused on the project that we can’t see what’s going on around us,” warns Judit Anido. “Never stop listening.” This tip is something Marc Martinell, founder and CEO of Minoryx Therapeutics, has taken to heart. Over three months, he met with 70 people to explain his first business plan, written in a notebook. “I wanted to know what they thought. That allowed me to come up with an in-depth business plan.”
“Entrepreneurs are obsessed with money. But, in truth, I’m worried about time,” warns Marc Ramis, co-founder and CEO of Senolytic Therapeutics, who splits his time between Barcelona and Boston. “Bureaucracy is our biggest obstacle,” laments this serial entrepreneur, who founded his latest company online from the airport in Barcelona and had it established by the time he landed in Boston.
Laura Soucek, founder and CEO of Peptomyc, was also worried about time when she was warned that she couldn’t publish any results while applying for patents on her peptides. “The lesson I learned, and which I recommend to other entrepreneurs, is to do the patentability study very quickly so the publishing isn’t held up if you don’t get the patent later,” she recommends. “Plus, the study helps you predict the criticism you’ll get and prepare studies to address it.”
“It’s very important to be aware of what you can’t do and to compensate for these shortcomings with a good team,” highlights Judit Anido, co-founder and general manager of Mosaic Biomedicals, who complemented her scientific training with an MBA. So did Laura Soucek, founder and CEO of Peptomyc. “Some calls for public funding required the company to have a CEO. I didn’t want to do it,” she confesses. “I didn’t have the training, and I wanted to hire someone. But we couldn’t get the money without having one. It was really frustrating!” The solution was for consultant Josep Lluís Falcó to join the company as interim CEO, while Laura did an MBA so she could take over the position.
“The most important failure factor in start-ups is partner relations,” warns Ignasi Costas, partner at RCD-Rousaud Costas Duran. “You have to be clear on the objectives of each one. I’ve seen start-ups fail because one partner wanted to sell the company and the other didn’t. While companies like Oryzon have been able to pivot from their original plan because they had that internal cohesion.” Partner agreements, says Costas, are important for setting the ground rules.
One tip that we heard from all the entrepreneurs: “Find investors that can contribute not only money but also guidance. Because they’ll become part of the team and may sometimes take the reins of the project,” highlights Laura Soucek, who has raised more than €5 million in private capital for Peptomyc.
To find this guidance, Marc Ramis recommends turning to “specialized funds and, especially, the corporate funds of large pharmaceutical corporations. No one can give you better guidance on your project than they can.”
“Investment analysts are trained to say ‘no’ to most of the projects that come across our desks,” says Lluís Pareras, director of HealthEquity SCR, categorically. The secret to getting through their screening process? According to Pareras, the ideal profile of a company that stands a chance of getting funding involves “providing a solution to a real, important problem (big problem, big money) with sold proof of concept that is as objective as possible, that can prove its efficacy for the indications targeted and accepts guidance from investors and regulatory experts in choosing other indicators or expanding the line, and that has a good CEO or CSO with a good network of contacts.”
In the words of Marc Martinell, founder and CEO of Minoryx Therapeutics, “All the stars have to align for you to please investors: they have to like you and your technology, and they can’t have had a bad experience with a similar project before.” With that: persistence. “Often, the same investor will say no today but want in on your round of funding next year!” Martinell says as consolation.
Warning to entrepreneurs: “You have to be able to explain your message to investors in 5 minutes,” says Montserrat Vendrell, partner at Alta Life Sciences. Vendrell recommends structuring your pitch in 10 key slides: introduction, problem/opportunity, solution (why you’re better), market, market strategy, business model, competence, team, financial projections and funding needs. During the pitch, two things can happen. “There’s a wow slide that makes them decide to invest,” says Lluís Pareras, director of HealthEquity SCR. “But there can also be killer slides, and we try to identify them to get rid of them as quickly as possible.”
More secrets? “When we’re assessing an investment, at the end of the meeting I like to ask the CEO what concerns them about the project,” reveals Lluís Pareras. There are two types of responses: those who think they have it all under control, and those who pull a list of things they’re worried about out of their back pocket. A good CEO is bit paranoid.” Guy Nohra, founding partner of Alta Life Sciences, also has his killer questions. “He looks a lot at the person and likes to ask questions to unsettle them. I’ve seen entrepreneurs get really nervous when asked why they decided to start up a business,” reveals his partner Montserrat Vendrell.
Entrepreneurs aren’t the only ones who want the project to move forward. “There are patients waiting for your project to work. What may be a financial adventure for you, is a matter of life and death for others,” reminds Lluís Ruiz of Spherium Biomed.
That’s why relations with patients’ associations are key, especially when working on minority diseases. “Patients help you understand the disease and what is important to them, which isn’t always the same as what’s important to the regulatory body, so you can take it into account in the clinical studies,” highlights Marc Martinell, of Minoryx. Credibility, however, is a must. “You can’t make them false promises,” says Martinell.
Entrepreneuring is never a straight path. Even the amazing story of Minoryx, which already has a molecule in phase III, has had its ups and downs. “It hasn’t been a bed of roses. We’ve had many scares along the way!” says founder and CEO, Marc Martinell.
His advice: “Keep a Zen mindset: Don’t pop open the champagne too soon when you get good news; and don’t make too much of the bad news.”