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What you need to know about building your biotech startup

By 13.09.2023May 29th, 2024All, Features

What you need to know about building your biotech startup 

Building a biotech doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of research, countless consultations with experts, talks to partners, pitches to investors and tremendous commitment to start a successful biotech venture. But if the science is waterproof, it’s doable.

In the 56th Labiotech podcast “Beyond biotech” episode, host Jim Cornall interviewed Stephan Emmerth and Sai Reddy. Stephan Emmerth is a Director Therapeutic Innovation and BaseLaunch and Sai Reddy is a successful biotech entrepreneur and founder of Engimmune. While Sai is a successful biotech entrepreneur, Stephan is helping to build biotech ventures with BaseLaunch. Since founding BaseLaunch, they have helped their portfolio companies to raise over 550 million in financing.

Listen to the whole episode here. It takes 36 minutes.

If you like to get straight to the point, we have collected the most interesting Q&As about building a biotech startup.

When is the best time to transition from the academic research lab and found a biotech startup? 

The perfect timing to found a biotech startup depends on the types of data that you need to generate. The research field of Sai is molecular and cellular therapeutics. In the early stages, he says you might still be able to progress with preclinical data in an academic environment. 

“In the field of therapeutics, you need to get to a stage where you do things at a much larger scale in terms of the types of studies, maybe much larger animal models, eventually human clinical studies. Then, you will need more resources in terms of people and financing. That’s typically impossible in an academic environment, at least not in Switzerland,” Sai says. 

“That’s where you know that if you continue to do the work in academia, you won’t be able to make much progress that gets you closer to human studies. You might get other interesting papers or additional technology, but it doesn’t necessarily advance the therapeutic. That’s usually the sign that there’s not much left to do in the academic environment. Your project outgrows an academic lab.” 

The signs are eventually obvious, and then you should do it.

Stephan EmmerthPhD Director Therapeutic Innovation and BaseLaunch

However, there’s no need to rush: Stephan advises biotech entrepreneurs to explore academic resources for as long as possible. “Push it as far as you can within the university settings. Think hard when it’s the right time, and then don’t contemplate for another two years if you really should do it.”  

(Listen to this part from minute 5:55 of the podcast episode.) 

How do biotech startups find the right team members? 

Building a biotech startup is no task for a solo artist – it’s teamwork. 

Stephan made the experience that biotech startups work best if founders or investors are heavily involved in the project, take ownership and want to move forward. 

Regarding team mix, he recommends finding a partner with industry experience as a chairperson or CEO concerned with the business part. Mutual sympathy is part of the equation: “It’s best if the team members click, that they work well together and complement each other,” Stephan says. 

From his founding experience, Sai learned that executives and leadership teams with experience are often difficult to secure at an early stage. “It becomes easier once you raise financing.” 

Incubators like BaseLaunch can help to bridge the gap: “One of the advantages of working with BaseLaunch is that they provide additional resources, access to experts and advisors who can help you at this early stage. They might not be part of the founding team, but they make valuable contributions. The team is almost amorphous at the very beginning. There may be people on the team who are advisors you meet twice. But their contributions may be significant nevertheless.”

(Listen to this part from minute 10:15) 

How does BaseLaunch help to build biotech startups? 

We are involved as much as needed – and that’s often a lot.

Stephan EmmerthPhD Director Therapeutic Innovation and BaseLaunch

BaseLaunch helps to form the company. “We help our ventures to set up everything correctly at the beginning and then develop the company.” BaseLaunch supports founders with licensing the IP and finds out what kind of data a startup still needs to generate. Together with the startup, they define which experiments are most important and for which the loan needs to be used. 

BaseLaunch has regular calls with the portfolio companies to discuss all related matters and empower them to develop further. One task can be finding a person who can take on the role of CEO or chairperson and then helping to bring this person into the startup. “We help the startups build a team, and when the initial steps are done, we move to a call every week. But we are there to be helpful wherever it’s needed.” While some companies need to start generating data first, others are already there with the data. “In that case, we can immediately help them to apply for loan financing from our partners or other ventures.” 

(Listen to this part from minute 15:22) 

What do biotech startups need to know when raising money? 

The more ways into venture funds you have, the better. BaseLaunch has that.

Stephan EmmerthPhD Director Therapeutic Innovation and BaseLaunch

Developing new therapeutics costs millions of dollars. Getting these funds used to be easier for biotech startups a couple of years ago. Now, the markets are a bit more complicated. Investors are looking into individual assets, the financing rounds are a bit smaller. Despite that, venture founders shouldn’t panic, Stephan advises: “There are enough venture funds out there with enough money.” 

Eventually, two factors will determine whether biotech startups find funding: “It comes down to the quality of the science and the quality of the team.” When biotech startups look for an investor, they should approach specialists in their field.  

Getting into business with a biotech venture fund brings additional advantages: Your funding partner will usually take a seat on the board. “You want to have people in these boards who understand the business, the science, the markets and the technologies well enough to make informed decisions,” says Stephan. Another advantage: biotech venture funds are very well connected and can help with the next fundraising round. “Fundraising is hard, and it goes through networks,” Stephan says.

Which role does the ecosystem play for a biotech startup? 

The life sciences and biotech ecosystem plays a significant role. Biotech ventures are risky, so convincing professionals to leave their secure jobs in larger companies and join a startup can be challenging. Limited funds (and limited salaries) are just one reason. The other is the lingering question of what happens if the startup fails. A fluid ecosystem provides opportunities for professionals. “It lowers the bar for people to take risks. If it doesn’t work, they will find their next job,” says Stephan. 

Sai adds: “Biotech is a complicated and unique business space. It will be a long road towards progress, and many intermittent people will be along the way.” While much time and attention go to founders and CEOs, all positions, whether research associates, regulatory specialists, translational experts, or scientists, are critical for success. “Having an innovation ecosystem is helpful because where there is an ecosystem, there is always another job. Basel has a very good ecosystem, but I hope it doubles or triples over the next ten years.” On top of that, the right ecosystem brings you closer to opportunities for collaboration.

(Listen to this part from minute 23:04) 

Which advice should biotech startups follow? 

Biotech startups shouldn’t be afraid to talk to people early on and ask for advice. “In biotech, the pathway to success is so long, and it takes many things to get there. Someone trying to quickly copy something you do is rare,” Sai says. 

However, Sai recommends doing your due diligence on your advisors. “You may not want to take the advice of people who succeeded because sometimes their success might have been luck or circumstance, but their success won’t necessarily translate for you.” 

On the other hand, failed entrepreneurs have learned a lot during their journey. In the US culture, they are perceived as attractive to investors and employers because they know which mistakes to avoid. 

Stephan adds that in the beginning, many people will be willing to have a coffee, talk about your project and provide guidance. “Eventually, you must set up a project plan or look into pharmacology. The important transition starts when you do the work.” 

There are lots of things you can outsource, Stephan adds. “But you cannot outsource decision-making.” Sometimes, the inputs you get will contradict each other. “You need to make up your mind and make your own decisions.” 

(Listen to this part from minute 31:46) 

At which point in time should biotech startups join an incubator? 

Biotech startups should think about joining an incubator early when it’s clear that there are still many gaps to bridge. “If you need to further develop on all aspects, from science to business to anything else, then it makes sense to apply for BaseLaunch,” says Stephan. 

If your startup is already far progressed and can convince funds to invest, your biotech startup might have outgrown the incubator phase. 

(Listen to this part from minute 29:16)

Find out how the BaseLaunch team helps you to transform science into a successful biotechnology venture.
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