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Business of science: The setbacks that can help your start-up succeed

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Adam Levy hears about the setbacks that can help your science start-up succeed.

The road to commercializing research is strewn with challenges, but how can science start-ups prepare for developments that are harder to predict, such as a global pandemic?

Daniel Batten, an investor and business coach in Auckland, New Zealand, describes strategies to prepare for unexpected events as well as more common crises, such as failed funding rounds or supplier problems.

Barbara Domayne-Hayman, entrepreneur in residence at the Francis Crick Institute in London, says the path to commercialization seldom runs smoothly, which is why it is important to have a ‘plan B’, together with a network of trusted mentors.

“Things never go exactly as you expect, even when things are going well. There’s usually some bumps along the road. Resilience is the single most important thing that you need to have,” she says.

“You have to be the one that actually continues to keep the faith. You just have to keep picking yourself up and carry on.”

This episode is part of Business of science, a six-part podcast series exploring how to commercialize your research and launch a spin-off.

The series looks at investor pitches, patents, technology transfer and how to survive the inevitable setbacks along the way.

Never miss an episode: subscribe to the Working Scientist podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-01007-w

Transcript

Adam Levy hears about the setbacks that can help your science start-up succeed.

Adam Levy 0:09

Hello, I'm Adam Levy and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast.

This six part series, Business of Science, helps you commercialize your research.

Throughout this series, we've looked at what you can do to stack the odds in your favour, whether that's refining the perfect pitch or planning how you'll scale up your business once things are going smoothly.

But the truth is that things often don't go smoothly. And with the help of personal stories from entrepreneurs and expert advice, in this episode we're looking at how to deal with setbacks when you're setting up a research-based business.

Patrick Anquetil is founder and CEO of Portal Instruments, commercializing a technology to allow needle-free injection of drugs.

He explains that there are a wide range of setbacks that you are likely to come across in the business world.

Patrick Anquetil: 1:07

I think the technical ones interestingly, I mean, they're almost expected.

I mean they're never pleasant, but they're almost expected.

I think the ones that are harder is when there's other stakeholders involved.

For example, if you cannot get the financing, or the next financing of your company, and now you have, you know, your whole team, maybe 40-50 people who depend on you, you know, who just may have no job the next day.

I think these are the hard facts of startup life. And you know, you may have many days where it's just like one thing after the other, but then you have also extremely high highs.

Adam Levy 1:46

Of course, this past year a very different kind of setback emerged, the coronavirus pandemic.

This has affected every aspect of our lives, from the professional to the personal. And keeping things as normal as possible in this time has presented its own challenges.

Patrick Anquetil 2:05

I mean there was no plan for what to do in the pandemic. And I think if I look at what we've done. It's kind of being alert and understanding, really, beyond just a business, what is happening in the world in general, level headedness, calmness in a crisis, and logic.

All of these are very important values to have that will, in the end, actually help us through those unexpected crises.

Adam Levy 2:34

And Patrick has a tip on how you can prepare for setbacks by starting to think about what kinds of risks are out there, so that when the unexpected happens, it's as expected as possible.

Patrick Anquetil 2:46

I like the idea of contingency plans on things that you've realized are weaknesses. I think that's important. I think it's not only in business, and in any part of life, that I think that that's important too.

Like if this happens, then this is the time we should do that, such that you don't waste time, you know, trying to problem solve while you're also managing the crisis as well.

Adam Levy 3:09

And Patrick isn't the only one to recommend running through these kinds of hypotheticals.

Daniel Batten is an investor with Exponential Founders Fund and coach with Beyond the Ceiling..

Daniel recommends hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.

Daniel Batten: 3:26

The best way to be successful is to look at what you can do well, and you focus on that, and you do everything in your power to reverse engineer towards the success you want to create.

But then you do the second part. And you go, "What's the worst that can happen?"

And this is super important. You don't have to do much of it. You only need to do it once or twice, but you do it and you look at "Okay, so what let's imagine a global financial crisis event. Let's imagine, you know, a pandemic or that it lasts for another three years. What would we do in that situation?"

So these really fun scenarios, they are quite doom and gloom, but the funny thing is, they don't depress you.

So the moment you actually go here, and think about what's the worst that can happen, you go "Okay, well, you know, if the worst happens, you know, it would suck, but we'd still be around.

Adam Levy 4:09

This can of course help you prepare for setbacks like supplier failures, or a sources of funding falling through.

But Daniel argues he can even help businesses prepare for the much more hard to predict possibilities, like a pandemic.

Daniel Batten: 04.25

Now, this is not just a theoretical exercise.

One person, a woman who I was talking to recently, she had a product, it relied on having large events, and suddenly they were no large events anymore.

She had anticipated this was possible. She didn't know why that would happen. But she anticipated "What if we can't do large events?" and she had another strategy.

And so she immediately pivoted to that other strategy. She kept the investor who said they weren't reinvested updating and told them what she'd done.

The investor came back and said "I like the way you've responded to this. I'm interested in reinvesting in this new business plan that you have." And actually ended up coming back.

What occurs in life is not because of a fence. It's a confluence between the event and your response to it. We do have absolute control over our responses and our responses change the outcome.

Adam Levy: 05.15

Not every setback is on the scale of a planetary pandemic. And for many businesses, the pandemic didn't drastically disrupt operations. For Wei Wu, COO of Helio Heat, commercializing a solar energy technology, having to think carefully about finances is one of the biggest departures from when she was a PhD researcher.

Wei Wu 5:36I think the most challenging part is that actually, well, worrying about the money. Yeah, you have to be much more a marketing person to do that, to convince the people to give you the money, then you have to be in the research field.

There you can show your list of publications and most of the time, it's enough right. But in the real world, it works somehow different.

Adam Levy 6:03

Perhaps money is the biggest difference between the real and the academic worlds. Of course, funding is crucial in both domains, but securing and managing it works fundamentally differently.

Chemist Javier Garcia Martinez is based at the University of Alicante, as well as Rive Technology, using nanotechnology to improve catalysts.

He explains that as a startup, looking for funding from big corporations, he's painfully familiar with financial setbacks,

Javier Garcia Martinez 6:34

I would have been set back it was many times clients were committed and willing to buy our catalyst. But the last minute they changed their mind. And those contracts were very important for the company. The main misalignment that I felt was between the urgency of a startup and the slowness of a corporation

Adam Levy 6:59

For Javier, preparing for these issues is both a practical and a personal process.

Javier Garcia Martinez 7:06

Yeah, the first thing you need is to be ready for that. Success is very rare in a startup. Most of the times they are setbacks, with clients, with customers, with actually your own employees, with investors.

So you need to be ready for that emotionally, to make sure that your team feel that you are always there as the founder, as the leader of the company, with a message of hope and ambition, that you share your vision and you are emotionally prepared for that.

And also that you have raised enough money to run your company even with two or three or four unforeseen setbacks.

Because if you are just running dry with with very little money in the bank, because you are sure that that contract is going to happen you are running a very risky business.

Adam Levy: 7:20

If you've been listening to this series so far, then you will have already heard from this episode's interviewee Barbara Domayne-Hayman.

Barbara is entrepreneur in residence at the Francis Crick Institute in London, where she helps startups find their feet. But as with many guests on this podcast, her career journey started in academia.

Barbara Domayne-Hayman: 8:18

I did my doctorate in bioorganic chemistry at Oxford. But while I was doing that, I realized that I didn't think I was going to be cut out for a career in science at the bench.

I just didn't really have the patience that's needed to be a really great research scientist.

And I discovered this world of entrepreneurship, and venture backed companies and growth. And this is what I really loved, the idea of building a business,

Adam Levy: 8:46

Barbara has a host of experience in business, which means she also has a host of experience dealing with the unexpected. So we started out by discussing when she's encountered setbacks in her work,

Barbara Domayne-Hayman 8:59

I think the answer is when have I not had to? I mean, I think the thing about every single early stage company I've been involved with is that the path is never smooth.

And things never go exactly as you expect, even when things are going well.

There's usually some bump along the road. So it's really, I mean, resilience is the single most important thing that you need to have if you want to embark down this path of actually building a business out of your science.

You have to build a team. You have to inspire your team. You have to be the one that actually continues to keep the faith and to say "Yes, this is going to turn out fine in the end," even when things are going really, really wrong.

And it's really tough going. And then I think that the most the aspect where you need resilience, the most when it comes to fundraising, because you will just get knockback after knockback when you're doing fundraising because you have to I mean, as everyone says, you have to kiss a lot of frogs, before you find your prince, and, or princess.

Yeah, you have to just expect to get rejection after rejection. And you just have to keep picking yourself up and carry on.

And even when you have a massive blow-up and something goes really badly wrong, you can only allow yourself sort of half an hour of you know, "Oh, no, this is a disaster." And then you've just got to pick yourself up and just just carry on.

Adam Levy 10:45

I wonder if you have just an anecdote, or something about a time when you personally have had to deal with something where you really didn't expect it. And it felt like it set you back a bit.

Barbara Domayne-Hayman: 10:57

I think I mean, I've done a lot of work on business development.

And sometimes they turn around when things are going really well. And you think things are going really well.

And they say "Actually, you know, our strategies changed. And actually, we're not going to go forward with this deal." And that is absolutely gut wrenching. When you've put so much time and energy into something, and you're really you kind of had all the vibes that suggested that, you know, this was going to happen, everybody was really enthusiastic about it.

And then something happens in that other organization, which is a big company, so you've really got no visibility of it. And they just turn around and they say, "I'm sorry, but our strategies changed. And we're not doing this anymore."

And that happens. I mean, that has happened to me more than once. And what I would say is, you know, don't count your chickens until you've actually got the signature on the legal agreement from the other side. It is not done.

So yeah, it's, it's devastating when it happens. But you know, you've got to have a plan B basically..

Adam Levy: 12:06 Do you have any advice on what to do? When you do get these rejections? Is there any way to turn that around?

Barbara Domayne-Hayman 12:12

Investors are interested in things that align with their interests. So you may have the most fantastic proposition, but it may just not fit with them. Or it may be too early. And they'll just say, "Well, no, come back when you've got more data."

And you just have to keep going in the face of all the rejections that you get. But if they do say, you know "Not now," then the persistent people will say, "Okay, well, what would it take, then for you to say, 'yes, now is the right time.' What data would I need to generate? To turn thatnot now, but maybe later into ? "Yes, actually, this does fit? And this is interesting."

Adam Levy 12:55 Do you have any tips for dealing with, with unexpected setbacks?

Barbara Domayne-Hayman 13:00 You can't you don't have time to wallow in it. You just have to kind of think, Okay, this has now happened. I can't change that. But what can I do differently next, as a result. What have I learned from this latest setback? And what would I do differently next time?

Adam Levy 13:21 Are there any mistakes that you see people commonly making when they are dealing with setbacks?

Barbara Domayne-Hayman 13:27 I think even when you're really feeling pretty wretched in size, and, you know, perhaps pretty angry at the way somebody behaved or let you down. I think you just have to project a positive energy. Because that's how you build the business going forward.

Adam Levy 13:46 Are there any places or, or even people that people can turn to when things do feel like that, that beyond their capacity, and something's really felt like it's derailed them,

Barbara Domayne-Hayman 14:00 I think it's always a good thing to see if you can kind of build a network of sort of trusted mentors, or at least have one or two people that are kind of more experienced than you are, that have been there and done it before.

And that you can turn to just to ask for advice.

So it's good to have a mentor who is a little bit separate, who has no agenda, who doesn't have any kind of fiduciary duty towards the shareholders of your company, but who's basically able to give you kind of unbiased advice and just just a wise person you can turn to. I think it's always a very good thing.

And most people I know are very much prepared to give advice to the next generation of entrepreneurs that is coming through.

And so I think there are a lot of people out there that are actually very happy to chat to you. So I would say to people,"Don't be shy." You know, just ask people, you know, would you be prepared to have a conversation with me about this? I'd like to ask your advice. And I'd say most, most of the time you're going to people will say, yes. You then have to choose which advice you want to follow.

Adam Levy 15:21 Are there any strategies that businesses can take so that when the unexpected does happen, there is just a bit more resilience baked in to deal with that?

Barbara Domayne-Hayman 15:30 Well, one very important thing is obviously always having enough cash in the bank. I mean, that sounds really basic, but it's actually incredibly important. Because that will always buy you a bit more time. I mean, things will always take longer and cost more than you plan. Always, always.

And I mean, I'm, you know, hyper, hyper conservative about this, because I've been through this so many times before.

And I, you know, when I do my planning, I'm still surprised that things still always take longer than I expect. So the only way you can really mitigate that is by always making sure you've got enough cash in the bank that covers you for things just taking that longer period. But actually, you should bring all the money that you can, because the chances are that you're really going to need it.

Adam Levy 16:27 Do you have any tips for dealing with us,I suppose more extended issues? I'm thinking of things like COVID. But I suppose it could be anything but something which isn't just like a momentary, "Oh, this has been pulled out." Something which you're going to have to deal with over the course of months or years, even in the business.

Barbara Domayne-Hayman 16:42 I think one thing I would say is that, you know, this is it's a marathon and not a sprint, so you kind of really need to pace yourself. And it's very easy to work so hard on something and so intensely that you get really burnt out. And you just have to remember that you're going to have to keep on going. And actually you need to just find ways, and everybody has their own way of dealing with this.

But just kind of give yourself enough space, or just do enough other things with your life. But, you know, just give you energy from other things.

Because it's a long haul. So yes, and actually, I mean, because it's a long haul, you know, one of the things that is becomes very important is the, the sort of the interpersonal dynamics between you and your team.

And one of the things that you know, sadly often does cause problems for early stage companies is, you know, the, the dynamics between the founders.

And you know, because it's a long term relationship, it's like any any long term relationship, you know, people grow apart, or they have slightly different objectives.

And over time, that can become more and more problematic, and especially if you're all under a lot of stress that can become problematic.

And I've seen many, unfortunately, many, many startups that have had founder issues.

I mean, it's unfortunately extremely common. Nurture the relationships and just keep talking very openly about issues because it's much better to deal with things early on, then to kind of bottle them up and then have a big blow up later on.

Adam Levy 18:24 That was Barbara Domayne-Hyayman. And that's almost the end of our penultimate episode of this podcast series. We've looked at many different practical aspects of turning your research into a commercial success. But we've got something a little different plan for final episode. We wanted to look at the benefits of this commercial academic crossover. The skills academia offers you in business, and the skills business can offer you in academia.

Stay tuned for that discussion. And until then, this has been Working Scientist a Nature Careers podcast, I'm Adam Levy.

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