• Molecular Ideas

How to be a 'Free Consultant' for Life Science Startups

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Welcome to Molecular Ideas, and thank you for sharing your time with us! Today, we will discuss five critical steps for you to provide value as a consultant to a prospective life science startup.


Last time, we talked about the value of working as a 'free consultant' for a startup life science company. As a founder, cutting costs, gaining objective insights, and having extra talent available to advance your program can supercharge your company's efforts towards success.


Now let's say we're on the other side of the table. Your schedule allows you to take on anywhere from a few hours to a few days of extra work a week, and you've got that itch to make sure the promise of innovation is realized.


What value can you provide? Why should any CEO bring you on?


In order to succeed, having a certain degree of specialized knowledge is critical. That said, I'm not talking about having a graduate degree or competitive experience in a narrow field. While those are helpful, they're not necessary for you to provide value in a way that cultivates trust and growth in their business. The specialized knowledge I'm talking about is your executive's - your client's - needs and paradigms.


What are their goals for the business? How do they view their unmet medical or customer need? What is their professional (and personal) background?


Above all, what areas of the business do they want to grow, and what deliverables are needed to make that happen?


Of course, these data don't often present themselves on websites. Before you sell yourself, you should network with your potential colleagues. Incubators, competitions, and professional trade organizations like BIO are great places to strike up conversation.


We will talk about how to set mutually acceptable expectations in a future post. For now, let's say you were able to come to an arrangement and you're ready to go. I recommend five steps to progressively provide value to your new team. Startups are naturally leveraging a cutting-edge approach to solve complex challenges. So the question becomes: How do we provide value while we learn?


1) Project Management


Every startup has a lot going on, and even critical items can be overlooked in the context of technically challenging or similarly important deliverables. Serving as a project manager enables you to provide value to your team through organization. From a learning perspective, you have the opportunity to see how the business is working beyond one given technical area or task.


It is also one of the best licenses to ask questions about a business. For instance, following up with a colleague on the status of a pitch deck section can lead to one of two outcomes:


a) 'Yes, I have it right here' - This is an opportunity to ask about any baseline assumptions, positioning, or execution that may not be apparent to a new reader. Since many documents and data need to eventually face eyes outside the company, shoring up these weaknesses are essential.


b) 'No, I'm still working on it. I've been consumed with _______.' - Great! You've just learned about a specific need your colleague has. As you work on other projects and coordinate with teammates, you have the opportunity to connect disparate data points, as well as ask questions. This leads to our second step.


2) Actively Listen


As I mentioned earlier, you do not necessarily need a graduate degree to be an effective 'free consultant' in the life sciences. The knowledge you need centers on the market and the way in which your company is trying to fill those needs. In other words, what is your customer's need and how are they addressing it? How does your company's technology, positioning, financing and team fit together to address that need?


Understanding how senior leaders and founders talk about their business doesn't just imbue you with the simple facts. By actively listening for how they talk about their business, you can learn so much more:


a) Listening for excitement, repeated phrases, or strong arguments gives you a clear sense of what is gets the presenter excited about the business.


b) You learn what is not being focused on, which can help direct your own efforts to shore up any vulnerabilities in the pitch or operational structure.


c) You get to ask questions as an objective, outside observer - the same as any potential investor.

This leads to our third way to provide value to a team. You've identified what questions that need further examination for your team to succeed - whether they know it or not.


3) Research


Of course, every investor and colleague needs to have the facts about their market, competition, and technology readily available. Conducting your own research will help you get up to speed. A good place to start is reading newswire reports and academic papers to understand current habits and 'table stakes' of how certain conditions are treated.


These will only get you so far though. As a consultant, you have the opportunity to see the whole field of competitors from an angle unclouded by zealous faith in your own technology. Researching competitive appearances, partnerships, and positioning is essential to aligning your own development milestones, obtaining funding, and streamlining operations. Why? Simple - whether your competitors are established or startup, they validate your market need. As such, they are valuable sources of information.


Research is incredibly time-consuming. Being organized and able to provide thoughtful summaries with current market developments not only is efficient for the team - it enables you to provide credible insights and a unique perspective your teammates will find valuable.


So, what do you do with those insights?


4) Experiment


In this case, I don't strictly mean running PCRs (though it is helpful if you know how). While startup teams are known for sharing responsibilities, leveraging your skills at project management, active listening, and research enable you to propose ideas with credibility.


How do you propose those ideas? Simple. Begin with the question, 'What if?'


What if we tweaked our deck to delve deeper into the unmet medical need? What if we position our solution suite as a process rather than disparate services? What if we change our ask to more closely align with the recent deal our competitors made?


Provoking thoughtful discussion is essential to evolve the business. However, someone has to grapple with these proposed ideas by putting pen to paper. This leads to our last value-generating step as a 'free consultant'.


5) Write


Someone has to bring these ideas to fruition and present them for the team to pressure test. Without the logic on paper for the team to reference, it is easy for ideas to become lost, distorted, or neglected over time.


With the benefit of managing projects, listening, and researching, you understand how to integrate opportunities with operations. Experimenting with the team gives you a sense of their priorities and how decisions are made.


Actually writing out these ideas make it real, and allow the business to evolve. Translating strategy memos into components of the business plan or pitch deck are simple when you have followed the map to validate them. Startup teams are constantly evolving. Writing your ideas down allows you to give back in a way that moves the team forward.


Above all, the best advice I can give you as a prospective 'free consultant' for a life science startup is this: Just Jump In. You're in for an unforgettable ride that will shape you as a person and professional.


How do you help clients? What are the biggest challenges you've seen early-stage companies face? As CEOs, what do you find most useful?


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