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  • Writer's pictureMolecular Ideas

The Value of ‘Free Consultants’ in Startup Biotech

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Welcome to Molecular Ideas, and thank you for sharing your time with us! Today we discuss 'free consultants' in life sciences startups and how they can contribute to your founding team's efforts.

Having worked with or consulted for numerous early-stage life science companies, I have found two challenges that founders frequently struggle with:

1) Managing cash flow and burn rate while trying to meet the next development milestone

2) Never having quite enough hands-on-deck to move the ball forward

There is a myriad of ways to address these challenges individually, but they can seem mutually exclusive. For instance, you can always hire consultants or bring on additional co-founders to help you develop critical deliverables for potential investors or refine experimental protocol, but it comes at the cost of capital and time bringing them up to speed. Conversely, you can recruit a wide array of advisors to assist you in ideating and checking your assumptions; however, the extent to which they will assist in the actual legwork can vary widely.

Early in my career, I had the opportunity serve as a ‘free consultant’ as the third member of a three-person team at Miraculex (now Joywell Foods). Setting aside the company’s exciting and innovative approach to nutritional health, it is was one of the most formative and exciting challenges of my professional life. I wasn’t paid and received no equity – but it did help bridge the divide between the two challenges above and make headway towards commercialization.

As a bit of background, we had an aspirational, investor-driven CEO and a methodical, science-oriented CSO. Both were a pleasure to work with, and we stay in touch to this day. At the time, our CEO was trying to identify grant funding opportunities and navigate potential regulatory pathways for production and approval; our CSO was constantly refining our unique cultivation, extraction, and purification methods, which were made unusually complicated due to the nature of our product.

While it’s true that everyone in a startup is expected to wear multiple hats, their time was both valuable and extremely limited. The responsibilities they had were critical to ensuring that we could develop our product. That said, there were plenty of critical business development initiatives that were falling through the cracks, including the three critical ones I’ve listed below:

a) M&A partner identification and initiating discussions with leads

b) Creating an operations plan with a project map & milestones

c) Developing our investor pitch deck

The list goes on. None of these are ‘small’ or inconsequential initiatives that can afford to be put off for very long. While it’s true that you can’t have a bioscience company without validated technology, you still need to frame it within a compelling story about its value to stakeholders. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck in the lab.

With that in mind, let’s talk briefly about why the team would trust me to manage and tackle these critical tasks. At the time, the company was based out of a fantastic incubator called Harlem Biospace in New York City. As part of their support for these new life science entrepreneurs, they regularly hosted informational lectures around different elements of building a biotech startup and networking sessions. While I was working in the Jacobs Lab at Albert Einstein College of Medicine at the time, I regularly made time to attend, take notes, ask thoughtful questions, and met the various entrepreneurs. After a few weeks, I was asked to help the Miraculex team at night.

It soon became clear to me that these deliverables had many underlying complexities that had to be untangled during the process of developing them. These ranged from financial analyses (including costs of production and competitive pricing) to operational considerations (company branding and proposed investment milestones). Addressing these questions ranged from leading structured discussions with the team, to conducting secondary research, to a lot of time grappling with the blank page.

That’s not to say that I didn’t have a lot of learning to do, or that I was formally qualified to get every deliverable done perfectly the first time.

However, my work held massive benefits for the company, even if it occasionally needed refinement or clarification. As an intern, partner, or free consultant, I was saving my colleague’s time by developing something that could be iterated on, which they could then react to. As a result, they were free to pursue their own responsibilities, as well as validate their thoughts on specific challenges against an objective outside perspective.

When those perspectives differed, discussions were analytical, case-driven, and evocative. However, the end result was that the three of us walked away with a clearer understanding of how to move forward and align our respective initiatives to create a stronger business.

And once again, I was working nights and weekends for free. That definitely helps manage the bottom line.

Admittedly, letting someone new onto your team is not easy. As entrepreneurs, we invest ourselves in our companies just as novel writers do in their prose, and certain skills from new colleagues need validating to meet your company’s needs. For instance, you may not want to expect advertising agency-level design work from a teammate whose background is in finance. That said, they might bring a unique insight from working with the broader market that you can use to pressure check your branding. Plus, you can trust that the analysis behind your story is there.

As for me, the team and I shared a symbiotic relationship. Being able to work outside the normal business hours and with experience in the science and business management enabled us to develop efficiently, and iterate quickly based on feedback. In serving the business, I earned invaluable exposure and experience.

Your inventions – and investor’s funds – are precious. They should be given a chance to shine with every opportunity. However, high barriers to headway in prototyping or reaching the next funding milestone means that demands on your time often exceeds supply. Leveraging partners who are capable, willing, and enthused by your vision can be critical to paving the way to success.

That’s all for today! As always, feel free to share this post with friends, colleagues, and entrepreneurs! You can sign up to leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments.


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