4 takeaways from the Life Sciences Summit

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting New York City to attend the 2015 Life Sciences Summit: a fantastic mix of investors, early stage companies, and development-focused academics. In addition to sneaking in a run along the Hudson and taking my first Uber (or is it Uber ride? Or hailing my first Uber? I guess 2 days in NYC isn’t enough to make me trendy), I attended a bevy of company pitches and investment panel discussions, and I met a lot of great people and companies in the process.

For those of you who couldn’t be there, here are four key takeaways from the conference:

  1. Meeting with FDA isn’t just for defining your regulatory path–it’s the start of your path to investment.
    Like it or not, in order to ever make money off your therapeutic product you first need to get FDA to approve it. This leads to the common view among biotech startups of FDA as a roadblock to progress. But here’s the truth: FDA isn’t a roadblock, it’s a gatekeeper. And if you can get your plans and FDA’s expectations to align, you’ve just put yourself on a much clearer path to product approval (assuming your product, you know, works).

    I think that what often gets lost amidst the jargon of “pitching”, “equity”, “non-dilutive funding”, and the like is what’s really at the core of the whole song and dance: you’re asking an investor to give you an obscene amount of money by telling them that you have a foolproof plan. But if you haven’t bothered meeting with FDA and getting their buy-in on your development plan before entering the clinic then why should an investor have any faith that your plan is foolproof–or that you’re not a fool?

    Don’t believe me? Then believe the investors at this conference who asked pitching company after pitching company “Have you met with FDA yet?” And then sighed and shook their heads at the ones that said “No…”. To modify the old cliché: fail to plan properly, plan to fail.

  2. There are nearly infinite ways to give a good pitch because every investor is looking for something slightly different; however, there are really only a handful of ways to give a truly bad pitch.
    So instead of only worrying about how to give the perfect pitch, take a little time to make sure you’re not giving a bad one! This seems like obvious advice, but sometimes focus and determination can obscure the obvious.

    That’s not to say that the pitches at this conference were bad–I’d say that, delivery-wise, they were on par with the usual breakdown:

    • 10% “Take my money now!”
    • 30% “Your pitch might be good enough to overcome your weak product”
    • 30% “Your product might be good enough to overcome your weak pitch”
    • 20% “This needs some work”
    • 10% “I hope someone else has something nice to say because I’ve got nothing”

    But it’s that bottom 10% that gets me. Simple things like speaking coherently; making sure your slides are legible; not looking bored by your own presentation; and not being confrontational when fielding questions are all easy ways to avoid being in that bottom 10%. And yet there are still those pitches at almost every conference.

    It pays to constantly ask yourself “is my pitch good?” when you’re prepping, but also take a minute out of your pitch prep to ask yourself “is my pitch not bad?” too. Be clear, be organized, and be passionate and you can be almost certain that your pitch won’t be bad.

  3. Watch out, academia–big pharma business development is coming for you.
    Maybe that should be “watch for this” rather than “watch out” given the sad state of NIH grant funding, but I digress. Big pharma is actively seeking to blur the lines between academia and industry by exploring partnering and licensing deals at increasingly early stages of the academic research process. MedImmune and Eli Lilly in particular stood out at this conference as active proponents of funding early stage academic research in hopes of discovering the next hot technology before it hits the mainstream.
  4. Microbiome therapy today is what immuno-oncology was a decade or so ago–a curious pipe dream with more potential than substance.
    But I’m willing to bet that, like I-O, it’ll also be where all the VC money is flowing in the next 10 years.

    Ok, this observation isn’t exclusive to this conference, but the repetition of a theme that I’ve seen at this conference and others bears mentioning. You can lump “digital health” into this same category–lots of excitement, lots of potential, but no one knows what the framework for a successful company built around this technology will ultimately look like. Fortunately there are more and more pioneers willing to form companies around this burgeoning science and let corporate natural selection work its magic until we have the next great funding buzzword.

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