Steve Blank’s advice on what it takes to be a life sciences lean startup

Originally posted on MedCity News by 

What’s the difference between an extrovert and introvert in the world of principal investigators? Answer: Are they staring at your shoes or their shoes? The joke Steve Blank told during a fireside chat hosted by NYCBio illustrates the uphill challenge SBIR grant applicants face when they’re asked to break away from the insulated world of the academic community and expose their ideas to the unflattering light of skeptical customers, tough love mentors and cynical investors.

But by infusing business skills in a new generation of scientists, Blank hopes to create a more disciplined approach by life science entrepreneurs that will improve their chances of securing early stage funding. Blank is an investor with a new investment company M34 Capital.

Steve Blank is a Silicon Valley serial-entrepreneur and academician who is based in Pescadero, California. Blank is recognized for developing the Customer Development methodology, which launched the Lean Startup movement. Blank is also the co-founder of E.piphany. Blank has spent over thirty years within the high technology industry. He has founded or worked within eight startup companies, four of which have gone public

It is part of Blank’s application of the lean startup model to classes of doctors, engineers and life science researchers at Stanford and UCSF and why Blank was contacted by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health to turn it into a curriculum for a boot camp for SBIR applicants called I-Corps, first at the NSF and then at the NIH.

During the conversation before a room full of entrepreneurs at a New York University Langone Medical Center auditorium, Blank offered up some insights garnered both from his experience of teaching the course and working with engineering, medical and biotech entrepreneurs. It entails what feels like a personal transformation between the scientist entrepreneur’s personal experience and understanding of what he or she needs to do to succeed and the realities dealt to them by mentors, would-be customers, and investors.

Blank offered that he finds it a lot easier to teach someone who has a core technical idea how to be a business person than the other way around.

You can’t outsource the commercialization track One essential component of Blank’s course and boot camp is to make principal investigators more involved in the commercialization process. “One key tenant we have learned is that unless founders are involved in the process of talking to customers, it doesn’t stick. It’s too easy for the founder to brush off criticism.” The idea is to help them understand by explaining their technology to and hearing feedback from their customers whether their company will succeed or fail or if they are even pursuing the right target. The idea is to generate better data earlier about early stage companies’ prospects and to create more stop points to improve investment in early stage companies.

Get over yourself One of the most challenging things for scientist entrepreneurs to do is accept constructive criticism and learn from it, because they’re used to being the smartest person in the room. That may be an overstatement but the process of being an entrepreneur is being able to accept advice from people who may be well outside the scientist’s experience.

Talk to your customers! Probably the most dramatic transformation Blank described is the experience of principal investigators leaving the confines of the offices and talking “eyeball to eyeball” with customers. The I-Corps boot camp demands that participants talk with 10-15 customers each week over the 10-week course. But the customer development process gets more complex with steps that include not only testing the assumption that the entrepreneur, but also demonstrating they can secure a collaboration deal, for example.

Although it can be a humbling experience it can also lead the entrepreneurs to consider drugs or diagnostics that they had previously shelved because they didn’t think their targets would be of interest. It also helps scientists get a better understanding of how many other companies are doing something similar, how hungry the market is for their product. It gradually forces scientists to be better communicators in talking about their product to a broad audience who may not share their science background. Most significantly, the process is designed to help entrepreneurs conclude earlier whether it is worth continuing their company or whether they need to re-evaluate what they’re doing.

Multiple customer interactions will help inform the business plan, not the other way around. It may start with an assumption by the entrepreneur about what the business is, but customer insights will help shape it. There’s no such thing as the perfect business plan.

It’s more than the science What defines a company’s success or failure can often boil down to the team behind the business and how they work together. They need to have the right attitude, approach and be able to communicate effectively with each other. Sometimes it may also mean settling for being on the advisory board rather than leading the company. “Not every scientist wants to commercialize their technology. They may be better suited to being on the scientific advisory board than the CEO.”