Entrepreneurship starts with rejecting conventional thinking
I visited the Imperial College Incubator in White City, London, to talk with Steven O’Connell, the associate director and programme manager at RebelBio, a life science startup programme backed by VC firm SOSV. Steven completed an undergraduate degree in pharmaceutical biotechnology at the Cork Institute of Technology and a translational masters degree in Biotech and Business at University College Dublin before joining a startup called GlowDx, which was part of an early RebelBio cohort. From there he went on to join RebelBio as the programme manager and has helped nurture over 60 life science startups over 7 cohorts. We discussed RebelBio’s approach in selecting promising startups and how to maximise their chances of success, as well as how scientists should reject conventional thinking when approaching entrepreneurship.
What are the key attributes you look for in startups applying to RebelBio?
We are stage-agnostic, which means we will support people at the idea-stage all the way through to well-established startups at the pre-seed level. It does not matter whether we are reviewing a company or an idea because we always look at people first. Applicants have to understand that when they are pitching it is so important to pitch yourself as well as your vision. We have a set of fundamental traits that we see as important and look for founders that will drive a company forward and can work independently to a very high standard. These people have the personal charisma to motivate their team, create an amazing product, attract customers and ultimately build a great business around their vision. Of course, we understand that someone like this is rare so we also place a lot of value on being coachable, open to new ideas and having a growth mindset. Founders who have difficulty solving their own problems and are disorganised will need a lot more input from us, which will ultimately take focus away from their business. Typically, our teams have 2-3 founders each with complementary skill sets to expand the business.
How does RebelBio support its startups?
A big issue with startups that have raised money from angel investors or venture capital firms is that their investors cannot give significant amounts of time to help them progress. At RebelBio and with our parent company SOSV we provide a lot of hands-on support to our cohorts and this is really one of our biggest strengths. Every startup has a unique experience with us and we really do not offer a one-size-fits all solution. We match our founders with mentors who can really add value and give advice on pitching and raising funds as well as hiring more people. In addition to all this business support, we have biosafety level one and biosafety level two facilities that our companies use, which has plenty of basic equipment. We also allocate a budget for companies to equip the lab to their specifications and put them in touch with other facilities as needed. Our scientific team can support the startups if they need any help developing their technology and getting out good proof of concept data. With my background in translational science, my role is to help develop the technology as well as helping on the regulatory and business side.
How do you de-risk these very early-stage companies?
We drive them everyday to achieve more than they ever thought possible. Part of this is setting ambitious but achievable goals for each startup that the whole team understands and buys into. We set these at the start of the programme and we review these every week to create a strong environment of feedback. You either hit your target or you miss it. If you do miss it then it is really important to understand why it happened. You need a relentless focus to succeed.
How do you support the cohort after they leave the programme?
During the programme we develop a strong relationship with our portfolio companies and afterwards we stay in touch with them on a regular basis. They report back information mainly on fundraising and any other important financial developments. The reporting process with these companies is robust and allows us to stay updated on all our investments. If they need anything then we are only an email away. We mainly support with fundraising and connecting them with the right people in our network.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Talk to potential customers as early as possible even if they are friends or family because it is so important to understand their frustration at the problem you are trying to solve and what they are looking for in a solution. So many strong companies have been built out of a frustration at the status quo. Many of our own companies seek to solve problems such as issues associated with the lab, human pain or environmental issues to give a few examples.
How can we motivate UK scientists to build life science companies?
It does not help that when people think about a life science company they have a 10-15 year drug development timeline in their head where you start out with drug discovery then move on to clinical trials and finally reach the market after burning through $2 billion. Life science startups are not only about developing therapeutics or medicines; they are anything from food security to biomaterials. This is why it is all about showing scientists what possibilities are out there. It has never been easier or cheaper to start a company. 5-10 years ago it would simply have been too capital intensive and you would have needed 30-35 years of industry experience. The cost of working space continues to decline and it is amazing how far you can get by using grants to fund your progress. Then on the science side we are seeing a decline in costs in key technologies such as DNA sequencing and synthesis, which will open up so many new opportunities. People need to reject conventional thinking and reflect on the impact they could have on people’s lives with a revolutionary technology or idea. We are in a world full of complex problems, which need the attention of scientists, and one of the best ways of solving a problem is to build a startup. If as a scientist you are unhappy about taking the academic, industry or corporate path, then entrepreneurship could be just what you are looking for. It is a lot of work but it is super rewarding.
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