For our first Scale Up talk of the year, we hosted Luba Greenwood. Luba gracefully agreed to join us today to talk to us about her experience as a seasoned biotech, tech, pharmaceutical, and life sciences investor as well as a company builder.
Luba’s career has taken her through multiple fields, including practicing law at WilmerHale, leading Business Development at Verily (Google), and serving as Vice President of Global Mergers & Acquisitions and Business Development at Roche. She has advised and helped numerous businesses grow and scale for nearly 20 years. Today, she is the CEO of Kojin Therapeutics, Managing Partner of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute venture fund, and a professor at the Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. She is also a member of BenchSci’s board of directors, and has provided our team with immeasurable guidance over the years.
When it comes to scaling up in the biotech and pharmaceutical space, she is a real expert. Here were her top five pieces of advice that really resonated with me and the BenchSci team:
Do your homework to find the right investor for you
Investors have to do a lot of homework to understand where they fit into the continuum of the industry you are in, but they aren’t immune to bias. Not just biases of what the company is, where you worked, how you’ve worked, and what you've done before, but also how you look. “I do think we need more diversity in investors, and we’re getting there slowly,” said Luba.
Particularly, as an investor in the life sciences, she shared that there is tension between wanting to manage and limit risk while also gaining big rewards which is particularly challenging when it comes to novel science. Science is a field that requires taking risks to achieve true and novel discoveries. To balance the risk, many investors focus on areas they know best and have expertise in and thus only focus on SaaS, medical devices, diagnostics, therapeutics, or digital products or services, while others diversify their portfolios across these sectors and stages of investment. Make sure you do your research to understand what an investor's main expertise and portfolio is. Know who you are pitching to in advance, and don’t give up even if they pass on you at first.
At Dana Farber Cancer Institute's venture fund, Binney Street Capital, which Luba established, all investments she makes are evaluated for the potential to have a big impact on patients in addition to the team and the science. “I’d rather do that than go for something that has limited impact on science and patients,” she said.
Get your target customers to be excited about your product from the get-go
When you have something that is truly novel, especially in the digital health or AI space, the first hurdle is getting your customers excited about your product. “That seems like a big hurdle, but it’s actually not so difficult,” Luba said. “Scientists love tools that engage them and give them feedback on their experiments.” Everybody loves a good presentation. Today, there are so many tools for showcasing your story in a compelling way. Invest time and resources upfront in learning how to sell your idea and engage with your audience.
Bring in the right team that’s focused on ROI
Stepping up your sales from hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions is a bigger challenge. You need to convince senior management in the customer organization of your value proposition. To Luba, this is where having the right people on your team is important. At this stage, your team needs to be able to not just think about how to make a great product, but also about how to build great relationships with your customers and show them how your product is delivering a great return on investment. Pay attention to how you can prove your ROI and report on it to your customers. Your ability to do so will reflect in good contracts that are much longer term.
Competition can make or break a scale up
Scaling up is always a challenge, but competition makes it that much harder. If you are entering the market with something truly novel, you need to be fast to keep that competitive advantage. Once others start to see how you are gaining traction there are sure to be fast followers. Luba advises taking advantage of not having competition while you can. “As long as you keep it that way, you’ll be in a good place,” she said. Build your company and your team in a way that enhances speed as much as you can.
Become a true partner to your customer
Finally, in order to keep scaling you need to move beyond just offering a product or service. “It’s no longer about the articulation of the value proposition. On the product side, it’s showing that they cannot do what they want to do without you,” said Luba. However, it’s a hard transition both on the product and sales side and even on the company side, she warns. Once you reach this phase, who you are as a company is changing too. Initially, you may have been there as a provider but now you are taking it to the next level of being a true partner to your customer. Think through how you become a sustainable answer to their problems.
“By the way, you’re so good, potentially you’re a threat to them,” Luba adds. This can make it even more complicated and is something you need to manage but doubling down on partnership efforts. An example she gave was Contract Research Organizations (CRO). CROs provide clinical trial services for the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and medical device industries. When they first appeared in the market, pharma companies didn’t like them and often viewed them as competitors who wanted them to outsource their business. Today, some CROs are seen as true partners by pharma. That’s because they offer great service, quick delivery, updated product offerings, and always understand their customer needs so they continue to improve. Becoming a company that is a true partner in this way is extraordinarily difficult. You have to truly understand your customers' wants and needs and strive to meet them, sometimes before they even have them.
Every year at a startup you become a different company. Scaling up is incredibly difficult to do which is why I appreciate hearing from champions like Luba. I’m so grateful she made the time to share her experiences with us, and to answer questions from the whole team.