Life Science Startups, getting people people involved

There is great interest in Indiana on life sciences. Over the last five (or more?) years there have been many local groups formed (Indiana Health Indutries Forum, BioCrossroads, Indiana Biomedical Entrepreneur's Network, Indiana Life Sciences Initiative ) and some VC / grant money (21st Century Fund, Indiana Seed Fund, more...) raised to capitalize on hidden / latent resources and talent within the state's life sciences hot spots.

As part of the next phase in creating life sciences companies in Indiana there are educational resources being applied to help raise awareness and interest in starting companies within the research community. In Indianapolis this means the Indiana University School of Medicine and other schools/departments at IUPUI.

Recently there was a seminar series on IUPUI's campus on starting a life sciences company. Krieg Devault, an Indianapolis law firm, had a panel present information to IUPUI students, staff, and faculty on company legal structures, intellectual property, and venture capital. Good intentions possibly bored to death the audience... Yes, it is important to know about company structure (LLC vs S Corp vs C corp) and intellectual property. But these are dry topics at best and are not really the core of starting a company.

The real core of starting a company is: what is the product, how do I develop it to a product that can sell, who is going to buy it, and how to I find those people interested in buying my product? With out a product idea and an understandting of how to advance that product then corporate structure and patents on research techniques do not a company make.

How to help those really interested? Gather up a few people really interested in taking an idea to market, coach them regularly, give them some cash to get things done, and work through the idea development to product development.

One great model is Y Combinator. Paul Graham formed Y Combinator after selling Viaweb to Yahoo! His goal was to create a whole new, fresh approach to turning ideas into products by investing in small teams with low dollars and bringing great, smart people together for several months in a campus setting to build out multiple ideas. Sure, there was venture capital and legal structures were setup plus intellectual property was created (and protected). But the core of the Y Combinator purpose is to bring people together to percolate and filter out the ideas to usable products.

Can we create idea teams or idea camps that form around possible marketable ideas to prototype, explore, refine, weed out, and advance ideas to real things? What is needed?

  • Space: idea teams need a space to mess around with their ideas and a place to tinker. Nothing big but it needs to be theirs for a few months.

  • Small funds (initially $1,000 to $5,000). Money to help get stupid stuff, things to get ideas moving, prototyping tools, etc. More on money below.

  • Coaches to poke and prod. Cheerleaders to encourage. There is always a need for optimists and idealists. And people that are able to bring out the left turn of an idea.

  • Carrots to pull people out of their shell of research. Indiana is a conservative state when it comes to "risk" and "taking a chance". Y Combinator lives in communities where starting a company on a whim of an idea is normal. Indiana is not that place so there is a need to intice the hesitant.

  • Action and speed. Take idea, prototype it, experiment on product, and get to a decision point (kill or move on) as quick as possible. Not every idea will work and not everyone is cutout to start companies. This needs to be discovered soonest and move on.

Small note on money: Yes, VC money is needed at some point but within a university research environment there is a need for small dollar funding to help move lab research to a possibility of a viable product. Examples include spending small dollars on market research and business plans, product development, mock-ups, prototypes, etc. Not all ideas are suited to being commercial products but there is no need to seek large scale dollars to discover this.

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3 Responses:

I like your ideas and have some to add. How about meeting for coffee sometime soon to collaborate?

Oh yeah, might be good to bring in Jack Pincus. We've met a few times and have had some interesting discussions on this topic.

I'll be happy to join. Actually, I was one of the panelists at the Krieg Devault presentation. It had some good material but the audience wasn't ready for it.