For life science graduates aiming to start their own company, the associated challenges can make it a daunting endeavor. Although many life science graduates develop excellent critical thinking and problem solving skills through their training, most do not have any formal education or experience in areas that are essential to running a business. Marketing, business administration, and business development are all examples of topics that are seldom promoted or offered in life science graduate training programs.
A few science graduate programs, such as the Masters of Biotechnology program at the University of Toronto, require both science and business courses and a work term placement. Most programs, however, do not suggest or even offer business courses for science graduate students interested in their own startup. To partially address this gap, the Graduate Management Consulting Association (GMCA), in association with the Rotman School of Management, organizes a “mini-MBA” program that introduces fundamental business concepts to graduate students. Admission to the program, however, is competitive, and only a handful of spots are available each year.
At the University of Toronto, researchers and students looking to commercialize a product or discovery can find support from MaRS Innovation (MI). MI has 16 member institutions including the University of Toronto, University Health Network, and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. MI itself is a non-profit organization, and offers services including early stage funding, business development and guidance, and intellectual property protection. MaRS Discovery District, one of MI’s member institutions, even offers free online lectures on building a business model and raising money.
An interview with the co-founder of a web startup
We hoped to gain some insight into the process of starting a company with a life sciences background, and interviewed Milton Yu, co-founder of Benchwise, to see how he came to form his company and the challenges he faced in doing so. Benchwise is a non-profit web startup founded at Stanford that allows researchers to compare and review research reagents, with a current focus on commercially available antibodies for research. Over 700 labs worldwide are using the website to help select antibodies. According to Yu, research antibodies represent a $2 billion dollar market worldwide, but up to 30% of antibodies are not used correctly or do not work at all.
In comparison to the widely available reviews and feedback for most consumer products, there is a dearth of information and independent validation of antibodies for research. “For something just as expensive and actually more important for your work, there isn’t much review information available…[especially] from a credible source,” says Yu.
Enter Benchwise, the “Yelp for antibodies” (Yelp is a popular restaurant review site).
Similar to Yelp, Benchwise doesn’t aim to do any independent verification on its own. Rather, it relies on user feedback and enables others to base their decisions on user reviews. Benchwise reviews contain both protocols of how the antibodies were used and results of a reviewer’s experiment. Researchers are free to submit and read reviews on the website, with the requirement that they provide their real name and instiutional e-mail information for accountability. Many researchers are eager to lend a helping hand by reviewing antibodies they have used or currently use for their research. Within half year after launching, the website already has over 3,000 reviews from Stanford, Harvard, Johns Hopkins and other schools, with many labs donating their own spreadsheets of antibody information to the website.
Co-founded by Yu and Bryan Petzold, Benchwise was formed out of the Stanford Ignite program (http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/ignite). The Ignite program is offered by Stanford Graduate Business School and provides graduate students and non-business graduates with management training for running a business and commercializing a product or service. Although the program doesn’t provide financial backing, it did offer significant guidance and networking opportunities with business executives and investors. Yu later entered a case competition with his team from the Ignite program, and won honourable mention for their idea.
Getting Benchwise off the ground though, was not an easy task. Yu and Petzold spent a significant amount of time building a team of diverse skillsets and relied upon a carefully vetted network of advisors to guide company growth. They also taught themselves web application coding from scratch to build the website.
Yu suggests that those interested in starting a company enroll in business courses during their graduate or post-graduate training to not only obtain training in business management, but to learn how to formulate and ask relevant questions, and to expand their contacts within the business world.
It will be interesting to see how readily Benchwise is adopted in other universities, especially with similar companies offering competing services in Canada. 1DegreeBio, for example, is a Toronto-based company that also offers user reviews for research-related products including antibodies. In addition, 1DegreeBio provides rewards in the form of gift cards for reviews submitted. Yu however, is hesitant to adopt an incentive-driven model and is wary of any conflict of interest that could bias the content of reviews. Yu hopes to increase product selection beyond antibodies in the future, and to ultimately establish Benchwise as a one-stop resource for scientists looking to find information on research reagents.
The challenges associated with a web startup are significantly different from those faced by a company looking to commercialize a research discovery or a biotechnology product. Nevertheless, the principles of business management apply regardless of the industry. By leveraging the resources available on and off campus, life science researchers have a solid stepping stone from which to begin their journey into the business world.
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