6 questions to help you ask, "Is this time well spent?" when choosing a startup program
Contributor: Chris Fetterly
Back in September, from the audience at the Novo Nordisk Golden Ticket finalist event at LabCentral in Cambridge, Boston, I was still scooping my jaw off the floor when it was announced that Future Fields had won.
Matt and I (immediately known upon arrival as the Canadians) had made the trip to pitch as finalists in this premier event held for healthtech startups. The Novo Nordisk Golden Ticket is a competition-based programme led by the BioInnovation Hub of Novo Nordisk, and is hosted and co-sponsored by LabCentral. Novo Nordisk is a world-class manufacturer of insulin. A global leader in diabetes and cardiometabolic health, Novo Nordisk has been around for nearly a century. LabCentral is a first-of-kind shared lab space located in the heart of health research and biotech: Cambridge, MA. Golden Ticket winners of 2022 included us, Future Fields, and another incredible company, gensaic. Winners receive a credit to help fund their use of critical lab infrastructure at LabCentral, and access to the tremendous ecosystem of stakeholders that engage with LabCentral companies. To say I was floored to find out we won is certainly an understatement.
It’s been a whirlwind since August, and now I find myself reflecting on the experience. How did we get there? What impact will this have on our business? The fruits of our pitching labors are now becoming apparent, so I thought there may be some golden nuggets in our experience to help the next startup making their way in life sciences or elsewhere. My hope is that teasing out the parameters of our experience will help the next company ask themselves a few guiding questions and set themselves up for success. Good questions, I believe, help us zero-in on what really matters.
Risk vs reward, vulnerability is part of the process
Ever since I joined Future Fields, I knew we had incredible potential in a seemingly simple paradigm: the sustainable production of proteins and biologics in fruit flies. However, to fully unlock that biomanufacturing potential and take it to the next level we needed (and still need) to seek wisdom. Advisors, board members, and executives all help young companies with the myriad of challenges and ideas, but deep tacit knowledge in large corporations who have “been there and done that” is hard to come by, particularly in biotech and biopharma. I remember when we started scouting possible connections to biopharma and began to find health and therapeutic related startup programs. As is the case with the Golden Ticket, these programs often have a major corporate sponsor or even multiple sponsors who may run the program directly, fund or provide the program’s output, or are involved in another capacity. For us, this was around the first time we dipped our toes into the world of “big pharma”.
Whether it’s a startup program, or just purely partnership hunting, I think most inexperienced bio- startups will resonate with the fact that it can be scary when considering engaging with majors. These are massive companies with employee counts several orders of magnitude larger than your own and pathways aren’t always clear. Every industry has stories about their ‘sharks’, and biopharma is no exception despite our own experiences being overwhelmingly positive. It’s hard to engage in an authentic conversation when you are operating on assumptions that may make you feel worried about what you should or should not say. Startups naturally perceive the potential value of their innovations in health research as incredibly high, thus it's understandable to be guarded when reaching out. The need for robust non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), which many startups may not even have the capacity to review thoroughly, can create a daunting environment for engagement. Even agreement-free engagements can cause young companies to worry over IP exposure and “getting scooped”. I think applying to a startup program includes an implicit ask for help, thus it takes humility and vulnerability to know that, despite wanting to take on the world, we can’t do it all ourselves.
Time is limited, the right program matters
After the initial company forming, it becomes apparent to founders and early employees that there is a vast swath of accelerators, incubators, competitions, and programs all purporting to bring value to a young startup. Some are conducted with guidance from industry, and many (perhaps too many) are not. Without careful thought, it is possible to stretch oneself and their company thin by taking on too many programs and their application processes. With so many options, a challenge on a new executive’s mind could be: how do I weigh the time it will take to participate in this startup program versus spending that time laser focused on my business? Choosing where you spend your time is paramount as your solution(s) take shape, your company grows, and product market fit looms on the horizon. In our case, finding the application page for the program was step one, but we still had to decide if the act of applying was time well spent.
Having participated in a handful of programs and been solicited by many more, I thought it would be useful to put together a small list of considerations that young companies could consider when applying to a new program to help their venture along. The Golden Ticket program is a competition-style program, with an application phase, semifinalist, and a finalist phase. Many programs follow a similar style, where you are pitching against competitors and judged by stakeholders on a rubric. With this type of program, generally you’re expected to be on a virtual or physical stage vying for attention and a big reward at the end. The type of program will of course direct how you assess the opportunity at hand. Here is a short list I hope will help you get started to build your own framework, whether the opportunity is a competition, incubator, accelerator, or some hybrid in between:
1. How much time do you have?
Do you have to craft a significant amount of new material to participate in the program? Time is money in the startup world, and you want to ensure you’re investing it well.
2. Does the program you are applying to involve a competition?
If there’s a competitive element and you do not win, will the material created have residual value that can be reused, re-purposed, or directly applied elsewhere? Would you consider the time spent applying or in subsequent phases a lost-cause or severe opportunity cost?
If you do win, why is the result likely to be a major business accelerant? Is there a reporting structure proportionate to the value of the program? Does the win condition have long-term sustaining value or is it front-loaded?
3. Who are the previous program participants?
You can assume a certain degree of program-fit based on the participants before you. Can you speak to previous program participants, preferably analogous to your own business model, and ask them how their experiences were?
4. What is the mentor roster?
If ongoing mentorship and learning is a theme, take a look at the experts on board. Do their experiences and backgrounds appear to align with your needs? If not readily apparent, can you find this out during or before the application process?
5. How much does the program cost?
No program is completely free. For example, if funding is provided as an outcome, what are the terms and conditions associated with that funding? Is it equity-based and is the value received worth that equity? Are there costs associated with travel and or potentially re-locating? There are often forgotten costs that are associated with the program beyond the program fee itself.
6. Do the stakeholders or the program itself align with the values of your business?
Self-explanatory. Read on...
Values are your compass rose
For us, our assessment looked great on paper but it was the last one that clinched our decision to apply. One of our company values is, “Act on the Climate Crisis.” As such when we started looking at who we could look up to in BioPharma for sustainability strategy. If we were going to reach out to big players to help us look at our platform through a seasoned therapeutics eye, we wanted it to be with a company who cared about the future of our planet. Inevitably, we landed on Novo Nordisk’s Circular for Zero campaign. It was refreshing to find a company who took climate action seriously.
An application and some pitches later, the rest is recent history. Where we go from here is largely up to us, but the connections we have made along the way, the fantastic questions and insights we have received, and a new lens to evaluate our potential have all yielded tremendous value to date. We’re excited for the next phase post-Ticket and are sure the next group of applicants will be teeming with innovation, energy, and hope for a vibrant future. We hope this story helps you find your way through the startup ecosystem and apply your resources in meaningful ways.