On May 10, 2017, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the most prestigious congregation of Science and Technology startups in the State of Connecticut. The event was held at the Illustrious Yale School of Management. Being at this annual event for the first time has been hard for me to describe. It has actually taken about a week just to discern what I should be writing about. I couldn’t contextualize what it felt like to be around representatives from some of the largest VC firms in the country, and speak to Yale students and faculty who were showcasing cutting edge research. This was the first time in my life where I had to research someone’s pitch on the internet. The projects they were working on were so deep in advanced science that for the most part, I did not understand the scientific terminology they were using( a very humbling experience by the way) and most of the stuff flew right over me. Most of the time I just stood around listening to random drifting conversations about new advances in Cancer treatments, Neurological Diseases, Artificial Intelligence, Cardiology, Genetics, and Medical Devices.
The event was split between two tracks. One had to do specifically with all things Biotechnology and the other was in general terms centered around all sorts of other Technological Innovations within a broad spectrum that ranged from Mobile Applications all the way to Social Enterprises. One could describe the event in parts as an awards ceremony, with a pitch-off competition and massive networking session through electronic posters presentations. Some of us received the honor of presenting a regular printed poster near the entrance into The Zhang Auditorium. Which I am extremely thankful for because, even though our project is in a very early research phase, we still got the opportunity to pitch to a few straggling wanderers and collect a few business cards with possible collaborators.
In the rest of this blog, I will attempt to give some insight into the event and enumerate my takeaways from the Keynote speakers and the various panels. For the sake of brevity, I will try to be as compact and concise as possible without rambling too much about my own subjectivity. In case you’d like to learn more about a certain theme or person I have included links in the passage to many of the main ideas and people that I encountered on that day.
I hope you enjoy this small journey into a major regional event within the Biotech arena. I hope that I can bring a bit of insight to our readers and share the attitudes and trends that shape some of the world’s top scientific talent.
The Keynote speakers were Amazing!!
During the morning session, I got to listen to a very accomplished entrepreneur describe one of the biggest problems with Innovation. Jim Hornthal was a founding vice chairman of Travelocity.com from 2000-2002. He is currently the chairman of LaunchPad Central. His Keynote speech brought great ease of mind to me. Mr. Hornthal spoke about “Unlocking the Innovation Genome”, and I’d like to attempt and describe some of the key takeaways from this presentation as it opened my eyes to a neglected field that although intangible, has a critical impact on the success of any venture.
His speech started out by drawing attention to the outstanding fact that the United States spent close to $1.8 Trillion dollars into R&D operations in 2016. He went on to clarify his view on the R&D process by organizing them based on three phases (Execution > Search > Discovery). The last part of the process being the most difficult one because it is the main road to innovation, however, there is no set way to achieve it. He went on to outline the major problems that Discovery and Innovation bring which I’ll try to summarize.
What I took away from his explanation was as follows:
- It is a really hard process!
- It is riddled with mistakes
- No way to track when and how a company pivots
- No archive of mistakes made and which paths were taken.
He mentioned a very exceptional Steve Blank who through his book The Four Steps to Epiphany has been used as the core methodology for the Lean Startup Movement. An effort that has launched many successful small ventures based on their ability to integrate his “Customer Development” framework into their operations and that is currently used successfully in the I-Corps program sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF).
To illustrate his point further Mr. Hornthal used an amusing video clip from South Park Season 02 Episode 17 titled”Gnomes”. Where the boys ask the underpants stealing Gnomes about their business model. This was really quite amusing but disturbingly accurate. The point he was trying to make was that there is an empty slot between Execution and Discovery that most companies cannot quantify and that it is seen as the main culprit in failing enterprises. His point was that “most companies don’t fail because of their product, they fail because they do not know who their customers really are”. Just like the Gnomes, they expect that if they create a product, tons of customers will flock to it.
He went on to further explain that it is important to use Data, not as the sole variable to solve all problems, but that its true function is to help find patterns and enhance the recognition of the capability of a product by using the idea of “wisdom of crowds”. This he broke down into variables which he labeled as:
This he broke down into variables which he labeled as:
He further went on to explain that when it comes to discovery and the wisdom of crowds there is a scale that can help you shape your product to customers. and that this scale is integrative of four components.
This scale is based on the integration of four components.
- Inside building (Employees)
- Market Data
- Outside building (Customers)
By using these variables as measures, companies can achieve knowledge related to their Technology Readiness Level (TRL) ( a NASA defined scale to measure the critical technology readiness of an innovation) and furthermore determine their Investment Readiness Level (IRL) to attract investment and further develop their products.
Mr. Hornthal’s testimony was a great eye opener for our company. It showed us that there is a roadmap that companies can follow in order to fine tune their technology’s specs to find a true value proposition for their customers, raise their TRL and increase their IRL to attract outside investment. They way he delivered the message made us understand that although the inner workings of Discovery are complex, sporadic, and unpredictable there is a way to stage and follow a roadmap to a successful technology company. His Keynote was very inspirational and fun and set a light-hearted and optimistic tone for the rest of the events to follow.
They way he delivered the message made me understand that although the inner workings of Discovery are complex, sporadic, and unpredictable there is a way to stage and follow a roadmap to a successful technology company. His Keynote Address was very inspirational and fun. He set a light-hearted and optimistic tone for the rest of the events to follow.
After this Keynote the congregation split into two tracks. I stayed in the same place and waited for the Biotechnology panel while others ascended to the 2nd floor for the Technology forum. To be honest, I was really inclined to partake in the latter as the title of the panel “Corporate Venture Capital Investing in Technology” sounded like something more attainable for us. Counter-intuitively I opted to stay with “Crossing the Chasm: from Invention to Clinical Trial Funding” even though our company is years away from any type of clinical trial. I thought it best to learn more about the intricacies of the medical field taking advantage of the panel in Biotech since I was at the East Coast hub for this industry and it was the underlying motive for Ambrosia Labs’s inception.
These were the panelists featured in the Biotechnology Track:
- Robert Bettigole – Elm Street Ventures
- Lili Portilla – National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS)
- Kevin Bitterman – Polaris Partners
- James Tobin – Johnson & Johnson Innovation Centers
- Lou Tartaglia – 5 AM Ventures
I’m really glad that I stayed for this panel!
The members sitting up there represented a wide array of Venture Capital firms. The panel gave me intrinsic insight into what VC firms look for when investing in new technologies. Now, I won’t try to debrief everyone’s taste individually so I will quickly run down the important facts that were mentioned at the panel.Basically, these firms are interested in early stage companies ( not as early as us though) they are more looking for companies in the Pre-seed stage all the way through series B and beyond. I was not even aware what a pre-seed stage was but thanks to them now I know where we stand on this spectrum. Some of these companies like J&J Innovation centers invest in about 75 companies a year and hold a portfolio of around 300 backed ventures in phases I through III. Of course, not many companies up there could compete with the resources that J&J has to invest, or have been in business just as long. I dare not even try to guess what their funding pool looks like but I’m sure it is well above the $300 Million dollars threshold, and that is probably a really conservative estimation.
Basically, these firms are interested in early stage companies ( not as early as us though) they are looking for companies between the pre-seed stage all the way through series B and beyond. I was not even aware what a pre-seed stage was but thanks to them, now I know where we stand on this spectrum. Some of these companies like J&J Innovation centers invest in about 75 companies a year and hold a portfolio of around 300 backed ventures in phases I through III. Of course, not many companies up there could compete with the resources that J&J has to invest, or have been in business just as long. I dare not even try to guess what their funding pool looks like but I’m sure it is well above the $300 Million dollars threshold, and that is probably a really conservative estimation.
Some of these companies like J&J Innovation centers invest in about 75 companies a year and hold a portfolio of around 300 backed ventures in phases I through III. Of course, not many companies up there could compete with the resources that J&J has to invest, or have been in business just as long. I dare not even try to guess what their funding pool looks like but I’m sure it is well above the $300 Million dollar threshold, and that is probably a really conservative estimation.
The rest of the panelist were probably closer to the types of VC’s we would like to work with as we develop our products. Their investments range anywhere from $1-5 Million dollars per year and they usually invest in 3-5 companies a year. Except for Elm street ventures who works exclusively with Yale-bred early stage ventures, we might have a shot at catching the eyes of any of the remaining three.
I was really interested in learning more about Polaris Partners, as they mentioned they love to work with companies that are right out of Academia and before anything major is published. They also really liked Platforms (and it just so happens that is what we decided to become). I feel we might be a good fit for this type of VC firm in the future and they also mentioned they liked to get really hands on with the founders, something we could definitely use.
One thing that was clear across the board was that they all agreed there is a difference in the investment strategy of West Coast and East Coast VC’s. I guess this not only applies to Hip-Hop but to the investment world as well. They all agreed that investing in Biotech is a totally different beast than investing in Technology firms. Whereas West Coasts investors like investing in more idealistic founders ( who have a proven track record) East Coast firms are more conservative and base their investments based on market share acquisition and numbers. I guess we on the East Coast adhere better to the old adage that “Money talks, Bullshit walks”, and we could probably thank Wall Street for that.
In any case listening to this panel of experts really gave me an idea of what we need to accomplish in order to attract their attention, a good product is not the only variable they look for. When a new entrepreneur is on the verge of bringing their product to the limelight, the team surrounding the venture is something that can separate the funded from the fund-less. One of the questions from the audience asked: “How can we get to the readiness level of developing an attractive product without any funding”?
This was an excellent question that has plagued me for over three years in our search to fund our initial research. Their answer was to look for non-equity financing and they even suggested the following:
- Milestone / Option financing
- National Institute for Health (NIH) grants
- Organizational funding partners
- Blavatnik Fund
- Similar initiatives at M.I.T
- Blavatnik Fund
- Connecticut Innovations
It was good to know that Connecticut has a lot of programs to help Life Science companies get off the ground, and it reassured me that our decision to incorporate in the State was the right one!
By the time this panel was over I had a more hopeful outlook about the current situation of our company. The fact that everyone agreed that all Biotech ventures shared similar hurdles were comforting, but the fact that most of the skilled researchers were also competing for the same funding pool made me a bit nervous. Since we just recently incorporated in the U.S. I felt as if we were a bit behind the eight ball in this aspect. One could compare it to getting the last spot in a fantasy sports draft.
Never the less, I felt confident that our corporate culture and altruistic disposition would entice some of the younger generation of researchers to join our team.
After this panel, we got a much-needed coffee break, and I was able to head out to my poster station and mingle with some of the other presenters. During this time I had the delightful surprise of running into a childhood friend, although I should say he is more like Kin than anything.
Kelvin Polanco is an IT and Media Specialist at the Yale School of Management (and probably the only other person of Dominican descent at the event) whom I have not seen for over ten years. We did not get to hang out much during the event as he was supporting the Technology track upstairs and was running around for much of the day, but it was comforting to know someone else at the event!
I must say that I am proud of what this young man has accomplished with sheer determination. Growing up together in humble beginnings and then randomly meeting up at one of the Country’s most prestigious academic institutions was a really great surprise.
After the event we caught up at an old college bar I used to frequent when I was going to school in New Haven, the place hadn’t changed much but New West Cafe was a perfect place to get some delicious ( and affordable) Buffalo wings and engage in uninhibited chatter about our adolescence and the friends we left behind. I wish him all the luck in the world in his future endeavors!
After lunch, I did not have much time to listen to the pitch competition. In a fit of self-centeredness, I decided that I should forgo this part of the program and instead focus on standing next to my poster and see if I could do a bit of networking. To my dismay, not many people showed interest. I wasn’t upset, I knew something like this might happen, so instead of becoming bitter I made the most out of it and started to chat up the other poster presenters. I must say we had a good time discussing scientific theories in A.I., Culture Politics and Microbiology.
My favorite discussion partner was a Physicist who actually studied space dust and who, based on his discovery of organic perforations found on a meteorite. Asked me if the situation Matt Damon faced in the movie “The Martian” was actually possible.
He was referring of course to cultivating Potatoes in space with the dehydrated fecal matter from the crew. After several light-hearted jokes and belly busting laughs we both agreed that although plausible, the technique used would probably not work as well as it did.
Before the next panel began I tried to sneak a peek at the Technology track panel “Building Successful Ventures from Startup to Exit”.
To my surprise, I had actually shared a table at lunch with Helge Seetzen from Tandem Launch! I kicked myself for not asking him more questions, but because I was dogmatically set on pushing our Biotech agenda I did not capitalize on that opportunity. Lesson learned, at these types of events every interaction can lead to something big!
Lesson learned, at these types of events every interaction can lead to something big!
In any case, I was not able to spend much time at this seminar, the venue was filled to capacity and I had to watch it in a separate room through a projection screen. Even though I was really interested in the topic of discussion I had to leave because the thought of not being around my poster when another networking opportunity surfaced was too much.
One key takeaway that stuck with me from the tech panel (and it really only caught my attention for a moment from the vulgarity of it, as I was fidgeting trying to transfer pictures from one mobile to the other without success) was that everyone agreed on this one thing. Helge went on to explain that at his firm they have the “No Asshole Rule”. The rule devised by Stanford professor Robert I. Sutton was a norm when considering which founders they invested in. I found this quite humorous at first and then realized he was dead serious about it.
For those of you that don’t know, this rule is becoming a standard for deciding whether or not to invest in a startup and their founder. It is basically a canon in the tech industry for minimizing the hostility of work environments in an already stressful enough profession.
Before you say anything I want to add that the aforementioned rule was not my only take away from my short exposure to the panel, even though it did cause me to chuckle. The other important point that stuck with me was the panelist’s emphasis on the founder’s ability to prove themselves as a successful CEO. Some of the metrics they mentioned they used for this were:
- Experience at a prior company
- The founder’s technical and academic background
- Their ability to learn quickly and be organized
- The question whether or not you would work for this person.
The last thing I heard before I left was a shared consensus on the importance of having solid IP protection of your technology. Most founders, he said “waste money on things that are not important. They get sucked into the Hollywood version of company founders. They buy ping pong tables and massage chairs, and skimp out on the important things like IP and licensing agreements”.
I did not attend the Biotech panel on “The Future of Immuno-Oncology” as I felt this was way over our heads for the moment. I chose instead to continue to stand next to my poster in hopes that someone might take an interest in our research, no one did and at around 3 pm I made my way to the Auditorium to hear the closing Keynote speaker.
I know this post is getting a bit lengthy so I ‘ll try to be brief in this closing part. I encourage you to follow the link at the end of the post to read one of the most inspiring speeches I have ever had the pleasure to hear. I guarantee you the time spent will not be wasted.
The Afternoon Keynote
Dr. Gerald Chan delivered the most inspiring speech I have ever heard in my life! I was an instant fan of the man who donated $350 Million Dollars to create the new T.H.Chan school of Public Health at Harvard University and who Forbes called Boston’s Invisible Billionaire
I will not go in too deeply into what Dr. Chan said because I would be denying you the pleasure of reading about his “Reflections on Venture Investing in Biotechnology”. All I will say is that I’ve never met a Billionaire before and standing there at Zhang auditorium with this simple, charming gentlemen and listening to his points of view as an Immigrant and a Philanthropist being eloquently projected at towards the highest echelon of Scientist in the State really resonated with me. His opinions on Research and Social responsibility were shockingly not far from my own, and that was just about the biggest surprise I’ve ever received in my lifetime.
All I will say is that I’ve never met a Billionaire before and standing there at Zhang auditorium with this simple, charming gentlemen and listening to his points of view as an Immigrant and a Philanthropist being eloquently projected towards the highest echelon of Scientist in the State really resonated with me. His opinions on Research and Social responsibility were shockingly not far from my own, and that was just about the biggest surprise I’ve ever received in my lifetime.
His opinions on Research and Social responsibility were shockingly not far from my own, and that was just about the biggest surprise I’ve ever received in my lifetime.
I am not proud of the fact that it has been more than a decade in which I could say I’ve truly idolized anyone. However, seeing Dr. Chan get on his knees in front of hundreds of people to reach off stage for a bottle of water, and poke fun at the Yale – Harvard rivalry was really eye opening. One would think that a man who has accrued over a Billion dollars in investments and studied at top universities ( Even though he did not have an America High School Diploma) would lead a complex life full of turmoil brought about by maximizing financial gains and a high profile lifestyle. Instead, I discovered this wonderfully normal man with a witty sense of humor and a hardy laugh, who laughed at his own jokes as if they were the funniest thing he’s ever heard( and he was actually funny). I will not contine on what this event meant to me, instead, I invite you to look up Dr. Chan and see what others have to say about him.
Instead, I discovered this wonderfully normal man with a witty sense of humor and a hardy laugh, who laughed at his own jokes as if they were the funniest thing he’s ever heard( and he was actually funny). I will not continue rambling on about what this event meant to me. Instead, I invite you to look up Dr. Chan and see what others have to say about him.
O.K. One last point!
There is one thing that Dr. Chan said that really stuck with me and I’d like to pass on to you. In the midst of a new shift in the paradigm of Science where everyone is looking to live forever and maximize returns at any cost, this man left a deep impression on me by his emphasizing the idea that “Without faith, life becomes empty.”
If you would like to read Dr. Chan’s full Keynote Address please visit this link.