Having a clear understanding of the differences between how science is done from an academic standpoint with how it is done in the typical Life Science company can significantly ease the path from discovery to market success. To the uninitiated scientist, the commercial team (Sales people, Marketing people, Business Development folks and the Financial Team) has been viewed as ‘the dark side’ and only interested in driving the business and either not understanding or valuing the role of the underlying science. From the business perspective, there is a concern that company scientists are only concerned with making more discoveries and not pushing towards doing the kind of work required to launch a compelling product. Neither view is accurate. Getting a good understanding of the differences can help to align the critical goals of each of these important parts of the life science company and increase the chances for success.
Why the Confusion?
Some of this confusion is caused by the way that scientists are trained in academia. The increasing pressures that academic scientists are facing to fund their research programs as NIH funding continues to become harder to secure only acerbates this. New relationships between commercial life science and biotechnology companies with academia, often facilitated by university technology transfer offices, are providing new sources of research capital. Strategic partnerships, patenting and out-licensing of intellectual property from research conducted in academia are increasingly filling the government sponsored funding gap. Like it or not, the lines between academic and commercial science have already been blurred.
Confusion is created because academic – commercial partnerships do not really combine the science being done in university labs with the commercialization efforts being done at the outside company. This separation allows traditional roles and attitudes to remain prevalent. In a Life Science company, the priorities of the science, the way that it is conducted, how it is validated and decisions on what projects will be worked on and which ones will be discontinued must be driven by commercial priorities. However, it is equally crucial that the commercial team allows enough freedom to R&D to insure the quality of the experimental and feasibility work and that there is some room for discovery (you never know what killer application you will find or valuable intellectual property your R&D team will develop).
Getting the R&D and Commercial Teams on the Same Side
The following table lists some of the key differences between academic and commercial science.
The scope is wide. New research findings drive the efforts in often unpredictable ways. This process is inherently unpredictable and random.
The scope of the experimental program is very focused. Only work that progresses the science from feasibility to finished product is encouraged.
Improve understanding of scientific or technical discipline
Improve robustness of product and provide initial data to support applications that will support commercialization
Publications, Presentations, Patents
Product Sales, Patents (as part of a strategic intellectual property estate)
Grants, Foundation Sponsorships, consulting fees, licensing fees and royalties
Investments, Sales Revenue, licensing fees and royalties
There is no ‘dark side’ in a successful life science company, just a healthy relationship between the scientific and commercial teams. In both academic and commercial cases, the goal is to produce new technology and science. The only difference is in the path that each of these endeavors use to achieve this.
Complicated co-marketing agreements use up a lot of time and often produce no results. How many times have you met with another company at an industry event and talked about how great both of your products would sell to your respective customers, go home with high expectations only to have nothing really happen.
Here are two questions you should ask yourself before proceeding:
How much time and effort would I expend promoting/selling my new partners product instead of my own?
Will they do the same thing for me?
If the answers to these questions are ‘not much time and effort’, politely move on and find a partner with a better fit. If you really believe that your partner’s customers would appreciate learning about your product and vice versa, read on.
When your product and theirs together might be valuable for some of your respective customers, this can work. You have an instrument – they have analysis software—you have a reagent kit –they have the instrument etc.
Handshake Agreements Start Very Simply:
Determine value proposition of both of your products together
Pick a few of your current customers that might be interested in your new partner’s product and contact them on behalf of your new partner
Provide warm introductions for you partner to these customers. They should be doing the same thing. (Suggest starting with 3 or 4 introductions)
Assess how valuable the leads that you got were from your new partner.
Continue or dissolve the relationship based on how well this is helping you with your sales.
Keeping things simple will allow you to avoid wasting money and time on initially exciting but ultimately ill-fated relationships. Once you have developed a successful relationship based on your handshake (i.e. informal agreement), transitioning to a more formal agreement will be much easier and productive.
One of the best ways to validate your new technology with your customers is with publications (especially those of happy customers). What do you do when you don’t have them yet? Key Opinion Leaders or KOLs can be a great resource for getting things moving in the early days before there is a compelling publication record.
Who are they?
Although most scientist-founders will easily be able to name the key people in their field, it is important to find out who your future customers regard as the Key Opinion Leaders. Set up meetings with your customers, face-to-face if possible, over coffee, in their labs, at trade shows and everywhere and anywhere that you can. You want to generate a candidate list of about 10 – 15 Key Opinion Leaders. During this discovery process, be sure to ask who the ‘up-and-coming’ leaders in the field are as well. The top people can be fickle as they are courted by many whereas the leaders of tomorrow tend to show more loyalty (The up-coming leaders will likely value the relationship more since it can have a bigger impact on their own careers).
Who gets what out of this?
Your goal is to develop a relationship that you and the Key Opinion Leader highly value. When you and your company are valued, the Key Opinion Leader will talk about you at industry conferences, provide valuable insights on what the key issues in the field are and many other tangible and intangible benefits that will help you with your product launch and even early sales. Putting some thought into what you hope to get out of the relationship as well as the benefits for the Key Opinion Leader are essential to maximizing this effort. The two lists below are some examples of the types of things to be considered.
What They Get from You
Free conference attendance and travel
Early access to instrument or product
Free instrument, supplies etc.
Completion of a small study by your R&D team on their behalf
Increased visibility among their peers as you promote them
What You Get from Them
Keynote speakerships at tradeshows
Completion of a small study on your behalf
Testimonials for your marketing team
Publications with your product (eventually)
Early insights in the field with regard to trends and opportunities
Ready, Set, Go!
Now that you know who the Key Opinion Leaders are that your customers most highly regard and what you will do for each other, it is time to reach out to them. These early discussions can set the stage for how well this effort will turn out for both of you. Share with them what you hope to gain and what they could expect to gain from the relationship. By the end of this you should have agreement on outcomes, timelines for when you and they expect to deliver on your commitments, how any issues that come up should be resolved and how frequently you will connect to discuss progress (aim for at least once a month if not more). Having a plan like this in place at the outset will insure that everyone’s expectations are in line and will give you the best possible chance for a successful outcome.
If you are introducing an innovative new scientific product, you will likely need to plan on letting your customers ‘test-drive’ them first. Good life scientists are naturally skeptical and often the only way of getting past this to a satisfied user (that will tell their colleagues) is with a demo. Here are a few tips that should ease this burden and allow you to make the most of this effort.
Only offer Demos to qualified customers.This seems like an obvious one. However, it is easy to offer demos to anyone that shows interest. It is quite another thing to actually conduct them. Be sure that your customer has the authority, budget and is planning to make a purchase in the next 30 days (if the customer is planning on making a purchase beyond 30 days, consider scheduling the demo later. (this is one of the times that being last is best)
Establish clear success criteria for the demo with your customer.Schedule a meeting prior to the demo where you agree on what the customer would consider a successful demo (e.g. sensitivity, maximum measurement range, throughput etc.). This will allow you to unequivocally determine that the demo was a success and remove the final barrier to purchase (I say final barrier as this is a qualified customer – see previous point)
Be sure to use your own sample(s) during the demo.Customers will always want to run their own sample. You can only show how your product performs using a well-tested standard sample. Using a standard sample will allow you to demonstrate how your product works without the confounding effects that might be present in an unknown customer sample. It needs to be clear that you have a tool that should help your customer with their research. A demo should never be a research project (unless you are offering a service and the customer is paying for it). Offer to run the customer’s sample along with your standard sample if the customer is insistent.
A good demo will go a long way to getting your new product into the market. In time, the need for customer demos will decrease. In their place you will be able to use testimonials from satisfied customers, reference customers and even a video demo or two.