Advice for Starting a Biotech Company from a Grad Student turned Entrepreneur

By Margo R. Monroe

Mike Koeris Headshot

As a biomedical engineer and scientist, I like to envision that my research will have a direct impact on healthcare and the community. As a result, I have occasionally pondered translating my research into a startup company. However, like many like-minded people, I quickly realize that a company requires more than just good data to become a product.

I spoke with Dr. Mike Koeris, co-founder and current VP of Business Development & Operations of Sample6, for advice on how to take an idea developed during graduate school and turn it into a biotech company.

Transitioning an idea from academia
to a startup

Mike Koeris and fellow co-founders Tim Lu and others first came up with the idea that would evolve into Sample6 as graduate students in Dr. Jim Collin’s Lab in 2009. From 2009 to today, Sample6 has changed focus and names, swapped leadership, and grown to 25 members. 

  • What is Sample6? Sample6 is an enrichment-free bacterial pathogen detection system that uses synthetic biology to target and light-up bacteria unwanted in food, healthcare settings, etc.
  • What project in the Collins lab inspired Sample6? The initial work focused on using bacteriophages as bacterial therapeutics. This idea was incorporated into Novophage Therapeutics, Inc. in March 2009 and tested in the “market” by competing in business plan competitions. After much learning, the focus of the application was changed, but Sample6 still leverages the core engineering and scientific concepts to engineer bacteriophages and use those to detect unwanted bacteria.
  • How did graduate school help prepare you for the roles and skills necessary to be a succesful entrepreneur? As a co-founder of a biotech startup, Mike explained, his career transitioned away from the bench and became all about finding the best product-market fit for this set of technologies, effectively communicating the advantages embodied, and driving the enterprise value of Sample6.  “Concisely and effectively presenting the value tailored to each and every audience uniquely (not a focus in graduate school usually) is one of the key skills required to achieve success in this business. A good presentation can help win a business plan competition and advance investors to the next stage of diligence." In business competitions everything is conceptual, and the team that packages its pitch the best, wins. He explained that entrepreneurs must clearly communicate their idea at various levels of complexity and abstraction and convince people with diverse backgrounds how amazing their idea is. While communication styles in academia and industry vary drastically, he reassures that one can learn it by reading a broad variety of materials and constantly practicing. “The expenditure of effort in preparation and practice is directly related to success presenting."
  • A journey from graduate student to Founder, CEO, COO and VP. Mike was fortunate enough to be able to spend his last 6 months in graduate school focusing on concept development and participating in business competitions. When the team was unable to secure enough money to sustain a startup, he went to work for Flagship Ventures – a local Cambridge biotech venture capital firm with deep ties into the local academic community. However, Mike still could not remove himself from the idea of starting a company around engineered bacteriophages. He decided to quit his "safety net" at the VC firm and devoted 100% of his energy and effort into making the startup self-sustainable. Within a year from this decision, Mike and his co-founders raised $6 million. The biggest challenge during this time was learning to communicate effectively to non-scientific audiences. "There are 100 ways to tell a story - convince your audience you are doing amazing things."  As Sample6 raised more money, the team grew, and Mike stepped down from his CEO position and became first COO, then moved on to become VP of Business Development & Operations.

Starting a biotech company

When and how does a startup become "successful"? First, Mike explained that the data must be reproducible by someone else. Second, "an entrepreneur must be OK with the constant fear of failure at all stages in the startup". To gain insight into "the random-walk" of a budding startup, I asked Mike to outline 3 pieces that are essential to the biotech startup puzzle:
  1. Nucleation of the team. The team is key, and the initial team is the cornerstone of it all. Without a good nucleus, the company won’t go anywhere. The team should initially consist of 2-3 individuals that are aligned in vision and outcomes. The team must work well together, have complementary skill sets, and “talk a good game." Mike recommends that the team should initially include a visionary, a science-minded individual, and a specialist. Notably, the team must have an upfront conversation about its goals and vision for the company; this will help avoid future complications and potential conflicts that waste money and time. Most importantly, “the company does not become real until someone takes the risk full-time and abandons all safety nets.”

  2. Raising seed money. “Before seeking funding, ask yourself if you really want to do this.” Biotech startups are only successful if they are 100X better than current technology and get customers to change behavior. When you are ready to commit to the company, the internet, crowd funding, federal funding, foundations, and investors are examples of various sources of funding. Always ask for money. Moreover, many universities throw out old equipment that still works. “We use functional spectrometers from the early 1990s that were free and free to repair.” If the team works well, the idea is solid, and “the pitch is packaged to perfection”, seed money will hopefully be raised and the company may begin to prove the technology. This transition takes around 1 – 2 years.

  3. The product is the measure of success. Technology is proven in (A) Productize, (B) Roll out to market, and (C) Break even cycles. Work hard. Work fast. Be flexible. Be quick at failing and succeeding.

Take home

Starting a company requires dedication, passion, and around-the-clock work. Mike wraps it up: “The idea is the easy part! There is no excuse for a startup to fail - it all depends on you and the amount of work you put into it.”

Have any other helpful tips to help transition a project from academia to a biotech startup company? Would you like to contribute advice on how to effectively raise money and/or validate an idea or product? Please let us know in the comments section! And read on for more great information about starting a biotech company.

Suggested reading


Thank you to Dr. Mike Koeris (Co-founder and formerly VP Operations of Sample6) for taking the time to speak with us about the biotech startup process and work environment!

Interested in Synthetic Biology? Read On!

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Topics: Science Careers, Science Career Options

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