For life sciences startups, it is hard to escape the oft-repeated advice: Don’t make your pitch deck too technical! After hearing this repeatedly, it can begin to feel like an academic, scientific background is a hindrance when it comes to writing a pitch deck. However, there are certain parallels between scientific communications and pitching that the astute scientist can take advantage of.
Read on to discover four tips for translating your scientific communication into fundable pitches, with input from three scientist-entrepreneurs who have done it.
1. Know the Audience
Scientists are generally trained to communicate with other scientists, not with the general public. However, scientists often have experience writing and presenting to different audiences within their communities. An academic lab meeting may call for a “zoomed in” version of a talk, since one’s lab mates will already be familiar with the topic. However, a talk given to a more general audience, such as a broadly focused conference, will often include more background and explanation of the significance of the work and less specifics on exactly how experiments were carried out. In other words, this talk will be relatively “zoomed out.” Now take the idea of zooming out to see the bigger picture and multiply it by a few factors of ten. That is the level of science that an investor wants to see, hence the phrase, “10,000 foot view.”
As a startup founder who is looking for funding, the audience for a pitch deck will be investors or large biotech/pharma/medical device companies. These are two distinct groups that have different expectations. One difference is in the level of scientific detail that each audience will find useful. For the business development team at a large biotech/pharma/medical device company, they are likely to send a deck to their scientific experts, so they want to see more detail from the outset. Whereas an investor will wait until they are interested enough in the business to ask for detailed scientific information, a big company already has the business side dealt with in-house. They are interested in finding out if a startup has de-risked a technology enough to be worth investing in and possibly acquiring.
A pitch includes much more than the 10,000 foot view of a startup’s technology. According to Mickey Pentecost, PhD, co-founder and CEO of Diadem Biotherapeutics:
It’s not so much ‘tone down the science,’ it’s focus on what the investors are interested in. Include the broad vision, what you’re going to make, the solution and pain points you’re solving, show that you know your customer, and that there’s a plausible exit.
Investors are trying to figure out if the business is likely to succeed, and there are many other factors besides the science that are involved. To cater to this audience, a pitch should include information about the team, whether there is a market for the product, whether the startup has filed or licensed any patents, what milestones have been achieved, the timeline for development, and how much everything will cost. Once these baseline checkboxes are ticked off, then investors want to see what the innovation is, but in a way they can easily understand. Andrew Gray, PhD and CEO of Karma Biotechnology says,
It’s a mistake for scientific founders to try to put all their preliminary data in the deck because the investors glaze over quickly. They don’t want to get confused and be made to feel stupid.
Dr. Gray’s advice sums up the message of this section: Don’t make the audience feel stupid.
2. Everything is a Story
Although it is not usually described as such, scientific writing tells a story. Within a good paper, conference presentation, or grant application, there are answers to the following questions:
- What did you/are you going to do?
- Why is this important?
- How did you/are you going to accomplish it?
There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. Pitch decks also tell stories and answer the same kinds of questions, but they emphasize different parts. Scientists are already experienced in telling one kind of story and a pitch isn’t all that different when you break it down.
First and foremost, a pitch is not purely scientific story. A pitch is a business story, in which the science plays a supporting role. In scientific communication, the story is built around a hypothesis of how something works. In a pitch deck, the “hypothesis” is that the business will be successful. Therefore, the preliminary data for a pitch deck will not just include an overview of the technology, but also the other aspects that contribute to a successful company. Those other aspects include equally important regulatory, marketing, financial, and team concerns that can make or break a startup.
As a PhD in the biomedical sciences and now a startup founder, Dr. Gray understands the transition from scientific writing to writing for investors:
When writing a grant, the narrative comes from the logical progression of experiments. For a pitch deck, it has to be more emotional than logical.
This brings up an important aspect of storytelling—the best stories are the ones that evoke emotion. The biotech and medtech fields have huge impacts on human health, so the emotional side of the story is more straightforward than for many other types of startups. Why should an investor fund this startup? Because it will help people live longer, healthier lives. That is a much more compelling story than, “because this scientist is curious whether or not this technology will work,” or, “because this technology is really cool.”
3. Build Credibility in the Right Areas
Scientists with advanced degrees already have a leg-up on credibility. For the most part, the letters, “PhD” after a name will garner a certain amount of trust from others, even without any other information about the person. Dr. Pentecost emphasizes this point:
You’re not defending your thesis—you are the expert of your domain. If you state something to be technically true, your audience will believe you. You don’t have to prove every point. This is out of most scientists’ comfort zones because you’re used to having to support your interpretation of the data. But for pitching investors, you are the expert in the room.
This is why, during a short pitch presentation, all a scientist needs to do is state the basic premise that your technology is built on, and then move on. The audience will believe you—or at least willingly suspend disbelief for the time being.
However, the credibility that an advanced degree confers only counts on the technical side. An entrepreneur also needs to be seen as a credible business leader who can not only oversee the development of a technology, but also overcome setbacks, manage business relationships, and make responsible financial decisions. This is the kind of credibility that scientists may have more difficulty with. Dr. Gray has encountered these difficulties before and learned:
Investors don’t measure a founder’s credibility by the number of papers he or she has published, but by whether the founder can show them they will be willing to keep going in the face of challenges.
How exactly can a scientist show that in a 10-slide pitch deck? Dr. Gray says, “In academia credibility is based on papers and grants, but in startup world it’s based on how much you’ve gotten done with no money and few resources.” Thus, a founder demonstrates that they are up to the challenge by explaining the major obstacles they have already overcome while starting this company. Note the key word: “major” obstacles. This advice is not an invitation to include all of the preliminary data in the pitch deck. Rather, this means the entrepreneur must demonstrate that they have accomplished big steps, such as securing intellectual property, conducting primary market research, and achieving a significant technical milestone. Getting these things done on a shoestring budget demonstrates a founder’s tenacity, work ethic, and resourcefulness. It also shows the investor that the entrepreneur is fully committed to the business.
Another type of credibility ties together the emotional aspect of a pitch and an entrepreneur’s commitment to their business. That is the credibility of the founder’s motivation. Startups are hard work and most will fail, so it’s important that a founder’s determination comes through in the pitch. One way to demonstrate that quality is if the founder has a personal connection to the problem their company is trying to solve, such as a family member who has the disease that they are trying to cure. Of course many entrepreneurs won’t have this kind of connection, so they can talk about their enthusiasm for improving human health.
4. Stay Focused on the Goal
Just as one can't include the experiments that don't directly support the hypothesis in a paper, a pitch must be similarly focused on proving that the startup will succeed.
A pitch to an investor is an exercise in persuasion. The entrepreneur is working to convince the investor to provide them with a large amount of money to do something no one has done before. Therefore, it is important to stay focused on that goal and not get side-tracked by the science. That means going against what is second-nature to many scientists: Identifying the flaws in their own data and theories. When communicating with an investor, an entrepreneur should focus on the positive during the initial conversations. The goal of a pitch deck or pitch presentation is to get the investor interested enough in your company that they want to have another meeting.
Once the company moves on to the due diligence stage, the goal changes. Due diligence is about building trust between the startup and the investor, which means providing much more data. It also means being open and honest about where the holes are in the data. Most life sciences investors will hire scientists to participate in the due diligence process, so they will find the holes anyway.
For a startup that is hoping to partner with a large company, the initial pitch and due diligence processes are somewhat merged, since the pitch deck will likely be passed on to a research and development team from the beginning. The goal with a large company is to show them a solution to a problem they have already identified. Large biotech/pharma/medical device companies advertise the areas and indications for which they are interested in acquiring technologies. They already have teams who are experts in these areas, so they know what solutions have been tried and failed. The startups’s aim, therefore, is to show that their solution is unique and does not share the same flaws as previously attempted technologies.
The next step with a large company is also due diligence, but the team will face extra scrutiny. A large, publicly-traded company takes on significant risk by partnering with a startup, so they want to know who they are dealing with. Additionally, the research and development team will likely interact closely with the startup, so it’s important for them to get along. Therefore, the goal in this second phase of communication is to set the stage for teamwork between the two organizations. Donald Johnson, PhD, Founder and Executive Partner of Johnson Consulting says,
Building relationships with the teams within companies is extremely important. You’d be surprised how much their guards come down when it’s clear that you’re a good group to work with that knows their stuff technically.
The overarching goal is to get funded, but by understanding how that is broken down into discreet steps, startups have a better chance of success.
Learning New Things
For a scientist moving from academia into the business world, the transition can seem daunting. But many of a scientist’s skills are transferable into the startup world--with some adjustments. More and more, scientists are making the leap from universities to startups and are utilizing their most valuable transferable skill: learning. Scientists are excellent learners and this new form of communication that is a pitch is just something new to learn. According to Dr. Pentecost, who went from a UCLA postdoc position into a startup,
Pitching can be liberating to scientists. A lot of scientists are hesitant to talk about the big vision. They want to talk about the incremental steps because the big vision can almost sound crazy considering the time and work involved, but if you believe it’s feasible you have to sell that vision.
To learn more, read this post for a slide-by-slide guide to creating a biotech pitch deck.