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Business of science: Tips and tricks for a perfect investor pitch –


Seasoned science entrepreneurs tell Adam Levy how to take the daunting first steps to commercializing your research.
Javier García Martinez at Rive Technology R&D Center, Princeton, NJ (USA).

Credit: Eric Li

Perfect pitch: Adam Levy learns how budding science entrepreneurs can wow potential investors.

If you want your product idea to succeed, one of the first steps is to interest potential investors.

This can be hard for academic researchers, whose previous focus will have been on getting published, winning grants and teaching classes, says Javier Garcia-Martinez, a chemist at the University of Alicante in Spain, and founder of Rive Technology.

Daniel Batten, who coaches chief executives and research scientists and is a managing director of Auckland-based venture-capital company Exponential Founders Fund in New Zealand, outlines the four steps needed to deliver a winning investor pitch.

Levy is joined by Barbara Domayne-Hayman, entrepreneur in residence at the Francis Crick Institute in London; Patrick Anquetil, founder and chief executive of bioengineering company Portal Instruments, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Wei Wu, chief operating officer at HelioHeat in Offenburg, Germany.

They talk about the importance of prototyping, networking and market intelligence.

This episode is part of Business of science, a six-part podcast series exploring how to commercialize your research and launch a spin-off. The series looks at investor pitches, patents, technology transfer, scaling up and how to survive the inevitable setbacks along the way.

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Perfect pitch: Adam Levy learns how budding science entrepreneurs can wow potential investors.

Adam Levy: 0:06

Hello, I’m Adam Levy, and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast.

In this series, Business of Science, we’re taking a look at how scientists can get their ideas out of academia and into…well, into business.

This can be a tricky process, and so we’ve got six episodes dedicated to helping you with the crucial steps along the way.

And perhaps the most daunting step can be the very first.

Here’s Javier Garcia-Martinez, a chemist based at the University of Alicante in Spain, and founder of Rive Technology. Rive uses nanotechnology to improve catalysts,

Javier Garcia-Martinez: 0:51

I think it is more like a cultural thing, right?

When you are in academia, you are so focused to your next paper, to your next grant, to getting ready for your classes, or for whatever. The path is actually quite clear.

It is not easy. It is hard. But you know what to do, you know what’s the next step. Then starting your own company is just a leap of faith.

Adam Levy: 1:16

We’ll be hearing more from Javier, along with many other researchers turned entrepreneurs, throughout the series.

We’ll also be talking to the experts who can help you commercialize your research. That includes steps like technology transfer, registering a patent, scaling up, and bouncing back from any setbacks along the way.

And in today’s episode, we’re looking at what it takes to make that leap of faith as an entrepreneur to commercialize your research and launch a spinoff.

Well, firstly, you need to know that you’ve actually got a good idea. This isn’t easy, as what’s valuable in academia isn’t always the same as commercial value.

Barbara Domayne-Hayman is entrepreneur-in-residence at the Francis Crick Institute in London, where she helps startups start up, as she explains,

Barbara Domayne-Hayman: 2:07

You always have to keep in mind: Is somebody actually going to be prepared to pay for this?

And why are they going to be prepared to pay for it?

And that’s a bit of a different mindset.

And actually, go and check with them, basically, whether actually this is something that’s of interest to them, because if it isn’t, then it’s best not to waste your time, actually,

Adam Levy: 2:31

Asking around is one way to test whether your product actually has a market.

Patrick Anquetil is founder and CEO of bioengineering company Portal Instruments, which aims to replace needle based syringes with their needle free device.

He suggests taking things one step further., and dipping your toe in the commercial waters before diving all the way in

Patrick Anquetil: 2:55

I think that’s the hardest thing, you know, the product market fit is really one that no one has a recipe for it.

And my strongest advice there is to try to find a way to test the market with some form of of prototype product, and then learn from it and then iterate, and so on.

But again, you’ll never figure it out by just sitting in your study, and then kind of imagining what it may be.

Adam Levy: 3:20

If all this seems like a lot to go through before even trying to commercialize your pet product. Patrick has some more advice, Starting a company may not work out. But a fear of failure or encountering setbacks along the way shouldn’t stop you from taking a risk.

Patrick Anquetil: 3:38

I hear all the time: “Gee, you know, Patrick, should I start a company? And should I do this?”

I think if you’re thinking about it, just don’t overthink it. Just do it. I do think there is a possibility, to take maybe more risk. And of course, don’t take unnecessary risk.

All right, don’t mortgage your home just for this. So those are sort of general and you may not like it or you may love it, because you never know if you don’t do it. So that’s what will be kind of my advice.

Adam Levy: 4:03 Patrick says this not because he thinks all businesses started by scientists are bound to succeed. But because scientists are highly employable. That means even if the business doesn’t work out, it doesn’t mean the end of your career. Instead, it’s just the start of a new chapter. We’ll get to dealing with unexpected setbacks in a later episode.

But for now, let’s get back to getting started. Because once you’ve decided that starting a business is for you, and that your product is worth it, well, then you have to start convincing other people to.

Here’s Patrick, again.

Patrick Anquetil: 4.20

I think I think, as an engineer is, it’s very hard.

Because you look at the spec, it’s all specs is good.

What else do you want to know, it’s great.

Adam Levy: 4.25

But of course, it’s not that simple.

If you want your product to make it in the commercial world, you first have to sell that idea to people, most obviously to secure funding.

This means going well beyond the technical details of your product to understand what investors and clients are actually looking for. Questions that academics aren’t necessarily used to answering

Here’s Wei Wu of Helio Heat, who are commercializing a technology for concentrated solar power plants, which Wei developed, in part during her PhD, around a decade ago,

Wei Wu: 5:25

I always thought, okay, if you have a good product, then that should be enough, right?

But it’s not. There’s so much stuff around it, you have to always convince other people that your technology is really good, because you spent like 10 years on it, and you know that it’s good. And you know why it is good. But other people don’t.

So you have to spend at least, I don’t know, 10 years again, to convince other people to believe in that as well.

Adam Levy: 5:55 The process of pitching can feel deeply unnatural to someone from the academic world.

After all, selling a product is a long way from setting out a piece of research in a seminar.

This isn’t just about the content of the pitch, but also the entire tone and approach of these kinds of talks, Here’s Wei again.

Wei Wu: 6:14

So personally, I’m not used to that at all to like really pitch in front lot of people and to try to convince them that our product is really, really cool.

I think I really have to learn that. But I think the more I do that, the better I get. And also, I’m pretty much convinced by our product.

So I really believe that this is something what the world needs, and also can be really part of changing somehow.

So yeah, you have to learn somehow to also be a salesman.

Adam Levy: 6.51

So how does an academic begin to get the skills needed to be a successful salesperson?

Well, fortunately, you’re not on your own.

Daniel Batten is an investor with Exponential Founders Fund. He’s also a coach for potential entrepreneurs with Beyond the Ceiling.

That means he has a lot of experience helping scientists get used to pitching their ideas.

Daniel Batten: 7:14 I’ve now worked with over 500 scientists who have some ideas that could be commercialized.

Adam Levy: 7:21

So I got Daniel on the phone and asked him to share his tips and tricks for a killer pitch. It may seem overwhelming, but Daniel explains that it’s not something you’re born with.

Daniel Batten: 7:32

So pitching is the first skill that you should spend effort and getting good at. Don’t think I’m not good at it. Just think I have the capacity to get better at it.

I can tell you honestly, I was not that great at it. And I got told that by a number of investors very directly,

And I had a moment where I had a decision. Either I could step down and find someone else (that wasn’t gonna happen), or else I could just choose to learn to get good.

Adam Levy: 7:58 Is there something which for you kind of separates the science-y startups from the other kinds of work you do?

Daniel Batten: 8:04 I think the big difference I noticed is with one of the things I love working with scientists is that there’s so much integrity, because let’s face it, no one comes to science to make money, right?

You do it because you love what you’re doing.

And you want to make a difference, or you just love science, or you want to go deep into something.

And so that’s actually a really good basis. Ironically, for starting a business is if you’re doing something because you’d love it, not because you’re trying to do it for profit, that’s a good motivation, and actually makes you more likely to be successful, funnily enough.

Adam Levy: 8:36

Now, when it comes to pitching, what do you think is the first thing that people need to think about when they’re they’re starting to develop their pitch?

Daniel Batten: 8:45

Obviously, you have the message. And that’s a part that everyone gravitates to. Having a great message.

But it turns out, it’s only one component of four. So and they’re all very important. So message is one thing.

Second thing is, it’s not a grant application. So unlike a grant application, you’ve actually got to deliver the thing.

So how you deliver it, the energy you bring to it, your gestures, your movement, your intonation, your ability to pause. All of those delivery features actually matter a great deal. As much as in a movie, you don’t want to see a great script with some lousy actors.

And then the third element is your mindset. If you’re going in thinking, “Oh, there’s probably going to be no good, you know, there’s a low chance of getting funding anyway, they probably won’t one understand it, I shouldn’t be doing this anyway, someone else’s much better,” that’s gonna affect your confidence and it’s going to impact your performance.

Also, if you’re too intent on achieving a certain result, people can tell. So a certain element of non attachment, mixed with confidence at the mindset makes a huge difference.

And the fourth element is is being tactically smart, knowing that, hey, the pitch is important, but how you get to that pitch and then what you do afterwards is also really important.

Adam Levy: 10:00

Now those tips are really useful, I’m sure, for many researchers, but how do you actually put this into practice?

How do you actually do the nuts and bolts of developing a pitch when you’re not used to this kind of public speaking, maybe just seminars?

Daniel Batten: 10:17

First thing is use a structure. And the structure is easy, but it’s like a, it’s like a template or a tool. So if you’re going to build a house, you should have a hammer or a nail gun. So that’s, that’s a simple. And the internet’s full of them, before, you have the right to talk about your science, it’s important you talk about the problem you solve so that when you talk about the science, people can see that it’s relevant. And they really, and they’re curious and interested. So the order is important. And then from there you go on to there’s a bunch of other things he talked about, Hey, who else is doing what. Is anyone else doing something similar? You know, how, how are you going to make money doing this? You know, what’s your business model? So don’t make the mistake of spending too much time talking about the tech. Actually the best way, if you really want to talk about your science or technology, the best advice is not to talk about your science or technology at the first pitch, because then people go, “Okay, I get it, this sounds relevant.” And then they said, “okay, right, tell me more.” And then you can go for gold.

Adam Levy: 11:13

For a lot of researchers, the idea of hyping up your work and making it sound as exciting and cool as possible, might sound quite well maybe quite daunting, maybe even counter what they’ve they’ve learned. How do you get over this hurdle?

Daniel Batten:11:30 Don’t get over it, don’t hype it up. It’s a really bad idea. Keep your scientific integrity for one thing is as a scientist, you, you won’t be able to do that you just won’t be able to hold yourself in high integrity, and you’ll hate doing it. So don’t.

Pitching is not about trying to make things sound better than they are. It’s about trying to make things sound as good as they are, with style and succinctness.

And so one thing I always say to scientists, I say, “Hey, look, if you’re uncertain about some things, tell people. Tell us. Because that actually builds trust. Provided that you also tell us, you know, get us excited about what it could do.”

That combination of talking about what you have the potential to do. And then candor and transparency, about the uncertainties and caveats, is actually the best formula for being influential with people.

Adam Levy: 12:21

Now, in people’s pitches, are there some some points that people often forget to mention, forget to share?

Daniel Batten: 12:30

It’s all the stuff which has to do with the commercials. So it’s like, “Okay, how are you going to make money from this thing?”

It’s important. because. remember this, you’re pitching to not a government body, not a group of scientists, but you’re pitching to someone who, yes, they’re interested in your science. Yes, they want to work well with you. And they themselves want to see how they can get a return on their investment.

So that means they want to hear you talking about how you are going to get customers for your product, or how you’re going to license what you’re doing.

So that’s important.

Simply talking about how much money you’re looking for. Be prepared to ask. I think sometimes people feel shy to ask for money. Practice those parts that you feel less confident with. And just realize that when you’re asking for that money you’re not asking for you, you’re asking for it so that your technology, which is your baby, actually gets to have an impact on the world.

Those are the parts that people often leave out. It’s those commercials, particularly scientists,

Adam Levy: 13:34

Of course, the pitch itself is just half the process. Do you have any tips on responding to questions?

Daniel Batten: 13:42 So when it comes to question time, it’s very different. I say pitching is like a stage play. And questions is like improvisation.

So I would suggest that you practice, and you practice. This is a technique I use a lot in the coaching.

I ask people to get in a group and I get one person to be, like, a really quite aggressive and almost rude investor.

The ruder the better because it’ll help people prepare. And just asking really pointed questions in an aggressive or in a tone which is most likely to put the person pitching off their stride.

Most investors don’t use that style. But if you can practice for that, and if you can practice not only questions but a slightly adversarial practice session, then by the time you actually get those questions, you’ll feel really, you’ll feel overtrained.

Adam Levy:14:39 One thing that I’ve personally always liked to do just in preparation for interviews is thinking “What is the question I really hope they don’t ask? And then trying to answer that.”

Daniel Batten: 14:48 Absolutely. You can actually tell how good your pitch was based on the on the type of questions. Now people will ask some questions at the end such as “So what is it again?” or “So how you to make money?” or “So is it a software or hardware?” That tells you you’ve done a really bad pitch?

And if they’re asking questions such as “So, in the process of scaling to a billion dollar company, tell me about how specifically, you’re going to enter this market.”

What that tells you is they’re interested, they’re intrigued. They’re starting to assume that it’s possible, you could get big, and they are now diving into some specifics.

So that’s a good type of question. The questions you should be getting at the end should be more about, “Hey, you made some bold claims. Give me some evidence for them.” With your pitch, go for curiosity, not closure.

Adam Levy: 15:38 We’ve covered a lot. But are there any other. I suppose, common mistakes that you come across all the time?

Daniel Batten: 15:44 Oh, look, plenty. Real simple delivery thing is how you engage with your slides.

So we have this wonderful tool called PowerPoint. And let’s be honest, what’s the most common association?

We say, “Hey, look, I’m gonna give you this PowerPoint presentation.” You know, is it a highly energized response? I can’t wait, or is it like, oh, gosh, so so I think we all know the answer. And there’s a reason for that. And that’s most people don’t know how to use it.

They do a terrible job. It’s stuffed full of information. Its got way too much for people to read.

And they basically end up making a decision between reading the PowerPoint or listening to you. Bad idea.

But when you’re actually using it as a visual aid along with you as a speaker, it’s the prop, not the main actor. And so as such, it should have very few words.

Number one, number two, one idea per slide, number three. Don’t use fonts that are less than 20 points, because I’m not going to read them.

And the other thing is, you see people do this a lot, turning around and reading their slides.

Now the moment that happens, you’ve actually lost one of the most powerful delivery techniques to connect to your audience. And that is your eyes, because you’ve lost eye contact with your audience. It’s one of the most common mistakes.

And I say this not because it adds professionalism. You lose connection. And when you lose connection with people, you can’t influence them.

And when you’re not influencing them, they won’t invest.

Adam Levy:17-08.

It might seem like getting started in the commercial world is overwhelming. But Barbara Domayne- Hayman, who we heard from earlier, is keen to emphasize that you can do it. You just have to teach yourself the skills much like you do in academia.

Barbara Domayne-Hayman: 17:24 I mean, none of it is rocket science. I mean, compared to actually doing science, you just have to learn how the world operates. And you have to kind of listen very carefully. And you have to build networks.

I mean, that is so important. And nobody’s born with this knowledge. Everyone has to learn it at some point. So yeah, always ask.

Adam Levy: 17:47

Pitching is just one of the skills to hone to commercialize your research. And in the next episode, we’re going to be talking about a career landmark that you almost certainly need. Getting your product patented.

For many scientist entrepreneurs, this is a huge step equivalent, perhaps to getting your first paper published, or is it?

Well, we’ll be finding out next week. Make sure you tune in for that discussion.

This has been Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Thanks for listening. I’m Adam Levy.