By David Sable, M.D.
There are no windows in room 227 of the Seeley Mudd Building, just white painted cinderblock walls and harsh fluorescent lights. The chalkboard is green, and the erasers are saturated with yellow chalk dust. It’s 9 a.m. on a Friday, not exactly prime time for undergraduate and master’s-level students, most of whom seem to start their weekends on Thursday afternoon. But it’s not like that in room 227; for the 42 students in BIOT4180: Entrepreneurship in Biotechnology, the work is just starting.
It’s week two, “Bad Elevator Pitch” week, and for the first time the students will be presenting. Their assignment was simple and intentionally lacking in specifics: Present a company idea in 3 minutes. And, paradoxically for a group of high-achieving Columbia University students, I ask them not to prepare. I don’t want them researching pitching techniques, searching for “elevator pitch” on Google or YouTube, and — please, please — do not watch old episodes of Shark Tank. Instead, I want them to sprinkle fearlessness on top of their creativity and intelligence and do their intuitive best.
The class evolves every year. Since 2011, BIOT4180 has ranged from seven-student bootcamps to 400-plus person megacourses, but Bad Elevator Pitch week has been around from the beginning. Today, I ask for volunteers, but no one raises a hand. One student types away on his phone as class starts, a violation of our class rule prohibiting electronics. His transgression translates into volunteering to go first. The three students who enter class late are the next volunteers, after which, several more step forward on their own. I ask a few pointed questions to each presenter. I also lead a quick burst of supportive applause as each return to their seat.
The pitches are energetic, well thought-out, clearly stated — and generally awful.
“My idea is this. Here’s my idea. Here’s more about my idea.” Repeat.
The pitches may be awful, but the ideas are great. Imaginative and relevant, many suggest a novel use for a new technology and genuine classroom and laboratory experience applied to an imagined and idealized marketplace in the real world.
We consider several definitions for entrepreneurship, including the creation of a new business and the opportunity to express creativity and imagination in an economic setting. Ultimately, we define it broadly as the process by which we translate our best ideas into tangible solutions.
Starry-eyed ambition and idealism meet the cold realities of the marketplace.
No new business is more challenging than a biotechnology company, so we use this industry as a scaffold upon which to apply our principles and stress test our theories — in the most demanding economic conditions we can create. It’s an industry with years-to decade-long product development cycles, ever-expanding cash, and resource and expertise needs, all absent the precise financial data upon which we can model credit qualifications. This leaves the biotech entrepreneur with only one currency with which to grow a company: equity in the company itself. With the first dollars of revenue years in the future, valuing that equity is a lot more art than science (or engineering). It’s no wonder none of the students wanted to be the first to present to the class.
4 QUESTIONS FOR BIOTECH ENTREPRENEURS
We teach the earliest stages of entrepreneurship by answering four broad questions:
- How do we create a new entity and tell the world (and investors) about it?
- How do we document our progress?
- What is unique to our company and how do we protect that?
- How do we pay for all this now and going forward?
Bad Elevator Pitch week is our first step in answering question number one. After listening to an hour of well-intentioned but unconvincing pitches, I give the students a formal “how to talk about your new company” template. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking — so much for “the opportunity to express creativity and imagination in an economic setting” a hundred or so words back. But this is no one-size-fits-all script; it’s more of a series of cues presenting key factors that 1) define the new venture, 2) validate the entrepreneur, and 3) work them into a conversation that draws in the listeners who may be future collaborators, employees, partners, or funders (i.e., the people who care about the new company), while efficiently excusing everyone else to occupy some other role in the budding entrepreneur’s life (e.g., friend or potential spouse).
The steps in the template are:
- Give your project a name. Until it has a name, it will be thought of as your hobby.
- Find a very short way to describe what you’re doing.
- Listen and look for an interested-in-hearing-more signal.
- If the signal is positive, move to elevator pitch. If the signal is negative, change the subject.
We break down the pitch itself into five elements (I have seen this elsewhere; happy to give proper credit if anyone can point me to a primer source).
- Describe the problem you are solving.
- Describe the people suffering from the problem. Don’t move to step three without feeling that you and your listener agree that the problem is real and worth tackling.
- Now is the time for an energetic, well thought-out, clearly stated, and what would be, if it was presented in isolation, a generally awful pitch, but which is in context probably a pretty convincing description of your best idea.
- Describe yourself and why you are a good person to execute on this.
- Finish up with a number (this should be the first number that you mention) that puts the opportunity in context: a population size, a dollar amount, or an aggregate societal benefit, for example.
What next? Stop, and listen. Listen and look for another interested-in-hearing-more signal. If the signal is positive (e.g., How do I get in touch with you if I want to hear more? Do you have a business card/ deck/business plan/executive summary you could give me?) — great.
"Few areas of the economy will move as quickly as biotechnology during the rest of this century."
Few areas of the economy will move as quickly as biotechnology during the rest of this century. This future progress depends on business leaders who can combine deep domain and technical expertise with organizational and managerial talent. These are leaders who can build parallel divisions within the same company, one that creates inspired applied science and another that finds a way to finance that value creation, and they do this years before there is a marketplace in which the product can be priced and efficiently bought and sold.
We do our part in room 227 Seeley Mudd, Friday mornings at 9.
DAVID SABLE, M.D., teaches Entrepreneurship in Biotechnology at Columbia University.