Should I Spin Out a Life Science Startup From My Academic Lab?


Innovation Institute Entrepreneur in Residence Michael Hufford recently signed on as CEO of Pitt Spinout LyGenesis Inc. In this blog post he takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to give advice to investigators who are considering whether to leave academia to join a startup built around their discoveries.

A Completely Invalid Personality Quiz for the Budding Entrepreneur

You have discovered something. Something that could improve people's lives.

This discovery may be accompanied by a cherished publication in {insert your dream journal here}. Or maybe a colleague just sold his company for $400 million, and you had that idea first. The reasons why you might want to consider starting a life science company out of your academic lab vary like the number of polymorphic sites in the human genome.

I’m going on 20 years of clinical research (when did that happen?), and as a recovering academic turned entrepreneur, turned part-time Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Pittsburgh’s Innovation Institute, turned CEO of a biotech startup, I pulled together this completely invalid personality quiz to help you decide whether to spin out a life science company from your lab.

It’s like one of those online personality tests from social media sites used to scrape your personal data for nefarious purposes, only there’s no chance  you are going to be told you're Tyrion Lannister from the Game of Thrones at the end of this quiz. Why? Because I’m Tyrion Lannister.


 Do you enjoy asking for money and being told no?

  1. I LOVE being told no— No you don't, no one does (5 points for spirit though)
  2. I hate being told no— Honest answer! (0 points)
  3. Why would I be told no, I just published in Nature?— I understand. Don’t ever change. (-5 points)

If you start a company, you are going to be told no — a lot — by really smart people (some less so) with personal net worth's far in excess of your own. It’s not fun. At all. Worse, the vast majority of them will not take the time to read your brilliant paper that was the pinnacle of 10 years of hard work. 

A CEO friend of mine who’s successfully raised lots of money (and by a lot I mean 8-figure fundraising) put it this way — you aren’t allowed to get discouraged until your 75th ‘No’. Then push on until 100th ‘No’;  THEN you can get discouraged. Fundraising is hard. It’s supposed to be hard. Capital is a constrained resource and raising it feels like squeezing water from stone. The philanthropist Mary Lasker said that, “Money is frozen energy." Unfreezing it is hard. Think Pittsburgh in January.

I know, you just published in Cell. Your science IS, in fact, amazing. But here’s the deal — the people you are raising money from, the serious life science investors, they know a secret: Cell is published every two weeks. Science? It is published every week. In short, good ideas are plentiful. It’s worth pausing here and reflecting on just how hopeful that is for us as a species. Regardless, for investors, this intellectual bounty means that great ideas don't always  get funding. Rather, it is the right idea, at the right time, being backed by great teams experienced in product development that get funded. Maybe. It can also depend on catching people when they are in a good mood. It’s an art and a science.

Do you enjoy spending time away from your family, friends, hobbies, and working harder than your colleagues on projects that, statistically speaking, are very unlikely to succeed?

  1. SIGN ME UP!— Still not sure I believe you, love the spirit though (5 points)
  2. Well, no, but I might be willing to if I get some help— Honest answer (1 point)
  3. Definitely no— Honest answer (consider licensing your technology) — (0 points)

All startups are hard, but life science startups are hard for the same reason marathons are hard. It’s a ridiculously long way from start to finish, and feels even further when you’re in the midst of it.

There’s a saying in startups that working at a startup you can have, at the very most and with great effort, 3 of the following 5 things:

  • Friends
  • Sleep
  • Exercise
  • Hobbies

So, startups are a gut check in terms of desire and grit. A company that I started and sold with two colleagues had a 66% divorce rate among the senior management team. I’m neither kidding nor inferring causation, I just want to say again, and publicly, I love you honey.

Life science start-ups require so much capital relative to other types of companies (software, in particular) that the economics and time to value inflection are just that much tougher.

I launched a mobile health app through iTunes App Store way back in 2009. It was early days on the App Store, and the landscape was replete with digital snake oil if you were looking for a science-based mental health app back. We went from an idea to launch a cognitive-behavioral support app for people struggling with depression in a few months. Seeing our little icon on the App Store a few months after we had the idea felt like we’d just crossed an international boundary with Kruegarrands hidden in the trunk. Surely someone in border control was about to don latex gloves. Surely it couldn’t be THIS easy. Indeed, it wasn’t. Charging $0.99 for an app quickly became untenable. Digital inflation in the age of freeware meant that asking for a dollar was like asking the FDA to ignore one of their own guidance documents. You can ask, but the answer is no. 

 Have you been in close contact with your licensing manager and have made sure that intellectual property (IP) has been filed?

  1. You know it, I know my licensing manager so well I sent their dog a birthday card – Right answer (10 points)
  2. I like to publish first, then think about what if anything needs to be filed in terms of IP – Wrong answer, just… yeah, there are no words (-25 points)
  3. I might have filed some IP about my technology, but I need to check – Go check, I’ll wait… (5 to -10 points, depending on whether you filed an invention disclosure)

Time to score your quiz. I’m kidding, you’re taking this far too seriously. Startups are hard. Life science startups are crazy hard. Your life is easier – so, so much easier – if you don’t start a company. Licensing your technology lets others do the heavy lifting, and while you won’t see the upside (financial-speak for no longer worrying about your kids’ tuition) your life will, undoubtedly, be easier. There are few promises in life. This is one of them.

Still thinking about a life science startup? A final thought for those resolute souls making it this far – advancing life-saving therapies toward the clinic, with colleagues you like and respect, knowing that if you don’t do it, it won’t get done… who knew that life could be so rich?

Interested in finding funding  for your life science innovation?  Click the link below to learn how the Innovation Institute can jump-start your Pitt innovation by providing commercialization funding.

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