Tips for aspiring rare disease startup CEOs

My friend and rare disease advocate extraordinaire, Sean Ekins, recently blogged on RDR about his journey from Big Pharma researcher to CEO of a biotech startup focused on rare disease drug discovery. His posts inspired me to do the same. It’s fitting, because Sean is one of the first people I met in the rare disease ecosystem on Rare Disease Day 2013 at NIH, as I was beginning my own transition from academic trainee to biotech chief executive. Here I am, almost two years later, founder and CEO of Perlstein Lab PBC. In the proud listicle tradition, here are my Top 10 tips for aspiring rare disease startup CEOs, starting with #1 through #5.
1) Company name: Avoid the formulaic. There are far too many biotech NewCo’s with names like X Therapeutics, or Y Pharmaceuticals, or Z Discoveries. Differentiation is key to standing out from the crowd, especially with 7,000 rare diseases. The sages will tell you otherwise but don’t listen to them. I went retro with Perlstein Lab. I also wanted to signal that while we aren’t a family business per se, I’m putting my family name behind what I hope will be a 100-year company. Let's not forget Merck, Eli Lilly, Pfizer – all of these companies were named traditionally, after all.
2) Incorporating: Remember that you have options beyond a vanilla C Corp or a yet another 501(c)3. The PBC in Perlstein Lab PBC stands for public benefit corporation. The benefit corporation option is quite new to corporate law. The first state to pass a benefit corp law was Maryland in 2010. Today, well over half of States have passed similar legislation, including California, Illinois and New York. Most companies form in Delaware because corporate law there is considered friendly to both founders and shareholders. A good compromise is to incorporate as a Delaware public benefit corporation.
3) Slide Deck: Minimalism is key. Less is more is harder than you realize, though. If you’re emigrating from academia, like I was, you must prune! I used Sequoia Capital’s slide deck template, which is based on the popular Problem-Solution axis. A few other slides are de rigueur: addressable market, product summary, and the competition. Aim initially for 10 slides, and put the team slide upfront, which is the opposite reflex coming from academia. I actually put my thoughts on the written page in the form of prospectus first, because I found it incredibly challenging to simplify while retaining substance, to create balanced infographics and consistent iconography, and to apply a light design touch.
4) Networking: Combine targeted online outreach with IRL. In the course of developing your business plan, you’ll want to get feedback from as many complementary domain experts as will assist you. For me, social media, specifically Twitter and my blog, were vital. I was able to find “peer reviewers” on Twitter who helped me sculpt Perlstein Lab’s business plan over the course of a month. Get on Twitter if you want to take control of your destiny, but you’ll have to be on the platform for a while (at least 6 months of regular activity) for it to pay dividends. Proof positive is I met one of Perlstein Lab’s lead investors via a tweet. Avoid entrepreneur mixers, and if you do succumb never pay more than $50 to attend one. You’re as likely to find an investor there as you are a spouse.
5) Weak vs strong leads: The biggest waste of time and sapper of enthusiasm in business, and especially in fundraising, are weak leads. The problem is that you realize it too late when you’re dealing with a weak lead, which can assume many forms. The analogy to dating is apt. Let’s start with the blind date, which is only as promising as the matchmakers are insightful. If you are introduced to a prospective date, whether by email, phone or in a sidebar conversation at a conference or event, always keep in mind how well the introducer knows you and your ideas. Just like in the dating world, cold calling is a mixed bag. Serendipity is key but it’s easy to become too enchanted with the process, just like it’s possible to go on an endless series of first dates. Before you know it you have a stack of 100 business cards but nothing really to show for it. 

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