Tales from an upstart

To catalyze the birth of the biotech’s next pioneering entrepreneurs — an ambitious task for an incubator let alone a single first year undergraduate. Yet just one year later — one year from day when it was just an idea in my head — BioSynergy has exploded from a student magazine into an international phenomenon with 30,000 copies being delivered into the hands of the world’s leading biotechnology executives and scientists at this week’s BIO International Convention in San Diego. I have had the rare privilege of seeing my idea be tested by, and become, reality.

And I think that I have some insight to share with entrepreneurs who are starting out with just an idea.

“Just an idea.”

Doesn’t that sound disparaging? We’re naturally drawn towards large numbers and well-known names, but rarely do we think about businesses in the context of the idea. It’s what distinguishes venture capitalists from laypeople. Their industry is fundamentally about the generation and execution of ideas. Thinking about BioSynergy like a venture capitalist, it becomes more than a magazine. It is a concept. Its success is dependent upon the execution of an idea: the idea that we should continuously be reminded of the entrepreneurial values that underlie biotechnology through a forum of executives, scientists and students alike.

While it espouses and explores the importance of entrepreneurship, the magazine is also an example of entrepreneurship. This gives me a unique lens –- from both a professional as well as personal perspective –- through which to look at the growth of an entrepreneurial company from start-up to large multinational non-profit.

Let me relate to you a story that illustrates the ingredients that have proven important to me as an entrepreneur.

A young neurotechnology entrepreneur from California three years into his first start-up cold-called me the other day wanting to provide advice from “an early-stage entrepreneur to a potential entrepreneur.” The parallels between BioSynergy and his own entrepreneurial career quickly became apparent to me.

He told me that he had come from a long line of doctors and had gone to UCLA with the intention of becoming a neurosurgeon. “All of my friends went to medical school – Harvard, Stanford, you name it. Yet I was so enthralled and excited by neuroscience that I knew I had to pursue it.”

Even though we’d never spoken before, I felt a déjà vu. Certainly, when I started BioSynergy it was like a splinter in my mind that couldn’t be removed and it led me to write a business plan during the middle of my exams in first year. So, passion is the first obvious ingredient.

“I view myself as becoming one of the leaders in neurotechnology in the next twenty years.”

While luck obviously plays a role, BioSynergy‘s international debut was not unforeseen. My co-founder and I wrote that we intended to expand to the US and be covered by news outlets such as the New York Times in the second year of our existence. Our initial budget was close to $100 000. We were brushed aside, and yet ironically at the end of the day, our actual year one budget was very close to that. We had the audacity to even hand our first ever interviewee, Andrew Marshall, Editor in Chief of Nature Biotechnology, our amateur business plan that he never read. Yet in the last month he has become receptive to the idea of joining our Board of Directors. Boundless ambition is the second ingredient.

“I’m only an early-stage entrepreneur, so this will be the first of many companies I start.”

BioSynergy certainly has significant upward potential. Many postdoctoral, doctoral and graduate students from every Ivy League campus have contacted me. Many view the magazine as a legitimate portfolio piece for a career in science writing at Nature or Scientific American. I’d already decided before being cold-called that I wanted to leave BioSynergy because the transition from a start-up to a multinational organization necessitates the implementation of bureaucracy – something I loathe. However, this made me realize why (at least on principle and ignoring the financial incentives and power) many “serial entrepreneurs” don’t stay with one company to build it into the next Fortune 500 company. The moment that happens, the very personal start-up experience is lost as consultants and market researchers become half of your identity. So restlessness in the face of maturation and complacency is a third ingredient.

“It’s going to be challenging. I’ve been working for the last three years trying to secure venture capital financing. The climate is rough. They want something that will make money right away.”

A lot of entrepreneurs wonder if they must choose between substance (a good product based on great science) or marketing (the hype that gets the money). The correct choice is both. Despite the quality of our product and the ideals it strives for, we literally begged for money for eight months until we decided to market ourselves at the BIO International Convention, which changed our economics. A viable business strategy is the fourth ingredient.

“My professors never trained me to go into industry, so I had to sort of leave.”

Certainly many of the criticisms against large pharmaceutical companies and their inability to innovate due to an excessive focus on marketing drugs are valid. A parallel threat for commercialization exists in the case of BioSynergy where the potential for increasing financial clout might take precedence over the quality and editorial integrity of the magazine itself. Ruthless pursuit of innovation and self-reflection is the fifth ingredient.

Fundamentally, BioSynergy is an affirmation of entrepreneurial values at multiple levels. Readers are interested in reading stories that illustrate entrepreneurial qualities, and their desire to engage and promote such activities reveals the genuine motivations behind the pursuit of biotechnology despite the negative stereotypes generated by some in academia. BioSynergy‘s success is an affirmation of the potential rewards that entrepreneurial values can engender, thus revealing why we should seriously aim to cultivate them even if only one student in every thousand students actually executes.

At a macro level, like any industry, biotechnology is driven by greed. But at the micro level, it is an extremely intimate opportunity to help millions of patients at once. BioSynergy has succeeded in proving that both through its stories, the behavior of the biotechnology industry and the affirmation of entrepreneurial risk-taking through its very formation.

On a personal level, BioSynergy has been an extremely rewarding experience. And from the feedback we’ve received from both students and executives alike, our readers have enjoyed it very much. One year in and we’re counting the MIT Technology Review and The Scientist as our legitimate competitors. Being christened an “entrepreneur” — albeit a “potential one” by an entrepreneur — I’m living up to that name by starting a new publication in neurotechnology. Aging demographics, $2 trillion market potential and the possibility for enhancement… Just fascinating. Yet The Neurotech Review – The Authoritative Source on Neurotechnology will be the first on the market.

Good luck to all the existing scientific publishers. You’ll need it.

Justin Chakma

Justin Chakma is an summer associate intern at the San Diego office of Thomas, McNerney & Partners, a $600M health care venture capital fund. See more…