Why the Lab Bench Scientist Really Matters in Biotech Startups

The role of the lab bench scientist in the success of biotech startups is often overlooked, here’s a list of the most common problems the scientists spot.

Recently, a colleague drew my attention to the website of CBInsights and a report from some time ago concerning the top 20 reasons a startup company might fail. After postmortems were carried out, failure was usually found to be due to an unwanted product, a lack of cash, and not having the right team, in that order.

Prior to joining SOSV (Sean O Sullivan Ventures) and its startup accelerator RebelBio, I had spent 15 years as a scientist, working both on the lab bench and at the business interface of other biotech startups. During that time, I became familiar with a set of problems often only recognized from the scientist’s perspective that seemed to arise in most companies at some stage and to varying degrees.


So when I shared the report with a number of former colleagues and other scientists from the broader community, we came to the conclusion that the factors outlined by the report are indeed correct, but they’re just the final catastrophic consequence of even more common and basic problems that tend to occur in conjunction with those the report highlights. Here’s a list I’ve put together with the most common issues those working on the bench point at.

Unreproducible science

This might sound surprising to some, but a Nature survey has revealed that 70% of scientists have encountered published work they couldn’t reproduce. Unfortunately, this won’t surprise a lot of biotech investors. Bruce Booth of Atlas Ventures, a VC firm that focuses on biotech startups, has written candidly about this topic. The reasons are varied but, in general, massaging of results, selective viewing and a strong laboratory bias are to blame. One would imagine that before a technology is commercialized, its inventor is sure of its veracity. However, such belief can lead to conformational bias, and a laboratory may allow for junior staff to be pressured (unspoken or otherwise) into producing certain results.

Lab bench scientist Biotech startup

Scaling or location dependence

While a lab-scale product is possible, scaling up can sometimes be extremely difficult or impossible. In addition to this factor, the expenses required for upscaling may be prohibitive. On top of that, many laboratory scientists’ interpretation of what is fully scalable may be magnitudes short of industrial requirements.

Limited due diligence 

Investors in biotech obviously vary when it comes to their understanding of technical details and this may leave early-stage VCs vulnerable if they don’t have the right staff or support. MPM Capital, an early-stage life sciences venture firm, has Christine Bardon and renowned bioscientist Patrick Baeuerle as key players in its investment team, but this isn’t always the case. Funds with a diverse biotech scope might not be able to cover the range of complexity involved. Even allowing for this, most eminent scientists and chief scientific officers are actually far removed from the daily grind of lab work. They may not see the devil in the detail and often don’t appreciate the gravity of what might appear to be a small technical problem.

Communication split between business and science 

The disconnection between sales and marketing departments and scientists can lead the former to perceive that the product is at a more advanced stage of development than it really is. This can result in overpromising to investors, partnering entities or, worse, to customers – leading to a string of broken promises that can harm the company brand and investor trust.

Overemphasis on science and avoiding business 

Usually a problem with scientific founders, who create a company based on working science and then proceed to spend all resources and time in perfecting the product, while simultaneously ignoring all other facets of having a business. Companies like these exist in name only. They can usually be found in universities and university-based incubators, and would really benefit from proper business acceleration before they become zombified.

Lab bench scientists biotech startups

A common result of these issues is that the product either doesn’t make it to the market or, if it does, it’s not at the right time and without all the specifications that were initially intended or promised. Most will simply explain the consequent failure by saying there was no market or the company ran out of cash, but they would only be telling half the story.

The key to solving these issues is communication. Knowing our own roles and trusting each other to carry them out is all part of being in a good team. However, technical co-founders should never allow themselves to be coddled in their labs. It is their job to communicate with the business staff in a two-way conversation. More importantly, as the business grows, it is their responsibility to ensure that the line of communication runs from the bench up to the chain of command. Likewise, taking on the business development should not be seen as a license to ignore what’s happening at the bench.

In RebelBio, we insist that the companies we invest in and which go through our accelerator program in Cork work as a team. To that end, we provide the lab facilities where we see scientific development in line with their business. The role of the CTO and CSO is just as important to us as the CEO. By working in harmony, these companies consistently demonstrate that technical milestones can be achieved quickly, and often with lean resources. The challenge for these companies is to keep up their good habits as they grow.

The team at RebelBio

The team at RebelBio

John Carrigan CSO RebelBio SOSV

John Carrigan, PhD, currently works as the Chief Scientific Officer of SOSV’s life sciences accelerator program, RebelBio. The accelerator, based in Cork, Ireland, offers seed funding, lab space and mentorship to biotech startups.

Images via Macrovector, emin kuliyev, anyaivanova /Shutterstock;  John Carrigan

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