Cross-Border Mentoring for Life Sciences Start-ups

Pubblicato il 26 Nov 2018

Mar Eroles is a neuroscientist reconverted into a tech-transfer passionate, always working towards value-based science to the patients. INDACO Venture Partners’s investment team, Jury member at the SME Instrument in the European Commission, former General Secretary of AMCES and EMCC Spain, former President of Innovation Forum Barcelona and mentor of several acceleration programs in Europe. She writes for Startupbusiness about the mentoring experience that is a two-ways learning approach and works on international level.

The European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC) describesmentoring as the activity of transferring knowledge from someone experienced in one field to someone else lessexperienced in the subject. In my view, mentoring is also a personal connection between the mentor and the mentee where both grow and learn from each other in different ways. You can teach marketing, finance, sales, experience in different markets or emotional management and personal development, but a company is always gonna give you back more: challenges to solve.I am not sure if I would fit in this description, but I fell in love with the activity through my personal mentor and friend Xavier Casares, President of AMCES and EMCC Spain, two years ago and ever since I have been mentoring companies to become more successful in my free time.

Since I started working in the life sciences innovation field I have somehow been feeling like a mentor. There’s so much to do when a new project starts upthat you can always help with, and that’s what I have been doing for the last years. I discovered the laboratory was not what motivates me the most, but the impact science can make on people’s livesand how scientists can reconverttheir research into a new tool society can use to improve the standards of living.

My first experience as a mentor was in a global accelerator called ‘’IMAGINE IF!’’ while I was working as a life sciences analyst, teaching scientific entrepreneurs in Spain and the UK how to pitch to investors, and basically,don’t throw to their face a bunch of research papers they don’t understand. I liked the initiative so much that I enrolled inthe global network who manages the program, Innovation Forum. Becoming its president in Barcelona after a while, and ending up managing the programme, not as a mentor now but as the coordinator of all the process. At the same time, I became part of the Spanish mentoring association for start-ups, where we worked to build up a better and more professional mentor community with real tools and international accreditations and standards or teaching with EMCC (European Mentoring and Coaching Council). Now, from Italy,I continue helping scientists thanks to Open Accelerator by Zambon and I was recently involved in the global programme Bind4.0 in Spain for the healthcare companies to scale up their technologies, one of the biggest challenges they have to face while developing the product.

That means is only passion what motivates a mentor to give its time? I would say it is inevitable to learn as a mentor too,through the entrepreneur’s experiences and problems they have to face, it doesn’t matter how senior you are. Personally, I always feel I’m given back more inputs than I could ever teach. The problems and doubts they have at the beginning are just overwhelming for anybody and I  am happy to hear to them so we can solve all of these difficulties together.

So, what can you expect from a life sciences company? Everything. Usually driven by a researcher who realized that the work he/she has done so far in its career its worth something well beyond research papers and starts to kick off a company that will eventually become a product to improve society. In 10 years. Maybe. That’s the beauty and the hardship about scientific companies, the highly motivational component with an infinite pile of challenges to face, and most of which we won’t even know in the beginning.

Now let’s see this situation from a higher perspective. Let’s talk internationally. Cultural shocks.

I had the privilege to not only be a mentor in my country, Spain,but also in Italy and the UK, and guess what? My mentees are hugely different. The start-upecosystem is vital to develop this kind of projects. Complicated why? Because healthcare is highly regulated,because developing these technologies costs millions,because founders usually have no idea of what a company is about. So, the ecosystem where they develop their project determines how successful canthey become and how fast they can archive their goals.

The UKis the country in Europe that generates more life sciences companies (KPMG, 2018)and it’s not by chance, not at all. Some of the best research centersin the world are based in the UK, they have plenty of acceleration programmes across the country, and more importantly, they live in a business-orientedculture that makes a difference in how they think about starting a company. All of this made myexperience a bit different. I had a company from Imperial College of London, they were completely aware of the ‘’basics’’ of entrepreneurship in life sciences, they wanted to know more precise details like how to approach investors, how to present scientific data to a business angel, or where they should get information to design a trial for a potential partner. Besides this, they had already a balanced team skilled with both science and business, and they have it and rocking it nowadays. I caught up with them after two years to find out they are becoming a successful company fundraising money for the next pilot besides the H2020 grant they got last year. So impressed by them.

Spain is the country where I had more exposure to start-ups and working withthem has beena whole learning experience since I started as a nobodyin the ecosystem. Spanishentrepreneurial culture hasbeen growing exponentially, especially inthe last few years with more accelerators, incubators, consultants, research centers and governmentalincentives for the companies. Founders are finding in hubs like Barcelona, Bilbao, Madrid, Valencia, Galicia or Granada oasis of entrepreneurial knowledge that is translated to an increase of new life sciences companies all around the country. Although there are many thingsthat makethe Spanish environment different to that of the UK, the capital first of all. The constant lack of private capital for the companies is a strugglethey face and, unfortunately, usually kills them even before starting. A scientific company based in Spain is highly driven by its budget, which makes them extremely competitive in a,still small, environment. What does it meanto a mentor? Basically, they not only have technical doubts on regulatory affairsbut are particularly interested inhow to go international and attract international investments to their companies.

Finally, Italy. The country I just moved in and I started to get to know the last months. I am involved as a mentor in an accelerator program for life sciences companies funded by a pharmaceutical company inItaly. That speaks out for itself. Italian scientific companies are in a growing market of opportunities and I found extremely interesting how big companies are backing up the pathway to innovation. Never seen such an involvement of the corporateworld in the small players, and how interested they are in getting more innovative to disrupt their markets. Italy has an industrial innovative background that clearly makes a difference for startupsbecause once you have an idea you need to try it, to test it, to make a pilot in the real world that tells you if your direction is correct or if you’re messing up. As a mentor,I did my best to help them withtheir business plans addressing how to use this industrial component and how they can take advantage of it.

Does this mean the startups have nothing in commonand are totally segmented by the field and country?  Not at all. It is true each of this factors makes a difference and the niche of healthcare has its complications…but at the end of the day a scientific entrepreneur and a lawyer who wants to digitalize its sector have to face the unknown. Every entrepreneur is an entrepreneur because is starting something new, with a high risk, without an idea to prove to the world, and is someone who needs the support of its close circle to don’t give up. In conclusion, if we move to the personal area, we would find more similarities than differences, that’s for sure.

Countries and cultures will always make a difference inhow our innovation is developed. We are living inthe fourth industrial revolution andwe will shape it as we wish throughour daily decisions and connections across our communities. Beingwell connected never has been so easy and so important at the same time, cross-culturalwork is not only a reality, it’s a need of our era. A journey of several inputs and cultural shocksthat could never end, and hopefully will not. Not only because I love to see these companies succeeding while giving them my small contribution but because their knowledge and challenges made a differenceon me and my work.

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