In this blog post, the fourth in my series titled “Tales from the Front: Advice from SBIR-funded Entrepreneurs”, I summarize advice from an interview I had with Magdalena Leszczyniecka, Ph.D., Founder and CEO of STC Biologics. Here are her insights.
As you may have guessed, Dr. Leszczyniecka is a Polish immigrant – she came to the US with her parents when she was 16. They only had a few hundred bucks in their pockets but that didn’t stop her from getting her bachelor’s degree at Rutgers University, her Ph.D. at NYU/Columbia University, and an MBA from Babson University. With the goal of starting her own company in mind, she interned at prominent VC firms and worked at both biotech and pharma companies before going out on her own. Here is a summary of her advice.
1) Get feedback on your idea from friends in your industry before going in front of people who will review the project.
2) Be persistent. “We filed somewhere between 8-10 applications over the course of more than a year before we got our first contract,” she says. It also helped to have a little bit of data.
3) Don’t rule out the contract solicitations. They are targeted, so if your company is a good fit, then you are more likely to get it. Overall general solicitations like the Omnibus solicitation are more difficult to get. There was one contract solicitation that was a great fit for her company’s technology, and that is the contract she was awarded.
4) Be prepared to do anything it takes to “stay alive”. In the early days, Dr. Leszczyniecka bartered her expertise for lab space and advice. She paid for her IP with equity and populated her lab with interns who were paid by the Massachusetts Life Science Center. She also downsized her personal life by doing things like selling her car and biking everywhere, and renting her “fancy” condo and choosing to live in a smaller, cheaper place instead.
5) Establish partnerships with other companies that have similar interests. Many vendors and suppliers are willing to provide tools and materials in return for access to the data.
6) Plan for the time between funding. “You must be frugal,” she says. She had a 15-month gap between Phase I and II funding. Notably, a colleague introduced her to a company that she established a collaboration with to develop their therapeutic. By proving that STC Biologics could do the work, that company provided bridge financing before her Phase II was awarded. STC Biologics would not have survived if they did not raise this funding.
7) Build a relationship with the program manager and go beyond what was proposed. “You and the PM must be on the same page,” she notes. She continued to work on the Phase I project and send progress reports and updates to her PM after the program period ended. Hence, her company received an invitation and was successful at obtaining a Phase II award.
8) Have a well-written, organized proposal. Dr. Leszczyniecka was frustrated by reviewers who stated that the proposal didn’t address certain points, but those points were actually in the proposal! In her winning application, she had a table on the first page that pointed the reviewers to the sections where the important points were made.
After obtaining almost $3M in SBIR funding, STC Biologics is now bringing a Herceptin biosimilar into the clinic this year. Dr. Leszczyniecka travels the world speaking on panels at international conferences. Her company now brings in revenue from partners and services, and has grown to 11 employees in just 4 years.
Feel free to share your thoughts on these tips and don’t hesitate to contact The Isis Group for help.