Business Plans: Inside the Harvard Biotechnology Club: Reaching Beyond the Ivory Tower


In college, I aspired to become a biomedical researcher and eventually start a biotechnology company. I had observed that scientific entrepreneurs are often either 1) university professors who start companies based on their own inventions, or 2) former industry researchers who climbed the corporate ladder before joining a start-up management team. It was not clear to me what path I would take, but a Ph.D. seemed like the necessary first step.

I entered a graduate program in virology at Harvard in 1997, and although my research in HIV was going well, I missed seeing the bigger picture. In my spare time, I browsed the Web for information about biotechnology companies and started to appreciate the global biotechnology ecosystem: biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, university technology transfer, FDA approval process, venture capitalists, investment bankers, and individual industry gurus. By the middle of my second year in graduate school, I realized that I had a lot more to learn about the world outside of academia.

I wasn't alone. The infrequent seminars about business or biotechnology I attended were consistently packed with graduate students, postdocs, and even faculty. By the end of my second year, it became evident to me that academic scientists wanted more information about what lay outside the Ivory Tower.

Soon after, I partnered with two other graduate students to create the Harvard Biotechnology Club, what is now the largest student-run biotechnology organization in the world. Our members hail from institutions and companies around the world and represent practically every biotech-related sector. Registration is free and members receive a weekly e-mail bulletin highlighting our events, career opportunities, and other biotech-related activities. Events include symposia, lectures by industry representatives, case study discussions, and career development/recruiting seminars. The Web site offers Career Services, Library holdings, and the Industry Focus--an online news magazine. Programs include a Biotech Business Plan Competition, Consulting Group, Investment Group, and Start-Up Incubator.

Our first business plan competition took place this past spring. The awards, sponsored by, consisted of $1000 and an expense-paid trip to present the winning plan to investors at the Biotech Beach 2000 Life Sciences Expo. A few days before the submission deadline, we received about 17 business plans. We sent them out to our judging panel of two venture capitalists, an entrepreneur, and an attorney, who selected the two winning teams. The first place team consisted of students from Georgia, and second place was awarded to a more experienced management team from Virginia. The judges clearly favored plans with very large markets, minimal competition, strong management teams, and prominent scientific advisors. These components may seem obvious, but all of the plans were missing one or more.

Though I've never applied to a business plan competition myself, I did go through the process of putting together a business plan about 5 months ago. A postdoctoral fellow in my lab and I tried to start-up a company based on his novel biochemical technology. I wrote the executive summary, contacted a lawyer, and began to meet venture capitalists. Thanks to the network we had developed, we were able to open doors normally shut to outsiders. Ultimately, problems with securing a technology license forced us to close the project, though the learning experience was invaluable.

One of the greatest benefits of being affiliated with the Biotechnology Club is the license it gives me to invite people to give seminars at Harvard University and get to know them personally. Over the course of the first year, my colleagues and I met with CEOs and other executives, venture capitalists, industry scientists, financial analysts, entrepreneurs, intellectual property attorneys, technology licensing professionals, and many others. These individuals shared with us their personal experiences and some of the lessons they have learned. A few have become friends and mentors--people we contact not just regarding club matters, but for advice on our own personal development.

As the club is completely supported by corporate sponsorship, we offer our sponsors publicity, recruiting, and consulting services for their financial support. Though no easy task, we take care to maintain our independence while courting company sponsors. Necessity quickly taught me how to sell, negotiate, compromise, and write very delicate letters. I've dropped the word "unfair" from my vocabulary, and I've come to appreciate the value of written contracts.

When facing the unknown, I have learned to be confident and take initiative. I do not take offense when my phone calls or e-mails are not returned; important people are busy, and it is necessary to carefully appeal to their interests in order to get their attention. Out of an increased respect for people's time and attention, I have learned to do background research before asking questions. Indeed, in the real world, there are such things as stupid questions.

In my opinion, complacency is the greatest enemy of success. When starting to feel in control of my environment, I commit myself to a new responsibility. My tendency has been to promise more than is expected of me and then find a way to keep my word; though occasionally stressed and burned out, I am never bored. After graduate school, I intend to seek out a supportive and experienced mentor who will help me develop into a successful entrepreneur. My ideal position will be in a field, possibly business development or venture capital, which requires continued interaction with a large network of people from all areas of biotechnology. The day my career development becomes predictable, I hope to retire.

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