Happy New Year, Forbes readers! For this first column of 2019, I decided to do something a bit different to the articles that I typically write.
Last night, I attended a presentation in Rome (which is where I’m based half of the time), hosted by LUISS university and Confindustria Young Entrepreneurs , by esteemed MIT professor Robert Langer. For those of you who, like myself until a short while ago, had never heard of Professor Langer, he runs the largest biomedical engineering lab in the world, holds the world record for number of patents (over 1350 between those granted and pending) and is the among the 7 most cited individuals in history.
Professor Langer gave us several “science lessons” for a nascent biotech startup. I’m going to try to formulate the PropTech equivalent for the ones I think our sector’s startups can learn from.
Build a platform technology you can use for many things. The professor meant this in reference, for example, to the areosol drug delivery system he developed with his company AIR which can be used for a host of drugs, including recent experiments with anti-Parkinsons drugs. This translates quite obviously into PropTech. Though you may, and probably should, start by focusing on a single problem, the scalability of your solution goes hand in hand with the scalability of your buisiness. Several examples come to mind, one being Google’s recent investment into AI maintenance chatbot AskPorter, on the premise that their tech can be scaled for use across all steps of the lettings life cycle and is not limited by its current maintenance functionality.
Make sure your results are published with a paper in one of the top journals. In other words… GET MARKET VALIDATION. I was just on a call with a startup and the investor leading the round it just closed (watch this space!), and one of the top drivers for the investment taking place was that the investor was able to get validation on the product’s value add by the startup’s initial clients who are well respected in the industry. I know getting big-name anchor clients is easy to say and hard to do, but it is crucial in establishing B2B market success. You are probably better off focusing on the big fish and letting the smaller fish swim away for now. In the B2C space, this translates into getting your marketing in early. You should aim to have a user base ready, thanks to intelligent marketing campaigns (and I don’t mean Tube ads) before you launch, so that at launch you can jump straight into testing and scaling the product.
Make sure you patent your research. It’s a no-brainer in science, of course; if you don’t patent your invention, anybody can take it from you. In tech, a lot of the time it’s not worth patenting your product. That being said, you should strive to make your product irreplicable, through the complexity of the underlying technology, you market share lead on your competitors, or both. Otherwise, you will end up like the poor scientists who never patented their groundbreaking invention.
Obtain in vivo proof of principle. In other words, make sure it works and have evidence to prove it. This is the most important lesson any innovator can take home. Your product, be it a drug or a new polymer or a PropTech solution, needs to be seen to work if you want to sell it. It’s a statement of the obvious, but many startups fear putting their product out for testing because they are worried it won’t be understood, or that they were wrong in their assumptions and will need to start over. I’ve seen companies do a full blown launch of their tech without having bothered to get potential users to test it beforehand. You can get lucky, but more often than not, you won’t. A good principle we should all take home from this is not to be afraid to see if what we think may work actually works in the real world, and to do it sooner rather than later in the development process.
Professor Langer also gave us three business lessons he learned through launching and scaling his 40 plus startups. These stand across industries and technologies, and reflect what I discussed in a previous article, so I will give them to you verbatim.
- Raise a lot of money, more than you think you need. Things will always be slower and more expensive than you anticipated.
- Have great investors. These are people who don’t take advantage of you, and really understand the area you operate in and can therefore give you strong added value both in terms of development support and contacts.
- Have a great CEO, and involve yourself with good business people. Being a great innovator doesn’t necessarily mean you will be great at business, and it is the duty of every founder to take a long look in the mirror and ask themselves whether they have the skills to grow the business, or if they should bring in someone to run it. It is the hardest (and the most important) choice a founder will ever make, in my opinion.
Last night’s event was truly enlightening for me. I could carry on and write thousands of words on the incredible innovations Robert Langer came up with, or the amazing businesses that ensued from them. Instead, you can read more about his incredible career here, and I will leave you with these reflections on what PropTech can learn from biotech.