Having been a scientist for more than 15 years, I’ve seen my fair share of science-based startups come and go.
Those that succeed tend to do so through a combination of good products, good business sense and good fortune. Often a good enough product or idea can compensate for a lack of business sense, and some companies succeed through sheer luck alone.
But many others fall by the wayside before they even get a chance to succeed. Without a good business plan and knowledge of the market even the best products and ideas can fail.
The simple fact is, many scientists lack the business acumen and motivation needed to take their idea or product to market. I don’t say this as a criticism, just an observation; many scientists have absolutely no interest in business, finance or commerce and that’s fine.
Take my company, Sona Nanotech, for example. The team at Sona comprises brilliant scientists who have developed unique products – the world’s first toxin-free gold nanorods. But they lacked the knowledge and contacts to gain the vital market access they needed to make the products a commercial success.
Over Sona’s brief history there has been no shortage of would-be investors willing to back the company and its products, but it was difficult for the team to properly capitalize on these offers without a solid commercial strategy.
That’s why I was brought on board as CEO and president at the end of last year, because I know the market, I am comfortable in business environments, I can talk the language and I can build relationships and partnerships.
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Coming from the U.K., I am having to learn how to navigate an entirely new and unfamiliar system here in Nova Scotia, so I can understand some of the difficulties other life science startups in the province face when it comes to commercializing their own products.
For example, after an initial successful application a couple of years ago, we applied to the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency for further funding, but not being very familiar with the system and wanting to get the best out of it meant we needed help.
So, we brought in a consultant to help us better understand the system and how to access the different tiers of funding programs. As a result, our current application stands a better chance than most.
There are also operational issues to consider. Take facilities, for example. We are incredibly lucky and grateful that we have been able to operate the company out of lab space at St. Francis Xavier University. But now we need a new space to accommodate our growth and have been looking around for somewhere suitable.
Many life sciences startups will no doubt be in the same position, having spun out of one of the province’s excellent universities they will be looking for a permanent base from which to grow.
Luckily there are options for us in the Halifax area, and for startups there are several incubation hubs in the region that can offer superb facilities. However, finding those facilities and negotiating a good deal can be difficult if you aren’t commercially minded.
Logistics is another issue. We recently needed to buy in some specialist equipment from the U.S., but to do so we had to use brokers to deal with the import/export costs and supply chain logistics, something which came as a bit of a surprise.
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Nova Scotia has a healthy and growing life sciences sector. Worth around $300 million and centered on the Halifax area, it is home to more than 50 companies that employ around 1,100 people.
There are also some incredible life science startups dotted throughout Nova Scotia, but unless they receive proper business support many are going to struggle to fully realize their potential.
Life sciences if a fast-moving global sector, and startups need interaction with industry partners, access to programs of funding and, most importantly, access to the market.
And this can’t just be access to market reports, because those can be sourced online, but real market access, company databases, contact info and the opportunity of actually getting in front of the key decision-makers in their specific part of the life sciences sector.
Ideally, they need to obtain access or incorporate an individual or organization into their setup that can bridge the gap between science and business, which can be worlds apart.
That’s why something like BioNova, the life sciences body for Nova Scotia, is so vital. BioNova aims to advance life sciences in the province and accelerate the commercialization success of its businesses and organizations by building relationships and by creating networking and educational opportunities. Additionally, it offers programs that allow life sciences SMEs to apply for project funding or work with collaborators. As a member we have made vital connections in the sector both inside and outside the province.
If the potential of Nova Scotia’s life sciences sector is to be fully realized in the increasingly competitive global marketplace, its science and business communities must work more closely together in future.
Darren Rowles is CEO of Sona Nanotech, a biotech firm based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He has 15 years' experience in product manufacture and development in the area of gold nanoparticles and lateral flow diagnostics.