Working on a Biotech Startup? Move Fast, Get There Early, and Become Defensible, says this Bio Founder

Whether it comes to biotech or your latest app, being first always helps. But when Abionic launched a product to diagnose up to 10 allergies using just one drop of blood in 20 minutes - with the same precision as traditional tests - the company didn't just move fast, it made a huge splash. This fast-moving but detail-oriented culture comes from founder Nicolas Durand, who couldn't wait to build something important: While pursuing his PhD, he struck an agreement with his advisors: “My advisors said it would be a 4 year program.  But I wanted to launch a company before 4 years, so I proposed completing my PhD in 3 years and then spending the last year launching the business. My advisors didn’t like the idea of diverting from the traditional plan, but they finally accepted my proposal.” He couldn't be stopped.

Nicolas Durand took to the Startup Grind Zurich stage with Tim Chuma, representing his company Abionic. Abionic, which has secured secured patents and CE mark approval, is now set to revolutionize the medical diagnosis industry. 

Seek Support: Become the Best by Learning from the Best

Nicolas launched Abionic in 2010 from within EPFL’s selective entrepreneurial startup lab. Nicolas insists the experience was crucial to Abionics' foundation: “At one time I had five mentors, all successful entrepreneurs. Though, after time five mentors became too much so I had to scale down. But their guidance and advice was extremely helpful to the Abionic management team. A direct result of this unique environment for startups, EPFL has the highest number of startups that move from its lab to market than any incubator in Switzerland.”

On Fundraising: Understand How You're Being Graded

Speaking of raising money in Europe, Durand said “I’m seeing more and more venture capitalists exploring opportunities in Switzerland. When we started, there were not so many. But this is changing.”

Nicolas also recommends meeting with potential investors as early as possible to first gain insight into the investor’s checklist. Ask other entrepreneurs who have pitched to them in the past, Nicolas says, as “most investors measure startups in a point system unique to their group. During the presentation they assign your company points on features that are important to them. After the meeting they tally up your company’s potential by totalling the numbers. If you have insight into this system, your company will move to the next round.”

On Marketing: Always Think from Your Customer's Perspective

“From day one I want to be talking with customers, getting their feedback on my ideas, and learning what services would serve them better," Durand said. "I had the machine prototype built early in the process so I could have something to show the customers. In fact, I much prefer they remember the machine than my name," he added, noting ego is your enemy when it comes to building for your customers. 

"Actually, at least twice customers gave me the idea for a specific feature of the abioSCOPE”.  The next significant marketing development was when a pharmacist approached Abionic showing interest in purchasing the abioSCOPE. “At first, I said, No, we are only selling to physicians. But then I realized pharmacists are a viable market. So we listen when the market comes to us. Now we have sold the abioSCOPE to around 150 pharmacists in Switzerland.”

Looking for opportunities in unlikely places can yield surprising results. “Yet another marketing development was when a pharmacist suggested we include other tests besides allergies. My initial response was “No, our niche is allergy diagnosis.” But then I realized we could have an application for any type of medical diagnosis that is performed with a drop of fluid. The opportunities are endless.”  

Nicolas feels that startups have unique challenges but also unique strengths. “Startups are flexible. Use that to your advantage. When things aren’t proceeding as we want, we changed strategy. We can be responsive to the market in a very short time frame. This awareness has benefited us many times.”

On Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Switzerland 

The Abionic management team has worked closely with EPFL, the city of Lausanne and the canton of Vaud. According to Nicolas, Switzerland has a wonderful benefits package for startups to lure established companies to relocate to Switzerland.

Nicolas and his team at Abionic have received a tremendous amount of support, themselves. For instance, Lausanne offers a 10 year tax exemption for start ups. Nicolas and his team are approached almost daily with offers to relocate to other countries, particularly the US. But since the business environment in Lausanne has been so supportive, the Abionic management team has made the decision to stay in Switzerland. 

Getting Out There: Maximizing Coverage at Competitions

Abionic distinguished itself by winning 20 awards since inception in 2010. So what's his secret?

“Take you time and learn what the competitions are looking for.” Sounds like common sense - right? But when you are overloaded, nurturing that idea into a relevant business, competitions may be another item on the to-do list.

Nicolas discourages just going through the motions here. “As with investors, learn as much as you can about each competitions’ focus. Also apply at the right time for the right contest. Get due diligence for each competition and apply very early on. Find someone who has already participated and get information on their experience with each contest.”

Switzerland is a great place to find mentors, as this is a culture rich with finance and business insights. “One of my rules is always go to other entrepreneurs for advice. I’ve had several coaches approach me with no entrepreneurial background and I passed. Very important to me that the coaches are also entrepreneurs.”

In conclusion, Nicolas feels Abionic is transitioning from a startup to an SME. If so, 2016 will bring tremendous growth opportunity for the startup.      

Watch the full fireside Abionic CEO Nicolas Durand, hosted at the Swisscom Pirate Hub in Zurich: