The Lean Life Sciences Startup and Minimum Viable Milestone

By: Paul A. Jones

The “lean startup model” is all the rage in the entrepreneurial world these days, and it should be – for the right kind of startups. That is, startups that can realistically talk about delivering the model’s “minimum viable product” (MVP) to market for very little money (tens of thousands of dollars) in very little time (a few weeks or months). For example, web app startups and such. Alas, if you happen to be an entrepreneur in the life sciences world, chances are your MVP will take a lot more capital (seven or even eight figures) and a lot more time (a few years, or even a decade) to deliver. The lean startup model, then, really doesn’t have much to teach life sciences entrepreneurs.

Or, maybe it does.

As someone who has been an IT and life sciences entrepreneur, and an angel and venture investor in IT and life sciences startups, my initial reaction (putting my life sciences hat on) to the lean startup model and its MVP was “wouldn’t it be nice if you could launch a minimally viable new drug in 90 days with $50,000?” It would be, but trust me, you can’t.

Still, I have been working with a group of mostly life sciences entrepreneurs in the Innovate program in the DC area sponsored by the National Science Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland and various state and local economic development organizations. Most of the entrepreneurs in the Innovate program are focused on businesses opportunities that will ultimately take at least several years and several million dollars to get to an MVP. Watching some of these entrepreneurs give one minute pitches last week, it occurred to me that while they could hardly expect to raise enough capital, out of the gate, to get to their MVP, they still needed to think in MVP-like terms. More specifically, they needed to think in terms of their “minimum viable milestone” (MVM).

The idea behind the MVP is to get something in the hands of customers as fast and cheaply as possible, so that you can (i) quickly establish the core of the value proposition by getting some traction with real consumers, and (ii) get feedback from real consumers as fast as possible so you can rapidly improve the value proposition. As noted, those goals, in the life sciences environment, are likely to take millions of dollars and several years. But the lean startup paradigm can be generalized to fit a larger range of startups by recasting it as “get somewhere really important as fast as possible with the least amount of capital” – which is to say that whatever the industry the entrepreneur should focus on getting to MVM as fast, and as cheaply, as possible.

In some ways, the MVM idea may seem obvious. Obvious, in the same sense as the MVP idea is for a startup web app company. But thinking in MVM terms is not obvious to many entrepreneurs – particularly life sciences entrepreneurs. Many life sciences entrepreneurs come from an academic environment. In the academic world, the “progress paradigm” is quite the opposite of the MVP: Meet the LPU, or “least publishable unit.” Advancing your career in the academic environment is largely based on how many papers you publish in peer-reviewed journals. A good academic researcher thus will look at a problem and think “how many papers can I publish on the road to solving this problem?” not “what is the quickest, cheapest way to solve this problem?” And that kind of thinking, in the startup context, is a recipe for disaster.

Therefore, the lean startup model has something to teach all entrepreneurs. For those with opportunities where being lean means focusing on the MVP, well, aren’t they lucky. But for entrepreneurs in just about any space, the more general MVM is almost always the best place to start. When you pitch your startup investors for that early money, keep the focus on what it will take (in time and money) to get to the first milestone that will substantially improve your long-term chances for success. Keep the focus on the MVM.


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