U of T researcher Shana Kelley’s four tips on building a life sciences startup

photo of Shana Kelley
(photo by John Loper)

University Professor Shana Kelley, of the University of Toronto’s Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, is no stranger to the world of entrepreneurship or the unique challenges associated with building a company in the life sciences space.

Over the years, Kelley has been involved in no less than three research-based startups.

She calls the experience “an amazing learning opportunity” and one that ultimately helped inform her own research direction.

“It has helped me see the gaps between the problems that academic scientists work on and what industry invests in,” says Kelley, who recently gave a presentation on her experiences during U of T’s Entrepreneurship Week.

Kelley recently shared with U of T News four tips for would-be entrepreneurs in the life sciences:

1. Embrace the learning experience

Spinning a company out of a university and watching a technology turn into a product is incredibly exciting – and it’s also an amazing learning opportunity.  When you are trained as a scientist, you aren’t typically exposed to the more applied aspects of product development. 

Being involved with startups is a great way to see firsthand what it takes to make a technology robust enough to make a difference.  As well, having the opportunity to advance academic research towards the clinic is a chance to heighten the impact of the work we do at universities. 

But it is also challenging. Persistence is critical.  There will be obstacles that need to be worked around or over, and it’s key to embrace the challenges as part of the learning experience.

2. Be prepared to work outside your comfort zone – and make sure your team is, too

Early on, I was surprised by how many different activities a small team needs to cover off within a startup.  Especially in the beginning, a handful of people are covering all of the key aspects of R&D, business development, operations and more. Basically, everyone is working outside of their comfort zone and a startup’s success hinges on having a team that can do this well.

3. Meet challenges with flexibility and patience

In the life sciences space, going from concept to product takes a significant amount of time and there are many challenges along the way.  The first is to convince people – like seed or venture investors, government funders and potential employees – that you have an idea or technology worth pursuing.

You also need to be flexible as your company takes off and finds the sweet spot for its technology – which is often not what was originally envisioned.  Another is having enough patience (and convincing investors to do the same) to see the long process of product development through.

4. Lessons learned in industry can strengthen your research

Being involved with startups has helped me point my research program directly at very challenging, unsolved problems with the potential for significant societal impact.  It has also helped me see the gaps between the problems that academic scientists work on and what industry invests in.

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