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Are you a tech, life sciences, chemistry student with a brilliant idea? Could your research turn into an impactful and lucrative biotech business?

The EWOR team spoke to Jan Engels, former co-founder of Opharmic Technology, about his experience of starting a biotech business during his time as a PhD student.

During his Bachelor studies in biotechnology in Germany, Jan went to Hong Kong on an exchange to complete his thesis. He fell in love with the city and had the opportunity to go straight into a PhD without doing a Master’s degree, starting his research on biosensor systems and nanoparticles.

Alongside his studies, Jan founded a medical device start-up. He mentioned that he was working on it part-time, devoting his evenings and nights to the business. After graduating with his PhD in 2016, Jan switched to dedicating all of his time to the start-up company. “Fast forward and we’ve had a successful seed investment round, and much ongoing research and business development,” he said proudly.

After ten years in Hong Kong, Jan moved back to Germany and ‘switched sides’ to join a VC fund. Nonetheless, he answered all of our questions, from the biggest challenges he faced to his top advice for prospective entrepreneurs in the biotech space.

How to Start a Business at University

Jan started by telling us that the field of medtech was quite different from his PhD studies, as it not only contains pure biological and scientific challenges, but also includes engineering. “It’s not always necessary for potential entrepreneurs or founders doing a PhD that your own research becomes the next big start-up – you can also join up with a co-founder and bring their research to life,” he said.

We asked him what were his first steps once he decided what the business was going to be. Jan explained that the R&D process in medtech and life sciences often starts with PhD and research work funded by university and research grants, saying that “some countries have great grants and funding to bring R&D spin-offs from university research.

Jan revealed he was pleasantly surprised by the amount of effort some universities are putting into encouraging students to branch out into entrepreneurship. He mentioned that universities used to lease novel R&D to private companies to make money. “Now, it’s a strong trend that universities are promoting themselves with entrepreneurship centres, start-ups and spinoffs,” he explained.

For example, he was lucky to be supported by a supervisor who was also entrepreneurial, and encouraged him to go to conferences and business plan competitions abroad. From a reputation perspective, it’s good for the university to send high-calibre candidates to these events.

The Challenges of Starting a Biotech Business

It’ll be no surprise to readers that the biotech industry contains a great many challenges to overcome as a founder. Jan enlightened us on some of the ones he faced when he launched his MedTech startup:.

  • Funding. While some of the R&D funding might come from universities and research institutions, if you want to raise a seed round, it might be difficult to convince some investors. “Some investors, especially ex investment bankers, when they don’t have experience in the life sciences field, are shocked when they hear the product could reach market in 5, 7 or even 10 years,” Jan told us. These investors want fast returns. Thankfully, there are some life sciences specific funds who know the risks, challenges, and recognise the potential of such start-ups.
  • Bringing a product to market. As touched upon in the point above, for medtech and life sciences companies, it can take years to bring a product to market. “It’s not like making an app, where you can just release it on the App store,” explained Jan. When you start, the basic R&D might work, but there are so many steps to go through: several rounds of animal testing, then human testing, approvals, etc. “Before fundraising, you might have to live off your savings,” the entrepreneur warned.
  • Regulation. “For first-time founders, that’s the biggest challenge,” explained Jan. As you’d hope and expect, the biotech and medtech industries are riddled with regulations to ensure only the best products go through to market. To counter this, Jan emphasised the importance of hiring the right people early on, including people who might have previous experience of navigating regulation. He also recommended surrounding yourself with a good board of advisors.
  • Mapping your customer base. In a medtech start-up, you need to remember that “the customers are much more complex than in other industries.” You would expect customers to be the patients, but they’re often just the ones who benefit from your product, not the ones who buy it. “As an entrepreneur you want to help the patient, you’re passionate about helping to solve a medical need, but on the other hand, you have to convince the doctor to use it and the insurance to pay for it”, explained Jan.
  • Measuring success. The long R&D life cycle of a biotech start-up can mean it’s difficult to measure success. The process can take years, so Jan advised that it’s a good idea to divide it into achievable milestones surrounding fundraising, prototype development, and progress of trials.

Advice for Aspiring Biotech Start-Up Founders

Jan shared his top pieces of advice for potential entrepreneurs going through their doctoral studies.

  • Don’t be deterred by the fact you’re a student. In fact, that might help you. “The benefit of starting early is the safety of the environment, so if your time and supervisors allow, it’s a good idea to start while you’re studying,” Jan explained. You get support, protection, and a network through your institution.
  • Seek advice. “Don’t be shy or too proud to ask for help,” he insisted. Using your network and the resources available to you is a must. Relating to his first point, Jan also pointed out that some consultants and professionals might be more than happy to offer you free advice if you’re a student just starting out in business.
  • Hire early, and hire right. Jan confessed he regrets not hiring earlier in his entrepreneurship journey. “As a student founder, you can’t know everything. In every field, hiring is the most crucial step – in a start-up, you have limited capacity, so a wrong hire has a strong negative impact,” he emphasised.

Want to start and grow your own business? We have the perfect solution for you. We built a platform with over 17 courses designed by serial entrepreneurs to help you build a sustainable business. You will get access to hundreds of resources, tools, legal templates, and much more. Save time and money and become more successful by subscribing to our EWOR Membership. What are you waiting for? Sign-up now!

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About EWOR

EWOR is a school conceived by Europe’s top professors, entrepreneurs, and industry leaders. We educate and mentor young innovators to launch successful businesses.

Learn More

Our Programs

Fellowship

An exclusive 10-month, fully-sponsored, program designed for aspiring entrepreneurs who want to make the world a better place.

Learn More

Academy

An exclusive 10-month, fully-sponsored, program designed for aspiring entrepreneurs who want to make the world a better place.

Learn More

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Learn how to conceive, prototype, test, and launch an impactful venture with over 17 courses to help you start off.

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