Setting up a business can help scientists develop skills in marketing, sales, communication and more.
Lysimachos Zografos took his career into his own hands: rather than struggling in academia against a lot of competition and diminishing funds, he set up his own business, Parkure. I spoke to him whilst I was up in Edinburgh earlier this month to find out more.
What is Parkure?
Parkure is a for-profit company focused solely on discovering drugs that will halt the progression of Parkinson’s disease (PD). To do this we have developed a primary assay based on transgenic fruit flies that express a protein that is responsible for the initiation and propagation of PD in the brain. Rather than serendipitous discovery, we look for things that might work in repurposed drugs.
Why did you start Parkure?
There were two reasons: one was a penny-drop moment when I realised this could be a way that I could take the research that I had been working on for a while, and potentially see applicable results that could benefit people.
The second reason was that of the PhD students that I was surrounded by (many of which are my friends); less and less of them have a job with at least a 5-year contract. With that in mind, I thought that if I was going to be in a risky position, I wanted to be in charge of it, rather than someone else.
How are you funding Parkure?
We’re currently doing a crowd-funding campaign on SharIn – it’s an equity crowd-funding campaign that gives people a share of the company in return for their investment. We specifically chose equity crowd-funding because even though we’re a for-profit company, we want to share whatever we make from this.
The minimum goal is £10000, and the maximum goal is £150000. We are currently (9 January 2015) at £50k, with the deadline on 20 February 2015. The money that we are raising now is going to be enough to help us obtain market traction to help us raise £1.5-£2million to do a full-scale screen of 50k compounds and keep the company running.
In crowd-funding statistics, we’re there, but its’ hard to believe. Your brain thinks about these things in a very linear fashion. So every day you feel you should get a pledge of £1500 to reach your goal by your deadline. But that’s not how it works; you usually get pledges in chunks and periods where nothing happens.
What are the challenges of getting funding via ShareIn?
There is a big funding gap for early funding. It’s much easier (I hope!) to raise £1.5-£2million down the road than to raise the initial £150k. This is because there are a lot of people with a lot of good ideas and there isn’t a lot of money going around.
When it comes to companies involved in early drug discovery, someone will come in and put in some money, say £20k out of the £150k. If your idea is amazing and you find something, that something will take about a decade to develop and go to market. Between that person putting in their £20k and that drug reaching the market, there will another 1 or 2 rounds of investment which will be sizeable, venture-capital-range investments.
The initial investment money gets diluted and the investor doesn’t get to see anything for 10 years. If you factor in the large risk factors associated with drug discovery, you understand why that type of investor would prefer to invest in fashion or app or something similar. It’s easy money.
This gap makes it difficult to make that first step. For that reason, I think that the equity crowd-funding works really well because you have a way for people with a vested interested in solving a problem – they can pool their resources, they don’t have to be experts.
What types of people are investing in Parkure?
It’s really interesting, because the majority of the investment so far hasn’t come from investor that had shown interest. Money came from people I’d never heard of, ranging from retired nurses to people with PD themselves.
How do you spend your time?
I spend half my time on getting funding and the other half on research. I am at the moment following up some discoveries that we’ve had during the development of the assay. We’ve already screened more than 1000 compounds that have been repurposed.
The rest of my time I spend calling journalists, writing press releases and directing the general brand-strategy.
What did you have to teach yourself when you set up Parkure?
When I started, I was bad at the business-end of things. I was overly technical and I was going to investors with a technical background. I completely dazzled them with science details. You can see when you’re losing people, and I could see it happen in front of me. One of the hardest things to learn was that I had to simplify what I was saying without talking down to people. You only get 10 minutes, everyone’s time in precious, so you have to get to the point.
Although the most daunting thing at the time was the cash-flows and financial projections (all the boring accounting things!), but eventually, you realise this is the easy stuff. The hard stuff is learning how to communicate your idea in the correct way to investors and the press.
What have you learned from this experience?
It’s been really interesting, especially from a jobs perspective. One of things I’m enjoying is being able to tap in to a skill set that you won’t use if you’re working purely on R&D: soft skills, people skills, “selling” something – an idea, a vision, yourself. It feels as educational as doing the research and you end up working on skills that are applicable to everyday life.
What advice do you have for other scientists looking to start their own company?
I can only speak from personal experience, but the hardest thing was taking the leap of faith in the beginning: you have no idea if your idea will fly. But if you want to do it, just get out and do it. There is no other way of putting it. Worst case scenario is that you spend 6 months of your life learning new things.
UPDATE: At the time of posting, Parkure are now only a few hundred pounds away from their goal with only 2 weeks to go.