Building Great Startup Teams In Biotech: A Three Hour Tour

Posted April 18th, 2014 by Ankit Mahadevia, in Biotech startup advice, From The Trenches

Great teams build great companies, and biotech startups are no exception.   I’ve collected a few observations on great teams while collaborating at Atlas on more than half a dozen startups that have made it past the high-risk seed stage and are still going strong (some examples in no particular order are herehereherehere).  I’ve also been a student of organizational behavior literature (some of my favorites here and here) and great companies that started elsewhere in our ecosystem, but instructive examples can come from anywhere.

 It takes a varied set of skills to get a startup off the ground.   To drive this home, I will draw on that highly regarded educational series on leadership, Gilligan’s Island. (Author’s note – before you run back to email, this is a serious model for dissecting leadership – click here and here for a little supplemental reading).


  • The Professor: Strong scientists with asymmetric knowledge of a platform are the heart and soul of biotech startups.  The same is true for academic founders who play a very valuable role in growing a company.
  • The Skipper:  Startups need a responsible steward that’s willing to roll with the punches and make sure a variety of personalities on the team work together efficiently.
  • The Howells: Every biotech needs investors like the Howells – well capitalized with good ideas, close to the action, but more than willing to let the Professor and Skipper lead the charge. @lifescivc has not authorized any images of him in Howell apparel, but I leave that mental image with you.
  • Maryanne and Gilligan:  As well said by my colleagues Bill Marshall and Mike Gilman in previous posts, high functioning teams temper their thoughts about the odds of our industry with a healthy tolerance for risk and a sense of optimism about the future.

Gilligan's Island CastStarting and syndicating a biotech can certainly feel like a three hour tour that extends into a long stay on the island. Operationally, there’s a Gilligan-esque aspect of a startup team dynamic in getting more from what you have; resourcefulness and frugality are a must for survival when your needs are many and cash is limited.  There’s another in that no job is too small for anyone on the team; the CEO of a startup also writes website copy and works real time to avoid highly infectious pathogens being shipped to his business office to name a few tasks.

I’ve squeezed every last drop out of the Gilligan analogy, but if you’re still reading, a few more thoughts on lessons I’ve learned along the way:

The partnership between Professor and Skipper is crucial:  Here at Atlas and elsewhere in the community, I’ve observed that a number of companies that make it big, or simply make it, have a dynamic, almost symbiotic pairing between Skipper and Professor at the start.  Roy Lobb and Jus Singh at Avila (in its earliest days), Jonathan Montagu and Rosana Kapeller at Nimbus Discovery, and Alexis Borisy and Greg Verdine at Warp Drive are some recent examples.  I’ve thought about the reasons why as the same is true in my own experience.  On one level, it’s simply a firepower issue.  Startups have a broad vision and a small group to carry it out – it’s rare to find one person who can go as deep as needed on the early science while at the same time thinking several years into the future about business strategy.  On another, deeper level, there’s an incredible synergy that seems to rise out of a great scientist and savvy business person collaborating closely every day that’s hard to replicate without that cross-pollination of expertise.

Hierarchy sucks the life out of a startup: Compartmentalizing information by rank or title reduces the force multiplier effect that lean teams need to make it.  If you need to be everywhere to make things move and can’t rely on your teammates to communicate your views, you’re getting nowhere. On the fundraising side, compartmentalization conveys a lack of focus: it is disconcerting to hear pitches where a team is not on the same page as this likely only gets worse as a team scales. There are limits to freedom of information of course, but simple, specific steps like ensuring all members of your team attend and contribute to Board meetings and hear about investment and budgeting discussions real time go a long way to expand the power and cohesion of a startup crew.

A great support team is critical:  Startup teams need to do a lot by themselves, but some things are best left to the experts. Our biotech ecosystem has evolved to the point that there are very experienced corporate legal, IP, and corporate finance partners around willing to work with new companies.  Startup cash is scarce, but it is money well spent to work with groups that have the long-term vision to grow with startups as they mature.  We have worked with some top-notch law firms and CFO advisory firms that have helped me make sound decisions as we plan for growth.

I’ve loved every minute of getting new startups off the ground at Atlas, and largely because I’ve been fortunate to be part of some great teams.  Now to cue the exit music (you’re welcome for getting that stuck in your head).


Ankit Mahadevia

Serial biotech entrepreneur and executive
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