Starting a life science company can be very exciting. Whether you’re developing a new cellular therapy, have invented a ground-breaking medical device, or have coded the latest patient-empowering mobile app, the life sciences field is one that is demanding—yet often more rewarding than many paths. What you might not know is that there are 9 stages of a life science company.
Having worked in the space for most of my career, I have worked with companies in each of these spaces, and have seen a lot published around the different stages of a life science company—and how marketing agencies can help.
However, some life science company leadership teams don’t bring a marketing agency in (if ever) until Commercialization, and often it’s seen as a (questionably) necessary evil. I’m going to turn this on its head and make the case for having marketing as a core function at each stage.
While each life science company is unique, and there are different categories (biotech, Pharma, device, combo devices, lab services, apps, and more…) each with its own journey, I’d like to acknowledge that I see there generally being 9 stages that life sciences companies go through.
Hold on, hear me out. This does come partly from my own experience working with scientists, engineers, product marketers and managers alike. But it also comes through research—and in digging through the vast amount of thought leadership across the web, I stumbled upon an amazing resource for life science founders by the Association of Corporate Counsel: A LIFE SCIENCES COMPANY LIFE CYCLE.
The presentation focuses on combination products, but it also outlines 9 discreet stages of a life science company. These include:
- Developing and Protecting IP
- Research and Development
- Capital Formation and Developing Partnerships
- Team Building
- Regulatory Review and Approval
- Commercialization and Marketing
- Growth and Expansion
1. The Discovery Phase of a Life Science Company.
During the discovery phase of a life science company, the founder is looking to discover something new. It could be a new drug, a new treatment, or even a new disease. The goal is to find something that will change the world.
In order to do so, the founder needs to create a hypothesis about what they think might work. They need to test their hypothesis, and then iterate based on the results. This process can take years, and the founder may not know if their idea will pan out until after they’ve invested all of their time and money into it.
It’s also important to have a good understanding of your market, and where you stand within it. If you’re trying to develop a new cancer drug, you’ll probably need to understand the current landscape of cancer treatments. And if you’re trying to develop an entirely new type of cancer drug, you’ll need to understand the current state of cancer research.
A Marketer probably is the farthest thing from your mind during the discovery phase, but marketers with the right background can be a huge asset to you during discovery. A seasoned, well-trained and experienced life science marketer can help you quickly shave potential years off of your discovery phase by helping your conduct JTBD Analysis, Day-in-the-life interviews and assessments, and collect and analyze customer observations and market data.
What is JTBD Analysis?
JTBD stands for “Job to be done.” It’s a framework used to identify the problem customers face when buying a product or service. In other words, why would someone buy your product or service? What problems does it solve? How much value does it provide? It helps you sharply define who your target audience is, what problems they face, and what solutions you should create and offer to them.
Why Conduct Day-in-the-Life Interviews if I Already Know the Problem?
Day-in-the-lifes are great because they allow you to get a first-hand look at what people actually use your product for. You can see how it solves real problems, and whether it provides enough value to justify its cost. You can also start building early support and advocates for your product.
I’m an Expert, What Good are Customer Observations?
Customer observations are another way to learn more about your market. By observing actual customers (not yourself) using similar products, you can gain valuable insights into how they interact with them, and what features they like or dislike. This information can help you make changes to your product before launch, and improve your marketing efforts in the future.
Each of these activities are essential to creating a strong foundation for your business.
2. Developing and Protecting IP.
The second stage of a life science company is development of IP. At this point, you’ve found your idea and are testing its viability. You’re getting excited about the potential of bringing it to market. But there’s a major obstacle: you don’t own any rights to your invention. That means no patents, no trademarks, and no copyrights.
You need to protect your intellectual property (IP), which includes everything that makes up your product, including the name, design, manufacturing processes, packaging, labeling, advertising, etc. The best way to do this is through patent protection.
Patents are granted to inventors who come up with something novel and useful. They give inventors exclusive ownership over their ideas until they file for a patent. Once a patent has been filed, anyone else who wants to manufacture, sell, or distribute the same product must pay royalties to the inventor.
How Can Marketing During the IP Creation Process?
Often during the development of IP, scientists and engineers bat around some pretty interesting (and sometimes plain goofy) ideas for company and product names, logo designs, and other key elements that tell the world that this awesome invention is yours.
Too often, these names end up being pretty bad, or indefensible (they are already registered and protected by someone else). Including a brand marketer at this stage of your journey can help you avoid bad company and product names, invest the appropriate amount of process and resources into branding, and do basic IP detection work (you should always consult an IP attorney to confirm that you can register and protect your IP.
3. Research and Development
At this stage of your life science company, this is where you really dig into what you’ve begin in developing your IP. What happens during the R&D phase includes things such as:
- Testing your product in the lab
- Conducting clinical trials on humans
- Creating new formulations and delivery systems
- Building prototypes
- and more…
Marketing During the R&D Phase? Really?
While sometimes overlooked, yet as with the other areas, marketing can play a key role here including:
- Customer observations, Day-in-the-Life interviews, and JTBD analysis
- Product development via consumer preferences, meeting customer needs
- Branding and experience for talent recruitment
4. Capital + Funding.
Practically EVERY life science company needs to raise capital at some point. Capital is important because it allows you to build out your team, buy equipment, hire employees, fund further R&D, and move into commercialization. It’s also necessary to cover operating expenses while you’re working on your product.
But raising money isn’t easy. There are many different types of investors, and most require very specific things from you before they’ll consider investing. For example, angel investors typically want a high level of personal connection with you and your team, and will only invest if they feel they have a good chance of making a return on their investment. Venture capitalists usually prefer to invest in companies that have proven track records, and are looking for a quick exit strategy. And public markets are great for large-scale investments, but not so much for small startups.
So Where Does Marketing Fit in This Phase?
Marketing is one of the best ways to get your first round of funding. If you’re lucky enough to be able to raise seed capital, then you may be able to use marketing as part of your pitch deck. This is especially true if you’re trying to convince angels or venture capitalists that your business model is viable.
If you’re going after VCs, you’ll probably need to show them that you’ve done some research about the market, and that you know what you’re doing. But you don’t necessarily need to spend a lot of time talking about your product. Instead, focus on why you think your idea is unique, and how you plan to make money once you launch.
If you’re raising funds from angel investors, you’ll likely need to talk more about your product than you would with a VC. Angel investors tend to be risk takers, and they like to see proof that there’s demand for your product. So you’ll need to demonstrate that you’ve done extensive market research, and that you’ve got a clear understanding of the market.
A marketer can help you with most of the above, along with:
- Raising capital marketing campaigns
- Brand stories (your “why”)
- Pitch decks and presentations
- Educational videos
- Support experiences and materials
5. Team Building Phase
Right after protecting your IP, team building is vital to a life science company, particularly as an early stage event. Your initial team critical to the success of your startup, because it’s impossible to do alone and if you don’t have the right people on board, it’s nearly impossible to execute on your vision.
Your team will include everyone from the CEO to the janitor. It will consist of your cofounders, advisors, investors, employees, contractors, suppliers, and partners.
How Can Marketing Help with Team Building?
Recruiting has changed dramatically in the last two years. With so many early stage companies vying for so little talent, finding the right people is now harder than ever. Employees today are looking to work with companies that share their values, offer them opportunities for growth, and provide a sense of purpose.
We’ve seen a lot of this in the last two years. Life Science companies that are looking for a firm to upgrade a previously “designed” brand, launch a new website and manage social media. And not for the purpose of getting new business—they don’t have approval for that—but to improve their ability to attract top tier talent. No one wants to work for that company that looks like they work out of the back of someone’s garage in 1989. At this stage of your company, you should realize that it’s easy for you to visually compete for talent with larger brands in your space.
6. The Life Science Regulatory Review and Approval Phase
Regulatory review and approval is the process by which a company must go through with the FDA before launching a product into the marketplace. The FDA regulates medical devices, drugs, biologics, and cosmetics. The agency also oversees food safety, tobacco products, and dietary supplements.
In addition to these regulations, the FDA requires that all medical device manufacturers register their devices with the agency prior to manufacturing. This registration process includes submitting detailed information regarding the design, manufacture, labeling, packaging, testing, and distribution of the device.
In order to get started, you’ll need to complete a 510(k) pre-market notification (PMN). A PMN is a document that describes the features and benefits of your device, and explains how it differs from other similar devices already approved by the FDA.
How Can Marketing Help a Life Science Company with This Phase?
Marketing can help with regulatory with preparing brand, naming, packaging + labelling for FDA review.
At this stage, marketing can support the document creation process, and help establish practices and tools that help move future marketing campaigns through internal regulatory compliance reviews quickly while maintaining compliance with FDA requirements.
I see a lot of life science companies struggle at this phase because they work with general marketing agencies that aren’t built to deal with the extended review cycles of internal regulatory teams, and this leads to loss of opportunity and extended sales cycles.
7. Commercialization and Marketing
Commercialization is usually where a life science company brings in marketing or a marketing agency. Commercialization includes everything from developing a strategy to launch and market the product, to managing the commercialization process, to communicating the value proposition to potential customers.
The Product launch is possible one of the most important phases of any life science company. It’s an exciting time for the team as they prepare to bring their idea to market. But there are risks involved. If the company doesn’t do its due diligence on the market, competitors could swoop in and steal away their customers.
It’s critical to understand the market landscape and identify opportunities early. In fact, according to a recent study conducted by the National Institutes of Health, only about half of life sciences startups succeed.
Where Marketing Shines
To be successful, a startup needs to develop a clear understanding of the market and what makes it unique.
This means identifying the right target audience, creating a compelling value proposition, and building out a strong business model.
Once the product has been launched, marketing will continue to play a vital role in helping the company build awareness and drive demand.
This is when marketing becomes more than just advertising. Marketing should include:
• Developing a comprehensive customer experience plan
• Creating content that educates and informs consumers
• Building partnerships with influencers who share the company’s vision
• Using social media to educate and engage with prospective customers
• Conducting research to better understand consumer preferences
During commercialization, it’s important to understand what’s going on internally within the company. You want to make sure that everyone understands the goals of the campaign, and that there’s alignment between the team members who will be involved in the commercialization effort.
It’s also important to know when to bring in an external partner. If you’re working with a marketing agency, you may find that bringing in an outside partner can speed up your timeline and save money.
But if you don’t have the expertise needed to execute a complex commercialization program, then you’ll need to hire someone else to take care of those tasks during this phase of your life science company.
8. Growth and Expansion Phase
During the growth and expansion phase of a life science company, a few key things occur. First, the company continues to grow. This usually means hiring additional employees, expanding into new markets, and increasing production capacity.
Second, the company begins to scale operations. This means scaling up manufacturing processes, improving quality control, and optimizing supply chain management.
Third, the company begins to expand its distribution channels. This involves partnering with distributors, wholesalers, retailers, and other third-party companies that sell the products to end users.
The last thing that can happen during this stage is that the company starts to diversify its revenue streams. This includes selling directly to patients or healthcare providers, licensing intellectual property, and developing new products.
Marketing’s Role During Growth and Expansion
Marketing continues to play a significant role during the growth and expansion phase by educating potential customers about the benefits of using the company’s products.
In addition, marketers are responsible for ensuring that the company’s brand remains consistent across all touchpoints. They do this through branding, messaging, and public relations.
Marketing leadership often also play a key roll in developing distribution channels by establishing relationships with partners. New partners are often challenged by the fact that they don’t know much about the product or have enough resources for success. So, it’s critical that marketing leaders work closely with them to ensure that their needs are met.
How Will You Exit?
The last phase of a life science company is the exit, and there are a number of ways that can happen. The most common way is via acquisition, but another option is to go public.
To position your life science company for acquisition, it’s important that you build strong partnerships with investors. These include venture capitalists, private equity firms, and strategic acquirers.
If you decide to go public, then you’ll need a qualified investment banker to guide you through the process.
How Can Marketing help?
If you’re planning to do an IPO (go public), you will need to position your company as a high-growth opportunity, so make sure that you’ve done everything possible to increase sales and improve profitability.
Marketing can help you prepare for an exit by helping you identify opportunities for growth and expansion. In addition, it helps you position your company as a great fit for acquisition.
Next Steps for Your Life Science Company
So, no matter which of the 9 stages of a life science company you’re at, as you plan your next steps, remember that marketing plays a vital role throughout the entire lifecycle of a life science company. It’s not just something that happens after you’ve launched your first product. Marketing is a continuous part of every step of the journey.