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Anatomy of a successful startup: what lessons can be drawn from the biopharma sector?

The success of a startup can be explained by more than just a good product. Here are two pieces of advice to boost your startup’s success story.


This article will give advice to startups on two different areas: investors and collaboration, in order to understand the impact that they can have in increasing a new company’s valuation over its first 3 to 15 years of life. The lessons hereby explained are drawn from a study performed by Wavestone in early 2018 on the experiences of startups in the Spanish biopharma sector, specifically focused on those undergoing the Drug Development Process, with an estimated total product valuation of USD 5 billion. Few processes are as risky as the Drug Development Process and few startups’ journeys are as measurable as those completing it: a product must go through a maximum of seven clearly defined stages until it can be commercialized as a medicine. When most of the advice given to startups tends to be anecdotal, it is a good time to share knowledge that has been empirically proved. Although extracted from a very specific environment under tight regulations, this advice on investors and collaboration is not inherent to a startup’s product, technology or service and can be applicable across startups in Deep Tech and even across a wider set of industries.

Think of investors as more than money

In Europe, investment from Venture Capital (VC) is increasing at unprecedented rates; especially into Deep Tech[1]. A lot of efforts are put into understanding what it is that investors want to see in startups, and how important access to finance is. How true that is! However, it is easy to forget that an investment is a bipartite contract to deliver and that investors have much more to offer than finance. Within the startup context, ‘smart money’ refers to receiving capital from investors who do not only hope for a return years later but also support the entrepreneur’s growth alongside the company’s with their expertise and contacts.



Research has previously found that social networks have a significant effect on a startup’s initial success; determined by the strength and the size of the network and impacting the type and price of startups´ access to resources[2]. An example of a strong link in the biopharma startup context is big pharma’s liaison with VC’s. As big pharma increasingly outsources its R&D, they use VC’s pool of investments as their own initial selection pool. In fact, Wavestone found that 83% of the startups that big pharma had invested in and/or in-licensed a product from, had been previously backed by a VC too (compared to the 53% VC-backed that big pharma had yet not invested in). This is only one contextual example from the ample variety of ways that an investor can turn to be useful for its investee. The opportunities that an investor can create for your startup go far beyond a fixed sum of money. If possible, prioritise investors according to this wider view of usefulness, rather than doing so through a solely financial lens.

Make collaboration an imperative

Apart from a strong link within a network, the extension and size of the network can also have an impact on the success of a startup. Previous research literature covering startup success concludes that successful founding teams manage to exploit links with expert sectors to support the development, management and leadership expertise[3]. Teams that occupy a central position in a network and have a high level of interconnectedness are expected to have more opportunities to investigate and access resources in a more efficient and effective way.



For example, a spin-off can use links with its spin-off centre to access state-of-the-art knowledge and technology, reducing, in this case, drug development costs. “The end result ( can be a more rapid synthesis of the different (knowledge and) technological parts into a process that can provide more valuable product opportunities for every company”[4]. Wavestone empirically proved that collaboration increases the probability of success in a Spanish biopharma spin-off context, which had not been done before.

Having a variety of different investors can incentivise collaboration due to this widened network. Wavestone found that those startups that had been backed by a larger variety of investors (that is, VC’s, public sector, angel investors, etc.) were on average more successful. In fact, most investors will have investments in a pool of companies, and even a larger pool of contacts that a startup can leverage. Investors can therefore also be a driver of collaboration.



Widening and strengthening a startup’s network is a critical part of what Wavestone achieves with Shake’Up by accelerating startups and helping them break through commercially with corporate clients, which has traditionally been a complicated and lengthy process. Startups are often the engines of innovation for large companies but for the plethora of startups that can be in a corporation’s radar, an extensive network can become a key differentiator. Events are a way to trigger collaboration opportunities. In the Viva Technology Fair Wavestone sponsored, 1,800 startups and 200 of its clients with the aim of connecting startups to the clients who are facing challenges that they can address. Wavestone presents itself as a unique and personalised accelerator for B2B startups, breaking the traditional models of collaboration with an innovative and personalised approach. Do not underestimate the importance of extending your network for collaboration and in turn the importance of collaboration for success.

Collaboration for Success

In conclusion, taking advantage of the context-specific strong links around a startup and engaging a wide variety of investors and stakeholders with expertise and resources will make a young company more collaborative. Collaboration can, especially for a new company, be determinant for success through gaining access to key capabilities: knowledge, technology and expertise.



[1] Wavestone’s Deep Tech Global Survey 2017

[2] Newbert, S. L., & Tornikoski, E. T. (2013). Resource Acquisition in the Emergence Phase: Considering the Effects of Embeddedness and Resource Dependence. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 37(2), 249–280.

[3] Patton, D., Warren, L., and Bream, D. (2009), ‘Intangible elements that underpin high-tech business incubation processes’, Journal of Technology Transfer, Vol 34, No 6

[4] Nature Research

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