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The Black Hole

How to establish executive and advisory teams for your business venture

Your teams should consist of people that you trust implicitly, that will work hard on whatever it is that you’re trying to do and will do it for free.


The following is a transcript from a talk I gave at the medical device development course at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston on May 12, 2016.

Due to length, I have broken the talk up into seven parts:

Part 1: Why do this? – I describe the pros and cons of engaging in a translational research venture. It is definitely not for everybody.

Part 2: What you need to do before you start – I assumed that we were interested in pursuing science translation through entrepreneurship and discussed how best to start.

Part 3: Identifying milestones – I discuss the milestones that you need to achieve in order to see a product through to completion.

Part 4: Execution strategy

Part 5: Leaving academia

Part 6: Questions and answers 1

Part 7: Questions and answers 2

In Part 4,  now that you’ve identified your milestones, the next step is to begin establishing a timeline and budget around those milestones. So think about how long it will take you to accomplish each one of those particular goals and how much it will cost to get you through that time period.

Arriving at a budget

This is a place where you need to start thinking a little bit differently. We’re used to thinking as academics, trying to make this work with string and duct tape, and that’s not at all the approach you should be taking for this. If you have got a sufficiently attractive business model, and if the end goal is giving your investors a significantly high return on their investment, they don’t really care how much it cost them to get there. You’ll always find someone with enough money to pay for the work. So what you need to think about is: if you had unlimited money, how much would it actually cost you to do it, and then how much would it cost you to do it faster because, really, they want to get their money back as quickly as possible. That’s how you arrive at your actual budget and decide whether this in an argument that you can make to an investor.

Recruiting your team

Easily the most important part of your venture is recruiting the right team. You begin by establishing your executive team, then you work on building your advisory team. Your executive team consists of people closest to you that you trust implicitly, that will work hard on whatever it is that you’re trying to do and that will do that for free because you have no money and you can’t pay them. You can give them equity, but truth be told the equity is not worth anything until it’s worth something, so they’re doing it for free.

In our case, we were very fortunate. I am the founder. Joe, who’s the scientific advisory board chair, was actually my postdoc mentor when I first came here as a postdoc. He’s since become a colleague in the same division, but one of the world’s foremost experts on platelet production and a great person to have on a team. Sven is the business guy who I happened to meet at a party, but we hit it off. He comes from an investment background and provided the business and financial expertise that I was lacking. He ended up being the second hire for the company. The first hire for the company was Lea, a postdoc at UMass whose career I had followed very closely. She’s an exceptional scientist. She happened to be looking for a job when we, for the first time, had some money to hire someone and we were very, very lucky to get her on board.

Now, once you’ve got your executive team – and your executive team is doing everything at this point – you’re looking to fill out your advisory board. You probably need scientific advisers. You’ll also need business advisers. These should be the top people in the field whose names carry a lot of weight – the people who show up as the highlights of any conference or plenary talk, who are also nice people, whose advice you trust and who are willing to sacrifice their time, again for free, to see this through. And they usually do it because they care about what you’re trying to do, they value mentorship and they really want you to be successful. So, it’s not entirely one-sided.

Again, in our case, we were able to recruit some of the most distinguished blood bankers, regulatory experts, megakaryocyte and platelet scientists, microfluidics experts and business advisers and they’ve helped a lot because you run into questions you just don’t know how to answer or problems you’ve never imagined in a million years you’d encounter. And these are the people you go talk to who will then give you advice.

Once you’ve done all that, in parallel, you are de-risking the crap out of your venture, which means in your lab, you’re doing all of the iterative work that needs to be done to systematically de-risk, or in other words, accomplish the milestones that you’ve set out before you. For us, we had to prove that we could make human megakaryocytes from induced pluripotent stem cells, that we could develop a device to trigger platelet production from those megakaryocytes, that we could achieve significant increases in platelet yield from that device, that the platelets themselves were comparable to donor platelets – both ultrastructurally and functionally, but also both in vitro and in vivo studies. And these are all things that you should probably publish on, since that ends up serving as a huge technical validation for the work that you’re doing, and investors do truly care about that.

Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the Founder and CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon Founded Platelet BioGenesis where he served as CEO and Chief Scientific Officer. Before Platelet BioGenesis Dr. Thon was an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School.
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