Startups – creating value for customers and communicating them

Getting people to buy your product/service can be a challenging process. How do you make your product/service desirable to customers? Bain & Company did a nice infographic on the 30 things that customers value shown below:


Companies that deliver more elements of value perform better i.e. have more loyal customers and a faster revenue growth rate than companies that don’t. Makes logical sense. As to what ranks highest, quality is deemed the topmost priority across all industries. After which, depending upon the industry, values are ranked differently e.g. food and beverage have sensory appeal ranked second highest while tech industries rank functional elements – avoids hassle, saves time, organizes etc. – next highest. Values that are in the emotional category are also ranked higher than those in the functional category.

One thing I realised apart from the importance of bringing value to customers, is the necessity of effective marketing and communication. I work for a startup which offers a life science reagent of higher quality than what is currently available. The founders thought since this was the case, the product would sell itself. But this is only the case if the value provided was blatantly obvious. The problem we faced was no one noticed that what they currently use was inferior unless they looked at certain indicators (which they would normally not study). I’m talking about siRNA and their off-target effects, for those scientists out there:

Most siRNAs are inherently non-specific, knocking down many genes in addition to the target gene. But because most scientists only measure the knock-down of their target gene, they do not see the numerous off-target genes that also get deregulated. They are thus left with the impression that the reagent is working fine. It’s only when screening a large number of siRNAs do these off-target effects become apparent. Go here to learn more.

Anyway, unless the value is obvious, like PokemonGo – Nostalgia, fun, sensory appeal etc. – one needs to really work hard on communicating the values to customers. And usually, the values that most products/services bring need to bring drummed into customers. This is what drives the advertising industry, and funds the paychecks of marketing and sales  consultants. So for those startup owners – what values are you delivering, and.. are they obvious?


Bioelectronics – medicine of the future?

Hear neurosurgeon and immunologist Kevin Tracey talk about a relatively new field of medicine called bioelectronics. You may have heard about the contact lens that can monitor glucose levels. Now, there are an increasing number of ways technological gadgets can be used to not only monitor but modulate human physiology at a more sophisticated level than a cardiac defibrillator.

A large amount of funding is going into this new research area, so it’s good to know more about it! And being a former employee, it’s nice to see that GSK has had a head start in the field, setting up a $50 million investment fund and collaborating with more than 50 research groups. Commitment to the field was evident when they announced last month the formation of a new company called Galvani Bioelectronics in partnership with Verily, former Alphabet company i.e. Google Life Sciences. Galvani will focus on using miniaturized implantable devices to stimulate peripheral nerves, modulating neural circuits that may have therapeutic effects on chronic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, asthma and diabetes.

Government organizations are also expressing interest as the NIH committed $248 million over a 7 year program called SPARC – stimulating peripheral activity to relieve conditions  – which focuses mostly on mapping and elucidating the function of neural pathways and improving the interface between electrodes and nerves.

DARPA has also put in $60 million in a program called ElectRx that seeks to map neural circuits with the goal of using electricity to treat inflammation and mental health diseases, particularly post-traumatic stress. They’ve recently started a new program called “Targeted Neuroplasticity Training” to see how peripheral stimulation can improve learning ability – couldn’t we all use some of that!

On top of that, two large research centers are being set up studying bioelectronics, one at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and another at the Feinstein Institute in New York, the latter receiving up to $650 million in funding.

There’s probably a long way to go before we truly understand the intricacies of our human nervous system and whether we can harness it to our advantage. But this is an amazing time where we have the tools to try to make it happen.


Waltz, E. (2016). A spark at the periphery. Nat Biotech, 34(9), 904–908. Retrieved from


How do you tell a good Pharma acquisition from a bad one?

Mergers and acquisitions are commonplace in the pharmaceutical industry, there are reports of it every other week. Pfizer for example, has just recently announced  it will acquire Medivation for 14 billion dollars, a move that will bolster its presence in the immuno-oncology field. And here’s a list of other notable acquisitions over the past few years involving Amgen, Gilead, Celgene, Bristol-Myers and Merck. Acquisitions in pharma have been occurring so much that this graphic from depicts the consolidation of 60 pharmas into just 10 over the past two decades:


Why do pharma companies like merging and acquiring so much? They do it mainly for the following reasons:

  • To improve their own performance
  • To consolidate resources and reduce wastage
  • To accelerate their product’s access to the market
  • To obtain or increase access to a specific market
  • To acquire a new technology
  • To pick an early “winner” or to buy cheap
  • To eliminate competition

So back to the Pfizer-Medivation example. By buying Medivation, Pfizer gets access to the blockbuster anti-prostrate cancer drug, Xtandi, which brings in $2.2 billion/year. Furthermore, there is still potential for Xtandi to be used in other cancers, with projected sales of $4.78 billion in 2020. Pfizer would also gain access to other cancer drugs in Medivation’s pipeline, like promising breast cancer drug talozoparib, increasing its overall access to the cancer market. It all seems like a very logical move.

So the only thing that could make it a bad move, is if they are paying more than they would ever get back. Pfizer is constantly criticized for paying more than it should and its happening again now. Pfizer paid $81.50 per share of Medivation, a 180% premium on Medivation’s share price when talk of the deal first started, and a 55% premium over Sanofi’s offer of $52.50 per share. So yes, they are paying alot. But if Xtandi and Medivation’s other drugs outperform and outsell, then we can all look back and think it was a bargain! So I’ve tricked you, you can’t really tell if an acquisition is good or bad unless you’re the Oracle.

Alright, don’t be mad. There are some key things to take note of that could be warning signs an M&A is going to go wrong:

  • It happens for the wrong reasons. E.g. Driven by the fear that one has to be big to survive, or driven by glory – a whole lot of people including lawyers and accountants stand to gain big bonuses when they mediate a M&A.
  • The company is too focused on cost-cutting and integrating the new acquisition, neglecting the running of its day-to-day business.
  • Culture clashes. Here are some examples.

But overall, how have pharma acquisitions performed in the past? Surely Pfizer having bought numerous companies before in the past, would be an expert in cleverly acquiring new companies. Well yes, on paper, they’ve got it down pat. In fact, the whole pharma industry in general, perform uniquely when it comes to mergers and acquisitions, increasing shareholder return by an average of 5% according to a McKinsey report.


Note that this is shareholder return. Not patient return, or research return. Its no secret that lots of people lose their jobs when pharmas merge, and research cuts are always made as managers try to consolidate overlaps. As a result, science tends to slow down. In the long run as well, competition drops and innovation declines. The drop in innovation may be mitigated by the consistent rise of biotech start-ups, pumping the industry with new ideas. But with the high failure rate of start-ups, how efficient can this process be?

Another option to maintain innovation and a fair amount of competition, is for large pharmas to start spin-offs themselves, which is already happening. Pfizer spun off its animal health unit Zoetis in one of the biggest IPOs in 2013. Abbot also spun off its pharmaceutical unit, now called AbbVie which has surged to become even more valuable than Abbot itself. Pharmas are even starting to swap asset classes, which may be good for science overall – imagine if we all focused on doing what we are good at.

So it looks like M&As (good and bad) are here to stay in pharma, and in fact, may even be key to the renewal and exchange of ideas.



Watch how mosquitoes spread Zika in HD

As you can see, I am still working towards creating more regular postings. Will. Get. Better.

In the meantime, enjoy this high-definition video of the intricate processes mosquitoes  employ to draw our blood and spread diseases.

Also, an intricately artsy video again highlights the fact that microbes can exist anywhere, even in the clouds, migrating across continents and starting storms.

And my favorite of how otters are equipped to survive freezing waters.

For more interesting articles and videos, check out Aeon and Deep Look.