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14.09
2023

Fundraising for start-ups: Simple strategies that actually work

A start-up begins with a vision. For Georges Muller and David Bonzon, Co-Founders of SEED Biosciences, it was to help scientists isolate single cells reliably and cost-effectively. Five years after its birth in 2018, the company employs a team of 15 and has close to 50 clients and a range of investors on board. How did they make this happen? Georges Muller tells us more.

What approach to financing got you to where you are today?

After starting SEED Biosciences, we wanted to get to market as soon as possible. And to develop a minimum viable product (also known as an MVP), it takes time and money. In the early stages, we received grants from innovation foundations Gebert Rüf Stiftung and Innosuisse. These non-dilutive funds – which means they don’t involve selling part of the company – helped us to develop an initial version of our product.

Beyond this first phase, we’ve sought funding from private individuals. SEED Biosciences is now financed by a range of business angels, who contribute different amounts.

Many start-ups are focused on raising capital, but you concentrated on sales from the very start. Can you tell us more?

The number-one aim for a start-up is to demonstrate success. And you do this by growing your company and its revenue. It figures, then, that the focus should be on sales.

The basic equation is as follows: focusing on sales and revenue will beget investment. This, in turn, will support the company’s growth. There’s no better reassurance for an investor than to see a company’s revenue is growing.

Before you can send your first invoice, you need to put something in the hands of your customers – and you should aim to do this as quickly as possible.

How quickly did you start to sell?

We sent our first invoice after a couple of weeks or so. Many start-ups wait until they have perfected the very best prototype or product before they sell anything. I believe it should be the other way around: as soon as you have something to sell, sell it. It may be consulting hours, pilots or prototypes – you need to be creative about it.

Betting on sales ensures steady growth, but how do you cope with capital-intensive competitors?

First of all, having competitors is always a good sign for a start-up. It means the market is attractive. We’re selling our first product and competing against different solutions in the field – both established companies and other start-ups.

We’re not too intimidated by capital-intensive competitors, as success isn’t just about the amount of funds you raise. Last year, we heard about a competitor in the United States that raised $30 million. A tremendous amount! But now, 18 months later, they’re still not on the market. So having liquidity pressure can sometimes be a good thing. It makes you focus on the sales and what’s important for your customers. This might mean taking smaller steps, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re slower. In our case, it meant getting to market earlier.

As soon as you have something to sell, sell it.

Did you ever turn down investors or grants because they were not aligned with your vision?

When you sit at the table with potential investors, it’s about negotiation and finding terms that everyone is happy with. Sometimes the timing or conditions may not be right for a collaboration to flourish.

But I always keep an open mind. Someone might be my competitor one day, but the next they could be my partner, investor, distributor or acquirer. Just because you can’t find a working solution today doesn’t mean you won’t find it in two years’ time. Maintaining good relationships and an open mind can work wonders.

How do you build good relationships with investors?

We bring people on board who can contribute money, but it’s about much more that than. As business experts, they also bring expertise, feedback and a network we can draw on. We try to keep them as engaged as possible. For instance, we send them regular reports, we invite them to meetings and we send general updates.

A few months ago, I was talking to one of our main investors who’s an experienced businessman. He told me that for him, it was all about trust. He doesn’t need to read a business plan to know whether it’s worth investing in a company. Just minutes into a discussion, he knows whether he’ll be investing. And he reiterated we could count on him – as long as we keep doing what we say, and saying what we do.

Of course, investors know you’ll drift away from the initial business plan; that’s what start-ups do. There are risks involved. But if you can explain this and come up with solutions, they will be supportive.

What are the pros and cons of your funding strategy?

The pros: you can focus on what’s important, meaning sales and customers. The con is that when you’re in the driver’s seat, you’re under pressure. Even though we generate revenue, we have funding cycles that last 12 months, simply because we keep investing in new product development. This means that every year we have to work out the next step to grow the company and pay salaries.

While we’re doing well with our first product, we don’t want to stop there. We’re looking ahead to fund the next product, so the work never stops! That’s why it’s important to be surrounded and supported by people you can trust. If you have the right investors, you know that as long as you deliver, they’ll be at your side.

You formed a new partnership with Molecular Devices this year. How has this helped your business?

It’s helped to grow sales and therefore grow the business. On the development side, we’ve had to comply with very strict processes. This wasn’t easy, but it’s helped us move from a garage-style start-up to a company with established quality.

The partnership has also helped with our visibility. One of the biggest obstacles for start-ups is the lack of visibility and credibility. Yet in life sciences, credibility is key. You’re offering a new solution to customers, but they’ll think twice before they change their processes. They’re under regulatory pressure and adapting a new service can be a risk.

In our case, Molecular Devices uses our trademark, DispenCell, and this builds confidence around our product. So it was a big push not only in terms of commercialisation, but in terms of credibility overall.

What advice would you give new entrepreneurs on fundraising?

If you want to raise funds from wealthy individuals, think about how you communicate. You need to realise these people are human beings, not walking wallets. As I mentioned already, building trust is important.

Sophisticated slides and immaculate business plans won’t get you far if you don’t learn how to deal with people. It’s hard to remember this because the ecosystem pushes us in the opposite direction. It’s all about pitching your company in 60 seconds and other superficial constraints. I wish we could move away from these gimmicks and talk to each other as human beings. This is what ultimately earns trust and builds relationships.

Can you give us a concrete example of how to improve the way we communicate?

When you meet a potential investor, instead of delivering your company spiel, start by listening. Ask open questions and try to understand the other person’s motivations when investing in start-ups. Then you can make a proposition based on what you’ve heard. Think of them first, before trying to sell anything.

If this is a weak point for you, try a sales course. This is something I’d highly recommend as it solves so many issues. It will teach you the best way to sell your start-up – and could be the difference between engaging investors and leaving them indifferent.

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Georges Muller
CEO and Co-Founder of SEED Biosciences

Dr Georges Muller is the CEO and Co-Founder of SEED Biosciences. He has a PhD in Bioengineering from Prof. Barrandon’s Lab at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). He is an opportunity seeker, a relationship builder and a great communicator. He’s worked for biomedical start-ups and organised the world’s largest biotech congress (ESACT 2017, SLAS Europe 2023). He has received several awards for young entrepreneurs (Venture Leaders, Venture Kick, Venture 2018).

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