When & How to Pivot a Biotech Startup
Last updated on January 19, 2023 by
Although “pivot” can be described as a buzzy word in the startup world, turning a failure into a success by pivoting is well documented. For instance, what do Netflix, Instagram, Slack, and Nintendo share in common? All four businesses pivoted.
As many of us remember, Netflix was originally a movie rental service that delivered DVDs by mail before becoming a subscription-based streaming service and production company.
Instagram started as a location-based app called Burbn that users could use to check in with friends, post plans, and share photos before becoming one of the most popular video-sharing apps.
Slack was just a feature born out of a failed attempt at building a game called Glitch before it became the messaging program it is today.
Nintendo sold hanafuda cards, a style of Japanese playing cards that were popular throughout the early- and mid-20th century before eventually pivoting to electronics and video games.
Despite being wildly successful, each company needed to make a serious business pivot at one point to get there, slightly or drastically changing its product or business strategy.
If you’re considering a pivot, knowing when and how to do it effectively with thoughtful planning and execution is a critical skill for any new founder and entrepreneur.
In this article, we’ll cover the following:
- What is a pivot, and what does it entail?
- When to pivot
- What types of pivots are there?
- How to pivot
- Are there alternatives?
You’ll learn the difference between pivoting and iteration, how to identify whether or not you need to pivot, and how you can do so productively and efficiently, increasing your chances of a successful pivot in a world full of risks and competition.
To make this more relevant to you, the biotech founder, we’ll include some specific life sciences examples, as biotechs are not tech companies. (You’ll notice that many articles about startup pivoting are written for SaaS companies.)
This way, you have an article closer to a 1:1 comparison rather than one where you need to translate a tech or social media company’s pivot strategy to your own.
What Is a Pivot?
Simply put, a pivot in business is changing your business idea, strategy, or product, most likely because your original idea wasn’t executing the way you’d like or your product isn’t useful to your target market. This change is usually fundamental and can improve a company’s revenue or help them survive in the market.
In the same way a basketball player pivots their foot to change directions with the ball, a business pivots its strategy or product to breathe new life into the company.
That said, a more technical definition of pivot involves distinguishing between an iteration and an actual pivot. While you may consider pivoting research slightly to focus on a more promising molecule, it could be an iteration.
This distinction applies to early-stage startups that haven’t made much headway in drug discovery and development. Any pivot you make here could be considered more of an iteration than an actual pivot.
A proper pivot is generally when a company with a customer base and an established product decides to change the direction of its business. In the case of an emerging biotech, its customer base and the established product are its project portfolio or any commercialized drugs.
When Should You Pivot Your Startup?
Because starting from scratch or making significant sweeping changes to strategy, product, or portfolio is a huge undertaking; it’s vital to pivot only when it’s clear that pivoting is necessary. However, identifying that situation can be difficult, especially for a first-time founder or co-founder.
Are you in a position that requires perseverance, or is it time to throw in the towel and redeploy the company or team to a new project? It might be time to make a pivot when:
- You’ve invested a tremendous amount of money and resources into R&D and haven’t been able to discover a use for your NME or translate it into the new compound.
- The underlying science is just not working.
- Developing your product will take much longer than expected.
- Your preclinical studies or clinical trials have failed.
- Too much competition in your field limits the possible market share available to you.
- Your company’s progress has slowed down significantly or halted altogether.
- Customers or patients aren’t responding to your products, position, or messaging like you thought they would.
- Your perspective about the industry and investors’ perspectives have changed.
Do any of these examples apply to you? If so, you’ll want to consider your options for iteration or to pivot rather than persevering in the hopes that something will change while wasting precious resources.
What Types of Pivots Are There?
Many years ago, Eric Ries published “The Lean Startup,” which addressed the new approach startups were using to build. The approach considered that startups often need to make many course corrections, or “pivots,” to find a successful formula and product.
According to Ries, the approach dramatically improved the efficiency and speed of these corrections, allowing founders to continuously iterate, finding a formula that eventually would lead to a highly successful business.
While his approach is, in many ways, for technology companies, many aspects of the approach apply to other businesses, including the life sciences and biotechnology. In “The Lean Startup,” Ries discusses the various pivots companies make to test different theories about a business model or product, most of which we will review here. The types of pivots include:
- Technology pivot: you might discover a way to achieve the same results using a different technology. In this case, the new technology can provide higher performance, precision, or accuracy, improving your chances of creating a product that can be commercialized.
- Zoom-in pivot: what was once considered a platform, or range of products, is now considered one product, highlighting the value of focusing on a minimum viable product, or MVP, that can be delivered much more quickly and efficiently.
- Zoom-out pivot: in contrast to zooming in, a zoom-out pivot involves a single product that can be treated as a platform, creating multiple opportunities to get a drug to market. For instance, an mRNA platform initially started as a project with just one mRNA vaccine.
- Customer need pivot: this example involves early customer or patient feedback that indicates the problem is either not being solved or the problem being solved is not very important. Typically, this requires repositioning, or a completely new product, to find a problem worth solving. Regarding biotech, this might be more appropriately categorized as a translational issue. Maybe the underlying science isn’t working. It’s time to decide whether to tweak or ditch the drug/product.
- Customer segment pivot: your product may attract actual patients or customers, but not the ones you initially thought. In other words, it solves a real problem but needs to be positioned for a more appreciative segment and optimized for that segment.
- Business architecture pivot. You may have a business architecture problem where you’ve got high margins and high volumes. Instead, you want to have either high margins, low volume, or low margins, high volume.
- Engine of growth pivot. Startups, no matter what industry, want to grow quickly and profitability as soon as possible. However, that’s harder said than done in the life sciences, where R&D alone can take a decade or more. Deciding whether or not you need an “engine” for growth or if you can rely on investments alone is essential. If fundraising isn’t going well, can you pivot to an engine of growth, like licensing or partnerships?
Correctly identifying the business model or product changes you need to make will help you determine the right pivot for your business. You may need to perform a technology product to bring down development costs.
Identifying the changes you need to make is the first step in the pivoting process. And that takes knowing what types of pivots are available to you.
How To Pivot
Pivoting takes thoughtful planning and execution. If you’re convinced that pivoting is the wisest business decision, you’ll wonder exactly how to spin. Consider these tactics, which help you solidify your pivot strategy and reduce the risks involved.
Recognizing that you need to pivot is tricky. Acting decisively can be even more difficult. As a young company, chances are you and your team are attached to the work you’ve been doing, and simply letting go of all the hours you’ve put in can feel like the wrong decision.
If you’re convinced it’s time to pivot, you’ll want to act quickly. It can help you avoid wasting more money, time, and effort.
Concentrate on What Works
It’s essential that you evaluate your business model to the best of your abilities and use that evaluation to hone in on what’s going well. If you focus on the project or projects that are the most promising, you’ll have a better chance of making those projects work.
Skill Up or Hire
Ask yourself whether or not you need to learn a new skill or hire a new team member to make the pivot successful. Sometimes, the pivot you decide on can take you into a new field or market. When that’s the case, you might lack the skills or expertise necessary to make serious progress.
Assess whether or not you can personally learn the skills needed or if hiring another scientist or building a new team will increase your chances of success.
Consider a New Business Model
It might be that you’ve identified your business model as the issue. In this case, pivoting to another model might be the most intelligent decision.
For example, if your business model is focused on strategic partnerships with pharmaceutical companies, but the genes you’ve discovered and identified are relevant to more than one therapeutic area, you will have difficulty remaining partners.
It would make sense to pivot into a new business model in this situation, which is what Millennium did.
Be Comfortable with Failure & Change
Letting go of a failure will help you move forward, and being comfortable with significant changes can help you navigate the stress and anxiety that comes with pivoting. Rather than get hung up on something not working out, embrace the change and lean into the newness. Doing so can help you more easily adjust and develop your pivot strategy.
Before pivoting, startup founders and small business owners should consider whether or not they should try some iterations first. Iterating on your business plan, product, business strategy, marketing strategy, or model can help you work past the bumps you’re experiencing in your research or development processes. You can consider building out your project portfolio or drug pipeline as a form of iteration, allowing you to ultimately get more “shots on goal” or more chances at having a drug candidate succeed.
If it’s apparent that iterating won’t help your business—a drug that failed clinical trials, for example—then it’s time to pivot. Pivoting will let you start fresh, taking your team and company in a new direction.
No matter what, the most meaningful thing you can do to increase your chances of success is to back people, not projects! When you look at the bigger picture, strong teams of talented people are often behind the best ideas out there, not because they always succeed immediately, but most likely because they’re willing to pivot and do so thoughtfully and with intention.