“You don’t need entrepreneurship in your genes to successfully found a life sciences company”
HTGF Partner Marco Winzer has been with High-Tech Gründerfonds since its foundation. In an interview, he talks about why real entrepreneurship is not something you can learn in the classroom. However, he also advises anyone with an innovative idea to make sure they found a company themselves and outlines what they need to do to make this happen.
Marco, do successful founders usually have business degrees? Or do they tend to be inventors, programmers and scientists?
Marco Winzer: People keep on saying that founders have to have a business background, but I don’t sign up to that idea. In fact, I’m convinced that this puts a few potential founders off, particularly in the sector in which I’m active – the “hardcore” tech field of life sciences and chemicals.
You’ll have to explain that a bit more clearly. What do you mean exactly?
Marco Winzer: Put it this way, entrepreneurship is something you’re born with – or indeed without. Not everyone is a born entrepreneur. And many inventors and scientists simply don’t have it in their genes. But despite this, anyone with a good innovative idea can and should found a company.
What makes a born entrepreneur?
Marco Winzer: Enthusiasm, a talent for sales, a good nose for market trends and margin optimisation, as well as empathy and the power of persuasion. These are all traits you need to really sell yourself and your idea at a pitch, while also convincing others and getting them emotionally involved. It takes a very special kind of personality.
And yet you say that anyone can found a company, regardless of whether they possess these characteristics?
Marco Winzer: That’s right. And it’s a controversial approach, because I know a number of investors and other VCs who say quite definitively: a company founder needs to be an entrepreneur! As if this is something you can learn on a training course! The risk is that tech-savvy founders then spend too much time and energy on aspects of business, as they try to present themselves as “entrepreneurs”, when instead they should be dedicating 100% of their time to innovation and product development.
So what’s your approach?
Marco Winzer: I’d like the inventors, programmers and scientists to also get in touch with us. Those who are perhaps more introverted, who work on algorithms or develop new drug candidates in the lab, and yet who couldn’t imagine one day selling their drug on a stage. It would be fatal if these people were put off by the traditional image of the entrepreneurial founder. That’s why at HTGF, we provide financing to whoever has a really good idea.
But you surely need a little bit of business savvy to come up with a business plan that you can then present to HTGF or other investors?
Marco Winzer: Absolutely. But who says this all has to come from one person? A successful business venture essentially requires three types of personality: there’s the Leonardo da Vinci type, the manager type, and the classic salesperson who has a direct sales approach and isn’t afraid of selling “door-to-door”. We can’t expect anyone to be able to fulfil all three of these roles. And why should we? After all, the traditional “serial entrepreneurs” show us how it’s done. They know where their strengths lie, for instance in product development, and then get other talented individuals on board to cover all other aspects.
So if I’ve understood you correctly, you’re primarily looking out for the Leonardo da Vincis of this world? What attributes must they have?
Marco Winzer: They have to be excellent scientists, that’s for sure They also need to be able to demonstrate absolute expertise in their field, for example drug development. Their idea should have been developed beyond the basic research stage (proof of principle) and find itself at the proof of concept stage. In the field of drug development, this means that they should have a lead compound with pre-clinical data available; in terms of medical technology, a lab prototype of the device should have been validated. And even if they aren’t traditional entrepreneurs in the sense that I just described, they should at least have a certain idea of where their product fits in the market – or, to put it another way, the problem that their future product is going to address, whether it be a consumer problem or a medical need, for example.
In terms of personal attributes, they need to be able to reflect, trust others and take on advice.
Why is that so important?
Marco Winzer: Well, as a founder, I need to show a level of self-reflection to the point that I know where my weaknesses lie. And if I simply don’t have entrepreneurship in my genes, then I need to be willing to go and seek out people who have stronger entrepreneurial skills. But to do so, you first need to accept where your strengths and weaknesses lie. By the way, nearly all of the start-ups that we finance are team ventures.
And how do the Leonardo da Vincis get to meet the European Business School graduates?
Marco Winzer: That is indeed an important question. I really try and do all I can to establish contact between those pursuing traditional entrepreneurial paths and those at universities leaning more towards scientific research. At HTGF, we’re also on hand to analyse the business case and identify who’s missing in a team. And we can dip into our very extensive network and help put people in contact with one another. But it’s ultimately the founder’s decision as to who they start a company with.
Can you think of an example from your portfolio in which a da Vinci and an entrepreneur came together?
Marco Winzer: I got to know a veterinarian at a Leipzig University event once. She told me all about her idea and I encouraged her to keep working at it. I often have discussions like this with people and don’t always expect to receive a business plan six months later. In this instance, the business plan took twelve months to arrive – in the meantime the veterinarian had joined forces with two entrepreneurship graduates from HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management. Two months later, they’d secured a financing deal from us.
Thank you Marco!