Shana Kelley offers 4 tips for building a life sciences startup

University Professor and Entrepreneur Shana Kelley

Universities produce new, innovative ideas that are the future of industries we can’t currently envision. As part of the process of moving ideas into action and impact, academic institutions must support entrepreneurship to ensure there is a local community in which to take inventions forward.

The University of Toronto’s Entrepreneurship Week is an exciting example of how we can provide our graduate and undergraduate students, who are ideally suited to make startup companies successful, with some of the business-focused training and insight they need to succeed.  By fostering a culture that supports innovation at all levels, we are preparing our undergraduate and graduate students to successfully build their careers in young companies that have the potential to improve the lives of people around the world.

Since completing my research training, I have had the opportunity to build three startup companies in the life sciences sector. While every startup has a different story and unique aspects that are required for success, here are four tips based on my experience for aspiring entrepreneurs interested in building a life science startup.

1. Embrace the learning experience

Spinning a company out of a university and watching a technology turn into a product is incredibly exciting – and it’s also an amazing learning opportunity.  When you are trained as a scientist, you don’t typically get exposed to the more applied aspects of product development.

Being involved with startups is a great way to see firsthand what it takes to make a technology robust enough to make a difference.  As well, having the opportunity to advance academic research towards the clinic is a chance to heighten the impact of the work we do at universities.

But it is also challenging – persistence is critical.  There will be obtacles that need to be worked around or over, and it’s key to embrace the challenges as part of the learning experience.

2. Be prepared to work outside your comfort zone – and make sure your team is too

Early on I was surprised by how many different activities a small team needs to cover off within a startup.  Especially in the beginning, a handful of people are covering all of the key aspects of R&D, business development, operations and more. Basically everyone is working outside of their comfort zone and the success of a startup hinges on having a team that can do this well.

3. Meet challenges with flexibility and patience

In the life sciences space, going from concept to product takes a significant amount of time and there are many challenges along the way.  The first is to convince people like seed or venture investors, government funders, and potential employees that you have an idea or technology worth pursuing.

You also need to be flexible as your company takes off and finds the sweet spot for a technology, which is often not what was originally envisioned.  Another is having enough patience (and convincing investors to do the same) to see the long process of product development through.

4. Lessons learned in industry can strengthen your research

Being involved with startups has helped me point my research program directly at very challenging, unsolved problems with the potential for significant societal impact.  It has helped me see the gaps between the problems that academic scientists work on and what industry invests in.


Catch leading scientist and University Professor Shana Kelley as she shares her experience founding three successful life sciences startups.

Register for: From concept to acquisition and back again: building life science startups part of U of T’s Entrepreneurship Week