Starting any business can be challenging for an inexperienced entrepreneur, but starting one in the health industry can be particularly difficult due to the sector’s many regulations, high stakes and long sales cycle. At last week’s Entrepreneurship 101 session, the winners of the 2014 MaRS HealthKick pitch competition shared some key pieces of advice for new health entrepreneurs.

Being a health entrepreneur is about more than just finding new cures for diseases

Don Stewart, the president and CEO of PlantForm, emphasized that there are many opportunities for entrepreneurs to change how healthcare is delivered and to make a significant impact doing so. For example, PlantForm’s tobacco-based platform produces high-quality drugs at low costs, which means that more people can access these drugs and the savings can be put toward funding for other healthcare needs.

Have the right people around you

According to Steve Plymale, the CEO of Profound Medical, the first person he hired for his team was a regulatory expert. Health entrepreneurs need to know where they stand early on, he explained. They need to “know what the boundaries are and still be innovative.”

Steve also told the audience to not be afraid to ask for help. He recommended that entrepreneurs network and attend events like Entrepreneurship 101, as they are bound to encounter someone who is facing the same problem as they are.

Having outside support is very important, especially for scientists who become entrepreneurs, like Don, who explained that PlantForm has nine different types of lawyers all with different specialties, including communication expertise.

For accidental entrepreneur Jeff Ruby, founder and CEO of Newtopia, it was not only important to have professional talent on his team, but for those people to be passionate, smart, and not “divas.” Jeff also said that those working with you—and those at home—need to understand that it can take a long time to see any revenue. Entrepreneurs need to “learn where to pay,” as working with limited capital means constantly making trade-offs. Sometimes entrepreneurs have to become the experts themselves and do their own research, he said.

Take advantage of the “alphabet soup” of funding opportunities that are out there

Steve stressed that young companies need to exhaust every avenue and to especially look at government programs. The Funding Portal can be a great place to start.

Jeff cautioned entrepreneurs to not tie themselves into knots over diluted funding, as it is much better to have a small piece of something than a large piece of nothing. The quicker you can build up your company’s value the better.

Learn to love being on the stage

As Jeff pointed out, pitch competitions like MaRS HealthKick are a great opportunity to educate a sophisticated audience about what you do, as well as an opportunity to learn new presentation styles from watching others pitch.

For Steve, who has presented his pitch 217 times this year, “HealthKick was a pivotal moment in our effort to raise money… You can have the greatest technology in the world, but if you can’t tell your story effectively you’re done.”

Even if you do not win, pitch competitions can reveal your weaknesses, so that you can improve them for next time. As a tech guy, Don never expected he would have to sell as much as he does, but he’s found that the rewards from pitch competitions (other than funding) can be great assets. For example, through HealthKick, PlantForm won time with Bereskin and Parr LLP, an intellectual property law firm that helped PlantForm to trademark its drug-manufacturing platform, which turned out to be a source of revenue the company had not previously considered.

Want more health startups?

On May 7, 39 of Canada’s most promising early-stage health ventures will be competing for three $20,000 cash prizes and pitching in front of over 300 members of the North American investment community at MaRS HealthKick 2015. Learn about the ventures and speakers here.


Lily Lo

Lily manages the Procurement by Co-Design challenges to ensure effective collaboration between healthcare providers and vendors. See more…