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仓促扩张:生物创业公司的头号杀手

Bruce Booth 2011年09月08日

所有的创业公司都希望扩大规模,但事实上欲速则不达。

    创业公司基因组(Startup Genome)项目最近发布了一份关于互联网创业公司DNA的报告,简而言之,就是试图找出决定这些公司成败的特质。他们的研究成果之一是:74%创业公司的失败都源于“过早进行扩张”。它听起来像是一种不幸的病症,但就互联网公司来说,它指的是公司还没有弄清楚自己有多少底牌——产品、顾客和市场之类,就耗费了过多的资金。

    阅读这份报告,以及我在科技题材方面的合作伙伴弗雷德•德斯汀就此撰写的博文,我不禁想起了生命科学创业公司扩张过早的问题。花钱过度及增长太快在生物科技领域司空见惯,而且几乎总是造成投资亏损和股东的不幸。

    在我看来,生物科技领域存在四种过早扩张(或曰不当扩张)的现象,现一一列举如下,一般来说,我们都会尽量完全避免这些错误:

    1. 过快建造“大科学”公司。一些诺贝尔奖获得者就青睐这样“要么大,要么死”的策略:没有掌握足够的证据,尚未完成某种疾病的靶标验证,没有证实化学上(或生物上的)可控性,或者先期项目尚缺乏进展,就开始筹集数额惊人的资金,用于某种新发现或研究平台的发展。这种做法能够催生庞大的团队,加上涉足领域广泛,因此往往能够轰动一时,但是它烧钱的速度同样惊人。如果对目标物质的研究,特别是产品开发方面的迅速进展无法取得成果,公司的估值就会一落千丈,相关投资血本无归。

    如今,打造大科学公司的正确方法是在科技先行、节约资本方针的指导下,逐步扩大规模:适度筹集资本,招聘15-20个全职员工,打造一个基础稳固的开发平台,同时寻找合作伙伴,以降低平台发展和靶标确证的费用,然后在研发工作取得进展的前提下成长为大科技公司。错误的方式则是盲目乐观地大举筹资,并随着资金涌入而迅速扩张,多数情况下这种做法都会使投资者吃大亏。

    Synta公司就是扩张过快的典型例子。他们累计筹集和花费了3.5亿美元资金,最多的时候全职员工数超过150人,旗下的产品组合也很丰富,但投资者却损失惨重。这家公司的发展还远未到头,可它成立已经有10年之久,目前依然没有取得突破性的进展,对早期投资者来说前景不妙。

    有时候这种模式也能成事——至少吃亏的不是投资者。如果该公司能凭借市场上的兴奋情绪和泡沫达到“逃逸速度”,它们就可能上市或早早地被其他公司收购。Sirtris公司就是个好例子,凭借“大科学”概念达到了逃逸速度,先是成功上市,后又被葛兰素史克(GlaxoSmithKline)收购。这笔收购耗资7.2亿美元,不少分析人士揣度,葛兰素史克现在可能后悔了,但在当初收购的时候,公众反响非常热烈。

    2. 明明只是个项目,却偏偏要组建成大公司。许多投资者的钱就是这么浪费的:他们试图打造的“公司”其实只是产品开发平台。先前我就写过一篇博文探讨这个问题,投资者往往把多个项目捆绑在一起,同时进行多项研究,并为此组建庞大的团队,特别是人数众多的行政管理人员,他们以为如此就能分散风险。可在多数时候,这样做只不过提高了其投资对象的资本密集度,一旦某个产品失败,整个“公司”的估值都会大幅下滑。

    大型制药公司收购创业企业时,瞄准的往往是单个项目,因此,如果某家公司有幸拥有两个有前途的项目,比如说一个已进入临床实验二期,另一个尚未开始临床试验,那他们的价值可能遭到低估。如果掌握了某项有前景的资产,老老实实地进行开发就够了,给它披上昂贵的外衣,也就是大而无当的大公司外壳,没有多少好处。如果可能的话,利用临时性的组织架构就行,可能连首席财务官都用不上,更不用说人事专员了,专注于高效的产品研发吧。我们的投资组合中,Stromedix和Zafgen就做得很不错。

    The Startup Genome project recently released a report on the DNA of internet start-ups, essentially trying to identify attributes that lead to success or failure. One of the things they found was that 74% of start-ups failed because of "premature scaling." Sounds like an unfortunate medical condition, but it's Internet companies spend too much money before they really know what they have – their product, customer, market, etc…

    While reading it, and my tech partner Fred Destin's post on it, I couldn't help but think about the issue of premature scaling in life science start-ups. Spending too much, growing too fast – not an uncommon characteristic in biotech. It almost always leads to shareholder pain and a loss of invested capital.

    Here are four types of premature scaling (or inappropriate scaling) I can think of in biotech, and we try to avoid them all:

    1. Building a Big Science story too fast. This is the "Go big or go bust" strategy with a group of Nobel laureates: Raise enormous amounts of capital to fund a novel discovery or research platform without enough evidence of target validation in a disease setting, confidence in chemical (or biological) tractability, progress on a lead program, etc. This generates big teams, big footprints, big stories – and massive burns. If the substance and, in particular, the rapid progress on product development, doesn't get in line quickly, a big gap in valuation emerges that can crush these investments.

    The right way to build a Big Science story today involves scaling consistent with a science-led, capital efficient approach: Build a sound platform with 15-20 FTEs on modest equity raises, find partners to help offset the growth and validation of that platform and then grow into the Big Science story as R&D evolves. The wrong way to build these is through rapid scaling around a hype-led fundraising machine. More often than not, investors get burnt with these.

    Synta is a good rapid-scaling example. They have raised and spent $350 million, had at one time a team of 150+ FTEs or more and built a big broad portfolio -- but their investors have suffered considerably. Story is far from over, but at the 10-year point its looking tough for the early investors.

    Sometimes this model works, at least for investors. If the company can achieve escape velocity with enough hype and buzz in the market, they can get public or acquired early. Sirtris is a good example of a high escape velocity 'big science' deal that made it pubic and was acquired; its fair to say that many spectators wonder if GSK is regretting its $720 million acquisition, but at the time the story had a ton of public relations momentum.

    2. Building a big company when it's really a project. Lots of venture money is wasted building "companies" when they are really just product development vehicles. I covered this theme under a prior blog around new liquidity theses. By stapling multiple programs together, building a big team especially on G&A and running multiple studies at once, investors often think they've diversified their risk. Most of the time they've just raised the capital intensity of their deal such that one product bump and the whole thing gets revalued enormously.

    Big Pharma buys these plays for single programs typically and so if a company is lucky enough to have two winners, say a Phase 2 and pre-clinical program, they leave real value on the table. If you've got an interesting asset, then develop it. But there's little reason to put the expensive trappings of a bigger company around it. Leverage a part-time group where possible; you probably don't need a CFO or, God forbid, an HR person. Focus on lean product development. Stromedix and Zafgen are great examples in our portfolio.

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