A 3-D printing tale with relevant lessons for life science start-ups

By David Spellmeyer, Ph.D.

When working with first-time life science entrepreneurs, I often coach them on making the difficult transition from academia to industry, and on the importance of creating a place where people can work hard on things they love. Starting a company requires intense, dedicated focus and suppression of nearly all else. It isn’t easy to comprehend the magnitude of that—and most of us do not know what to expect before we take the plunge.

For an inside look at what it’s really like to be part of a highly competitive and dynamic startup, I recommend watching the award-winning Netflix documentary “Print the Legend,” which chronicles early players in the field of home-based 3-D printing. The filmmakers had a front-row seat and almost limitless access to two competitors, Makerbot and Formlabs, and were able to capture a compelling story of how the founders grappled with the many unexpected challenges of starting and growing a business. Here are some of the key takeaways that apply to life science startups as well:

  • Don’t get ahead of yourself. The founder of each 3-D printing startup faces intense competition as they create and grow their niche market, with challenges that include intellectual property fights with large, established companies. The reality of revenue shortfalls forces a change in business model, which upsets their customers. We get to see the consequences of selling products before a company has finalized the specifications and scaled manufacturing. In the background, the founders make decisions that upset and irritate their own staff. Some employees leave voluntarily, while others are simply forced out.
  • New companies take on a life of their own, independent of founders. In “Print the Legend,” it is fascinating and not a little painful to watch the drama that unfolds as a study in character development. The founders begin the journey as friends, who then find themselves in conflict with each other when one emerges as the leader. Ultimately, some members of the founding team are surprised to find themselves ousted from a company they gave so much of their lives to create. We see how people change, sometimes for the better of the company, sometimes not. Importantly, it provides a view into the impact of the job on the individuals and on those around the founders. Just as in real life, there are many facets to each of the challenges and just as many perspectives. As a result, there are always multiple “truths” about what transpires. The physical toll can be severe, and the emotional toll can be lasting.
  • Corporate culture has consequences. As individuals, each of us must figure out for ourselves what work is worth doing. We also must create a corporate culture that embraces the passion of every employee. “Print the Legend” highlights the consequences of not taking the time to craft that culture. The resulting dysfunction can be devastating, both personally and professionally.
  • Personal transformations happen, and the sacrifices are real. Many people are profiled in this Netflix documentary, but one is worth highlighting. Founder Michael Curry begins his venture with great enthusiasm. Over the course of the journey, he morphs into a frustrated employee, then a disillusioned employee, and finally an emotionally and physically drained former employee.

At the end of the movie, Curry is interviewed one last time. The emotion in his words serve as a warning to new entrepreneurs:

“You often hear, especially successful entrepreneurs or CEOs say, ‘We sacrificed so much to get to this point.’ And if you’re not them, or if you’ve never seen it done, you tend to believe that they’re talking about, ‘Oh, we worked long nights,’ or, ‘We didn’t see our families’ or ‘It was really hard.’ When you hear someone say that after you’ve been through a successful startup, and you start to realize that those aren’t the sacrifices they’re talking about. They’re talking about having sacrificed who they are. They’re talking about having to have made compromises with their most deep-seated beliefs. About having to cross lines that they promised themselves they would never have to cross.”

The big lesson in “Print the Legend” is the reality that starting a company can change many things, including who you are. It’s true in tech startups, and it’s true in life science. That’s not to say that the experience won’t ultimately be rewarding or bring value to the world. It’s simply an acknowledgment that the entrepreneurial journey will present challenges you never dreamed of. Buckle up—it’s going to be a wild ride.

David Spellmeyer, Ph.D., is a biotechnology executive with 25 years of broad experience in the life sciences industry. He is an executive-in-residence at ShangPharma Innovation. Read full bio