Start customer development early in your synbio startup

Synbio companies can spend too long in the lab before speaking to a customer.

The ones that ‘get out of the building’ to learn from customers, are the ones that get the product yanked from their hands in later years.

Whilst there is every reason to keep the recipe secret and to be mindful of any patenting process, there is no reason to delay building the value proposition that the invention will step into solving.

Avoid spending 3 years building and scaling a molecule that no one wants

Customer development is the practice of co-designing your value proposition in collaboration with your customers.

In the beginning you will get it mostly wrong and you need to figure out why.

  • Did you describe/demonstrate the wrong product?
  • Are you talking to the wrong customer?
  • Are you failing to communicate it

Honestly assess how customers respond and tweak the next experiment towards a new fit. You will see glazed eyes from some and twinkles of inspiration from others.

Over many encounters with the customer you will:

  • Learn what to produce in the lab. As you speak with customers you will learn how to engineer your molecules to do exactly what the customers want.
  • Learn what to build around your molecules. How is the product implemented? What do you need to build around the molecules to deliver?
  • Test pricing. Building products with biology that are also at a price point that customers need can be challenging. Learn from customers when you need to be. Understand ways you can get down the cost-curve incrementally.
  • Learn how to describe something hard. You will have different audiences to convince. Some will be technically demanding. Others will need to understand it in the simplest of terms.

In the beginning, customer development will manifest as a series of structured conversations. As the hypothesis comes to life, you will need 3 pieces of collateral.

#1 — A customer pack describing/showing the proposition

Make it gorgeous. Just because are a deep tech company, that is no excuse to be fugly.

Take the time to explain the company and its products well and use visuals to bring your solution to life.

As well as describing what the product does, be very clear on the SO WHAT for the customer.

#2 — A demonstration build

Your product will probably sound like alchemy to your customers. Deep down they won’t believe you.

With synbio products it is the demonstration that ‘sells’. The moment you show people, they will probably be convinced. If they are not, they will give you a clear no which is just as valuable.

#3 — A walk through of a techno-economic model

B2B customers will doubt that you can make it at the cost they need.

Have a techno-economic model that is easy to walk through collaboratively. Show them your assumption on things like input costs, titres, downstream processing and waste.

Work against your instincts

You will want to stay in the lab. It is comfortable there and what comes next is uncomfortable.

But it is worth it for that feeling that customers want what you are working on.

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Phil Morle

Phil Morle

Deep tech VC — Main Sequence Ventures. Ecosystem builder. Maker. Director. Startup Scientist.