At the recent “How do you know if you are a CEO” Google Plus webinar on January 7th as part of The Capital Network and Founders Workbench series, a question was raised regarding whether a technical founder is a good candidate for the CEO role. Specifically, the audience member asked about beneficial qualities and potential liabilities of a technical founder who assumes the CEO role. This is a very important question and one that comes up often in our industry since many life sciences startups are founded by individuals with strong technical backgrounds.
A technical founder has many desirable qualities, but ultimately the choice to assume the CEO role depends on a number of factors that include the type and stage of company, level of technology development, market conditions, type and amount of financing received (or needed), investor expectations, and timeline for a value inflection point or exit. Below are a few thoughts based on my own experience, and I also look forward to receiving your feedback regarding other qualities, positive or negative, relevant to this topic.
A technical founder can be a strong candidate for the CEO role, especially at the early stages of company formation/technology development due to the following:
• Intimate knowledge of the technology. This provides the technical founder a true advantage because they know the ins and outs of the technology and can converse in great detail with potential partners, investors, employees, and acquirers regarding the technology benefits and potential challenges of development.
• Passion. Usually technical founders are extremely passionate about the problem their technology solves and this motivates them to work countless hours and “do whatever it takes” to develop the technology. This passion can be infectious and influences others to get involved (early hires, board members, etc) to support the idea.
• Deep knowledge of the scientific landscape relevant to their technology. This provides technical founders with the ability to understand market nuances, and enables them to adjust rapidly to changes in the market landscape.
• A strong network in the relevant field. Technical founders, due to their focus in a particular area, usually have a strong network of key opinion leaders in their particular field. This can be helpful as they begin to hire initial R&D people as well as interact with the greater scientific and technical community.
A technical founder can find the CEO role a challenge for the following reasons:
• Technical founders can be “too close” to their technology, and thus unable to make changes required to meet market need, or pivot the technology into alternative markets with greater potential.
• Technical founders often lack business experience. A technical founder must be willing to develop these skills or rely heavily on others to fill this need for success.
• Many technical founders struggle to communicate the value proposition of their technology to non-scientific audiences and investors. Their desire to share every detail, and demonstrate their intimate knowledge of the technology, makes it difficult to deliver a compelling elevator pitch.
• Technical founders often think that scientific advancements alone drive success. This is not enough. A market for the technology must exist or be created, the technology needs to provide value, and the business model must to be sustainable.
• Technical founders can often address technical issues, but do not have experience addressing non-technical challenges such as hiring, managing collaborations, scaling the business, marketing, sales, etc…
Technical founders should be self-aware and consider their strengths and weaknesses when choosing which role they will assume in their company. Technical founders who are most successful choose the role that allows them to best leverage their skillset and add the most value to the organization. Successful founders are not as concerned about title as they are about making an impact – they are much more focused on being successful than being king.