Blog: Lisa Kurek

Lisa is Managing Partner of Biotechnology Business Consultants (BBC) and BBCetc based in Ann Arbor. 

In addition to overseeing all aspects of client relations at BBC, Lisa is nationally recognized as a trainer in grant-writing and commercialization for entrepreneurs. She has spent her entire career in the life sciences. Her experience includes R&D and product development, sales and marketing, and business development and executive management. Trained in bioengineering, Lisa began her career at Baxter in Round Lake Illinois developing medical devices. She then moved to Boston and spent 13 years with Millipore Corporation where she morphed from an engineer into a sales and marketing person.
It was during her tenure at Millipore that Lisa relocated from the Boston area to Michigan. She has been involved with several Michigan based early-stage entrepreneurial companies. She was Vice President of Sales and Marketing at BioImage, a biotechnology tools company, and held interim management positions at both Accumed Systems, a medical device company, and Thromgen, a developer of biopharmaceuticals. Lisa earned two degrees in Biomedical Engineering, a Bachelor’s from Brown University and a Masters degree from the University of Michigan. 

Lisa has previously been on the board of the New Enterprise Forum, Washtenaw Development Council, and Youth Dance Theatre of Michigan.  She is currently a member of the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti SmartZone Local Development Finance Authority Board of Directors.

ABOUT BBC: Lisa joined BBC as a partner in 1997 when its founder, Mickey Katz-Pek, decided it was time to grow from a one person consulting practice to a two person consulting practice. In the ensuing years, BBC has expanded to a team of 5 full time consultants, recruited a stellar “bench” of ad hoc consulting partners and established a national reputation for assisting early stage technology companies. BBC works with universities, economic developers, large and small companies to facilitate the establishment and growth of new technology-based companies. The firms two primary areas of focus are in assisting technology companies in securing federal SBIR/STTR funding, and with commercialization and business planning for early stage life science companies.   
Lisa Kurek - Most Recent Posts:

Lisa Kurek - Post No 4: Don’t Be Afraid to Talk to Strangers

I was invited to be a guest lecturer last week at a course on entrepreneurship for graduate students in the School of Information at the University of Michigan. The topic I covered was federal funding for technology start-ups. One of the students contacted me after the class and asked if she could schedule a follow up meeting with me. She was very energetic and articulate at our meeting as she described her new business idea. She then admitted that I was only the second person she had told about it and said she had been afraid to talk about her idea until she attended my lecture.

The ultimate difficulty that my clients have as they try and secure the necessary resources to help build their new companies is in fact identical to what this student expressed – they are afraid to talk to strangers. They don’t always admit this as readily as she did. They might couch it in creative excuses for why they didn’t call the program director at the funding agency, or why they didn’t introduce themselves to key individuals at an event. But it ultimately comes down to a fear of approaching people we don’t know.

Why is this so critical? If you can’t talk to people, then you can’t find out what they need. If you can’t find out what they need, then you will never be sure if your “product” will be successful in the “market”.

For example: The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) SBIR solicitation provides a list of topic areas of interest. On page 2 NSF requests that potential applicants contact the program director to discuss their project prior to submitting a proposal. Most of my clients do not follow these instructions (see yesterday’s post) unless I prod them to do so. However, of the three most recent clients who contacted NSF, one was told that their project did not fall within the specified topic area and they were discouraged from submitting. By talking to the “customer” (in this case NSF) and clarifying exactly what they wanted my client saved months of work drafting a proposal that would not have met the customer’s needs.

Another example: A client developed a novel tool for use by surgeons. They did a thorough analysis of the market, and presented a convincing case for the number of these tools that they could sell based on the size of the market, analysis of competitive products, and other relevant data. What had they neglected to do? Talk to strangers. When the client actually went out and talked to surgeons they found that most would not actually buy the product.

I started out last Thursday talking about the issue of “build it and they will come” and how that notion can in fact impede the success of entrepreneurial ventures. By approaching all relationships from a sales perspective – that is trying to understand the needs of our “customer”– entrepreneurs can begin to actually secure the resources that they need to grow their businesses. But this requires reading instructions and talking to strangers!

Fortunately, in Michigan there is a wealth of places for entrepreneurs to go to begin to practice these skills.

At the end of our meeting, I provided the student entrepreneur with contact information for several people that might be interested in helping her with her new venture. Most importantly, she was over her fear of talking to strangers and on her way to starting her company in Michigan. I hope that all of you get out there and talk to strangers. Remember, after that first conversation they are no longer strangers. They might in fact turn out to be your best customers.

Lisa Kurek - Post No 3: Always Read the Instructions

If you accept my premise that "life is sales," one of your fundamental mantras should be "know thy customer" – which is far easier said than done.

Gaining an understanding of your customer requires skills: how to source relevant data (relevant being the operative word), the ability to analyze the data and most importantly, the ability to draw reasonable conclusions about your customer from the data. Beyond the data, it is critical that you also know how to talk to strangers (but more about that tomorrow).

So what does this have to do with reading instructions? Taking a sales approach with the constituents that you hope to get something from, such as federal agencies, venture capital firms, or customers for your product, requires that you read the instructions.

Most people skip instructions. It has been my experience that although some do it out of laziness, most skip the instructions because they believe that they are different and that the instructions don’t apply.

Case in point: If you want to apply for federal funding to support your research and development you have to write a proposal in response to a solicitation (the instructions). It specifies exactly what the agency wants. Yet, it never ceases to amaze me when my clients choose to ignore the instructions and do things their way… and that they’re surprised when they receive critical reviews and are not funded.

Another example of wasting everyone’s time by failing to read the instructions: A venture capital firm will put forth very specific sets of criteria (their instructions) about what opportunities they are interested in considering for funding. Yet they receive countless business plans from entrepreneurs that don’t meet those criteria. If those entrepreneurs read the instructions, they might realize that it’s not that investors are missing their great idea, but rather that investors have specific needs.

This brings me to one of the key elements of closing a sale - tell the customer what they want to hear, not what you want to tell them! How do you begin to understand what the customer wants to hear? Read the instructions!

Check back tomorrow to see what to do if there are no instructions!

Lisa Kurek - Post No 2: Life is Sales

I am trained as an engineer and spent the first part of my career in research and development. Turns out I was not the greatest engineer.

I was fortunate to work for a company that although large in size was quite entrepreneurial in attitude. With a bit of fortitude and tenacity, I was able to transition my career into sales and marketing. My colleagues on the engineering side were somewhat chagrined that I had "sold out" (no pun intended). Over the ensuing years I was a product manager, sales person, sales manager, and ultimately a VP of Sales and Marketing. Of all of the experiences and skills that I acquired along the way, the one that has been the most valuable to me is the experience in sales.

I have since come to the conclusion that it is one of the most valuable skills that anyone can acquire, especially entrepreneurs.

In my current consulting career, I train entrepreneurs across the country on how to write grants to the federal government, specifically targeted to small companies developing new technology based products. Most of the attendees are scientists and engineers. Many are from academia. Some are from industry. They are all there because they need funding to develop their “technological innovations.”

One of the first questions I always ask is, "how many of you consider yourselves to be sales people?"

You can guess how many raise their hands – none! In fact, at that point some of them actually start to look towards the door and you can tell that they are wondering if they can leave without causing too much commotion. They have no idea what sales has to do with writing grants to fund their research and development.

The federal government is not funding companies just to be nice and help pay for R&D. They fund small companies to develop products and establish successful commercial entities that address government agency problems and goals.

For example, the National Institute of Health funds small companies to development new medical devices, diagnostics and therapeutics that, if commercialized, will help NIH achieve their mission of improving human health. By addressing a problem that NIH has, the company can secure funding. NIH is the customer. The proposal is the "sales tool" and the entrepreneur is the sales person!

This sales approach isn’t isolated to grant proposals. Entrepreneurs that approach all constituents that they rely on for support as customers are in a much better position to succeed.

Successful sales people provide solutions to customers’ problems. The customer might be the person buying your product or service. But it is also the person you want to hire, the organization that you want to partner with or the institution that you want to raise money from. Talented business and technical experts. Sources of debt and equity capital. Corporations looking for strategic partnerships. Find those "customers”"and you begin to find your economic niche. In fact, reread yesterday’s blog to find examples of organizations that can help you identify some of these customers right here in Michigan.

I truly believe that life is sales. And yes, I think this is a good thing! Who doesn’t like to solve problems for others?

Lisa Kurek - Post No 1: Entrepreneurs and Human Nature

My small consulting firm, BBC, occupies a somewhat unique niche in the broad field of "management consulting."

Specifically, we work with early stage technology companies (early not necessarily in years but in the evolution of product commercialization) that need help with commercialization and marketing strategies, and securing funding for research and development of technologically innovative products.

A somewhat confounding problem for us is that the clients that need our services the most tend not to have the money to pay for them – a challenging business model for a consulting practice. Fortunately, we have found our "value proposition" (I hate buzz words but that one does fit) as consultants to technology based economic developers. State and local governments, universities, other sector specific organizations hire us to help their entrepreneurs and technology start-ups to achieve certain milestones such as securing federal R&D funding and developing viable commercialization plans.

BBC has been actively working with technology-based entrepreneurs since 1990. Although we work both regionally and nationally, a large percentage of our work is in Michigan. More importantly, Michigan is where we all live and where we all hope to continue to work until we retire. Therefore we are passionate about wanting to see a vibrant climate for entrepreneurial business growth in Michigan.

Overall, we have seen significant expansion in the resources and support available to entrepreneurs in Michigan. One need only look at initiatives such as the BBC's state-funded SBIR/STTR Assistance Program Michigan Economic Development Corporations 21st Century Jobs Fund, the establishment of the statewide network of SmartZones, and the addition of technology counselors to Michigan's Small Business & Technology Development Center to see how many more resources there are now in the State. Yet the economy overall has been moving in the wrong direction. So what does this mean for technology entrepreneurs?

It means that it is even more important than ever that they are developing their companies and products to address critical market needs. While the concept of "build it and they will come" may work in the movies, it rarely works in real life.

Therefore, it also means that entrepreneurs have to overcome certain inherent characteristics and beliefs in order to begin to identify and secure the resources that they need to establish companies around their "great ideas." In the 12 years that I've been working with entrepreneurs I've learned the following about human nature:

"Sales" is considered a four letter word

People hate to read instructions

We really are afraid to talk to strangers

Even though the overall economy might be difficult, entrepreneurs need only find a favorable economic niche to start to establish and grow new companies. My job as a trainer and coach is to provide the rationale and tools they need to help them find the appropriate niche. As part of that process, I have found the following three corollaries to the issues raised above to be key steps in the process:

  • Life is Sales
  • Always Read the Instructions
  • Don't Be Afraid to Talk to Strangers

Not sure you agree? Stay tuned…
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