At one point or another, most early-stage companies that make a physical product have probably said that manufacturing in China might be a viable option as they scale. Well that was us, and we went to China in August. In a whirlwind tour through Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Beijing, we visited various incubator spaces and science parks, explored potential use of Highlight at one of the largest hospitals in China, chatted with other young entrepreneurs, and met with Chinese investors. We ultimately decided that starting operations in China would require a lot more thought and effort – we found that we would need to work with a strategic partner and that the timing didn’t make sense for now. Regardless, we were blown away by the entrepreneurial spirit in China (a lot of companies making insane traction) and the number of investment opportunities from both private investors and the government. Especially if you’ve been educated in the US and you can speak Chinese, you fit the idealized image of an entrepreneur who can bring the best of both worlds of China and America to create a successful business. If you don’t mind living in China or Hong Kong for a few years, there are incredible opportunities to work with investors and other entrepreneurs who are all looking to work on the next big thing. One interesting thing we found is that investors in China care a lot more about the vision and branding, while investors in the US tend to focus on data and traction.
October was another month of traveling internationally as we made stops in Paris, Boston, London, and Brussels. In Paris, we were finalists in the Hello Tomorrow Challenge and we also got space to demo (thanks L'Oréal!) where we let people try out Highlight and this Engadget article came out of that. The incredible diversity of industries represented at this summit was really cool to experience from the personal, geek side of us (flying cars! extending human life!), but it also made it difficult at times to find the right people to connect with. It’s always good to keep an open mind because we’ve made great connections from people in completely different fields, but it’d be nice if big international conferences figured out a way to easily connect people with similar interests like a tag on your badge or specific hang-out spots.
We headed to Boston for the Forbes Under 30 Summit right after Paris and that was mostly for fun. We had to leave early for investor meetings, but the time we did spend there was great. Listening to Delta Rae and Gallant sing live was incredible, Sam Adams made a custom lager for us (“Milleni-ale” as a play on millennials), and we got to eat dinner with Dr. Amit Sood, who is probably the most optimistic and friendly person we’ve ever met. While we were in Boston, one of our advisors convinced us to start using our Twitter more (and we’re still getting the hang of it), so follow us: @KinnosInc
Soon after, we flew to London for the Grand Challenges Meeting, which was organized by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Shout-out to the Lemelson Foundation for inviting us! We made a ton of great connections, and it was nice to catch up with our friends from USAID and VentureWell. It’s a rare day when you get a chance to surround yourself with entrepreneurs and key stakeholders working in global health, so we’re grateful for the opportunity. USAID put together a new track called Innovation to Impact and it was by far the most useful program we’ve participated in out of any conference we’ve attended. It consisted of panel discussions, breakout sessions, and round tables, and the ability to discuss honestly the challenges we’re facing with other people going through the same problems or who have already solved them was incredibly helpful. For all the early entrepreneurs out there: remember that some of the best resources are other entrepreneurs in your field who are a few steps ahead of where you are. We like to think that entrepreneurs are the best people to ask for advice because we all receive so much help along the way, and there’s a spirit of passing it forward.
Since we were already in Europe, we traveled to Brussels to meet with MSF and the Belgian Ministry of Defense. If you’ve been following our blog posts, we last met with MSF in March, and we’ve been working with them to finalize our Highlight formula for their specific disinfectant. We made more progress meeting up with them in person than through emails and sending them samples over the last six months, so it’s a nice reminder that the extra time and money it takes to visit in person is usually worth it. The Belgian Ministry of Defense has a unit that diagnoses blood samples in mobile labs, and we got a chance to visit their research lab and discuss potential uses of Highlight in their workflow.
As you might have guessed from all the talk of investors, we’re in the process of raising our seed round. The decision to raise institutional capital rather than continue to write grants was based on the idea that: 1) grants are not sustainable and not always available (they also come with a lot of paperwork/busywork), and 2) we wanted more flexibility in how we spend the money and the expertise and connections that come with seasoned investors. (That being said, we'll probably still apply for grants if a compelling one pops up.) For a company like ours which doesn’t really fall into the traditional buckets that investors typically invest in, it’s good to keep an open mind and to cast the net wide. One of our most likely investors right now came through an introduction from a college friend, so letting people know what you’re looking for and asking for help goes a long way, and don’t be afraid to pass around your pitch deck. We’ve also learned that it helps to do your homework and understand that investors are constrained by their investment thesis, timing of the fund, and size of investment, but that making the connection early on even if you don’t quite fit can also be useful as they may want to keep in touch for the next round. Virtually all of our conversations with investors have come through positive referrals and it’s definitely the easiest way to get an investor’s attention; however, also keep in mind the strength of the referral because it isn’t as easy as looking through LinkedIn, finding 2nd degree connections, and asking for an introduction (which we tried and the success rate was not high). Something interesting about raising a round is that you’re sharing part of the company with others: it adds a hell of a lot of pressure because people have trusted you with their money to succeed and you want to prove them right, but they also truly believe in you and it’s nice to have those champions by your side.
Speaking of champions, we’ve been working hard to create a group of mentors and advisors over the last few months. We would not be as far along today without them, and they have been instrumental in helping us figure out our next steps and being prepared to answer any questions investors throw at us. Our best advisors came not from asking our network for recommendations on people that could be good advisors, but rather from asking for specific advice (e.g. understanding how to pilot Highlight in a hospital, how to sell to an NGO, what specific pathogens do we need to test on) and discovering who could truly add a lot of value. You’ll notice on our website that we’ve added two strategic advisors, Nahid Bhadelia and Henry Ting, who are experts in infectious diseases and infection prevention in hospitals, respectively. We also have a bunch of mentors and advisors not listed for privacy reasons and their support has been invaluable.
The funny thing about a start-up is that it seems like the more progress you make, the more work you uncover for yourself. As we close this seed round and begin to make our first large sales, we move onto the next challenges of hiring an R&D team (if you’re interested in joining the team or interning, please contact us!), designing the manufacturing chain, and piloting in hospitals. You learn on the fly and you never feel fully ready or prepared, but we’ve never been more excited to see what’s next.