Birch Biomedical: Lessons from the ‘Lean’ Journey

Published on Thursday, November 24, 2016


As our 11th Lean Launch Pad (LLP) cohort wraps up next week, any venture that has gone through the program would know – this is just the beginning of the start of your venture building process. To cap off the 5-week LLP journey, we had the chance to gather insights from BirchBioMed, one of our earliest teams to come out of the LLP almost two years ago.

Dr. Ryan Hartwell, who co-discovered two ground-breaking therapeutics identified during his PhD research at UBC, partnered with two industry-leading entrepreneurs – Mark Miller and Susan Elliott — to form BirchBioMed Inc., a clinical-stage biomedical company focused on the clinical evaluation, development and commercialization of anti-scarring drugs, autoimmune therapeutics and novel strategies for transplantation. As of late August, BirchBioMed has successfully completed a Health Canada approved Phase I trial.

From LLP to completion of their clinical trials – what was that journey like? CEO and Chairman of BirchBioMed, Mark Miller, answers our questions.

1. When describing Birch’s ‘Lean’ journey – what did that mean at the early stage of your startup?

[Mark] The key to our approach was ensuring that we had the right mix of skills and people in order to employ a ‘lean’ approach to commercializing our technology. To that end, we established a diverse team that was communications-driven, equipped with a strong science lead, and individuals skilled in applying ‘lean’ accounting practices, all the while ensuring our team can specifically articulate value for the end customer.  That means we can identify the value stream for all our objectives and deliverables such that we have the right people working on the right things, at the right time.

2. By adopting a ‘Lean’ approach, how has that accelerated your startup since inception?

[Mark] Recognizing that empowerment is not synonymous with autonomy, nor in opposition to accountability, we have armed our teams with a strong sense of mission and collective objectives. We accelerated our startup by empowering our teams to make key decisions (including cash expenditures) at the operational level, thus eliminating time-consuming approval barriers.

From the beginning, we have employed simultaneous engineering to ensure that all of our operations work jointly and simultaneously to:

  1. Identify and be clear on who our customers are (investors, potential M&A companies, regulatory bodies, etc.),
  2. Agree to timeframes and schedules
  3. Commit to continuous improvement that relies on the “build-measure-learn” paradigm

3. How has this ‘Lean’ journey changed at this stage of your startup?

[Mark] Our assumptions have definitely changed at this stage of our ‘Lean’ journey.  We consequently had to pivot quickly to incorporate innovative investment scenarios required to make our offering attractive to our larger investors.  What we learned from that is the importance of adhering closely to the “build-measure-learn” platform.  Key to an effective use of that tool is that measurement must be continuous and relentless if the “learn” is to be effective.

 4. Our entrepreneurs are now beginning the next stage of venture building as they move on from the Lean Launch Pad. Seeking to continue to adopt the ‘Lean’ method, what are some additional tips you can offer them?

[Mark] Ensure that you would not be dependent on grants, because that ultimately would skew your decisions. We had to keep the end point squarely in our focus – we are not a grant-writing company, we are a tech transfer company, and that means doing what we need to do as quickly and effectively as possible to ensure that we deliver on what our customers want.

In our case, if we had been dependent on grants, we would be relying on what it would take to get the grant, rather than on what we needed to deliver on our end-point customers’ goals (i.e., our founders and our investors, and by extension, potential M & A companies).

Lastly, have a staggered technology pipeline, which ensures that we are working on the right thing at the right time.  That in turn speaks to what our end-point customers want.

About Birch Biomed: A UBC spin-off, BirchBioMed holds the exclusive, worldwide, non-perpetual pharmaceutical license from UBC for two medical therapeutic technologies that mark significant medical breakthroughs in the treatment of fibrosis (scarring) and certain autoimmune diseases.