How Dinko Valerio became a Dutch biotech icon with Crucell, ​​ProQR Therapeutics, & Leyden Labs

We wrap up season #2 of The Scale Lab with a special guest - Dinko Valerio, scientist-turned-entrepreneur; co-founder of Leyden Labs & ProQR Therapeutics; founder of Crucell; and startup mentor. In this episode, we discover the secrets of building a successful biotech venture and securing funding within the health sector. To all the healthtech founders out there - tune in for a highly valuable discussion full of founder learnings and advice.

[00:00:13] Constantijn: “What is the most important lesson that you share with a startup as a mentor?”

Dinko: To me, the most important lesson for all entrepreneurs to understand is that you can accomplish a lot if you have the right people and human energy surrounding you. The founders themselves drive the company’s success through their will and self-confidence. It is essential to understand that there is no one way of becoming successful, success can be defined in many different ways.

[00:17:42] Joe: “You’ve founded multiple companies providing different solutions. How did you know that a product-market fit was happening in each of them?”

Dinko: In biotech, there are two streams really. One - you either have a platform that allows you to create an almost unlimited number of different products or you are a gene therapy company, for example, that focuses on creating one product only. 

In the case of the latter one, you need to be sure that there is a big enough market available to warrant the huge risk and the tremendous amount of money that is required to bring a drug to the marketplace. 

Then when you develop a platform, you need to look at the product-market fit at a large scale: do you own this platform? Is the platform really performing in the way that you think it should? And what are the different ways to make money with that? We had this platform to make recombinant viruses that could be used for gene therapy. At some point, we realised that it could also be used for vaccines. But there are so many of those that it would be silly to commit as a company to focus on all these products. 

On that note, you have Moderna which is truly a platform company. RNA technology can be used for an array of different things. They realised that the easiest way to use that technology is for vaccines. They managed to succeed because they raised sufficient funds - they were based in Boston after all. That allowed them to hire qualified people and take care of the product development themselves.


[00:22:35] Joe: “You've had to hire some pretty senior talent across the different ventures you founded. What did you look for when hiring them?”

Dinko: The first couple of years are decisive for your company. I’d say that the decisions you make then are irreversible: the people you choose to surround yourself with, the shareholders you pick, etc. In biotechnology, you need to be the best in order to be meaningful and to get your products recognised worldwide. Hence, you need to hire first-class talent to be able to create such products. And the interesting thing is that you only need the first hire to be top tier because that’s when you set a standard for years to come. So all the next hires will be of a similar level since you’ve got that high benchmark in your team already.

[00:30:08] Constantijn: “That kind of talent must be scarce. Do you have any tips as to where to find such hires?”

Dinko: Yeah, that's a great question. I typically ask entrepreneurs to imagine in their heads who would their dream candidates be. All founders I asked have a clear profile of such an ideal candidate. So then my next question is ‘What are you waiting for’? I personally believe that great talent is not scarce, you just have to know where to look for it.

[00:32:23] Joe: “Capital. You’ve been on the raising side and the venture side. For companies similar to yours, when and how do you advise them to raise funding?”

Dinko: The story is very simple in the biotech business. When they serve cookies, you eat cookies, and you are not afraid to be diluted. If you're afraid to be diluted, you're in the wrong business. In that case, you should start a business that you can actually run and grow yourself. In tech that is possible, but it's not possible in biotech. The dilution will be massive in any case. It’s better to come with the right expectations. If you negotiate, negotiate till the very end and then raise money. And if you can raise more, do that, don’t settle for less.


Looking forward to more insights from Dinko?

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