How to make sure you team up with good advisors

A scientific advisory board (SAB) that signals your company and idea has backing from well-known names and leading researchers in your field can build credibility, help with connections and provide you with invaluable information. 

But this doesn’t mean that having a fully fleshed-out SAB is something that’s ultimately required early on. Many technical teams we talked to during interviews for SciFounders Fellowship mentioned they got the advice that they need to build a SAB first before they can go fundraising. It’s true that a strong scientific board can be an asset in the process but we actually don’t think that it is a requirement at such an early stage and that putting one together because it looks good on paper seems like the wrong motivation.

As is the case with first hires and potential co-founders, I think it is important to think critically about what advisors you are teaming up with and how much long-term value you will actually get out of your board – help from experts is often not cheap and costs will become more substantial as your company progresses.

As a startup that is operating on a budget, you will likely reimburse advisors mainly with company equity for their help. Equity is a great tool to hire talent and incentivize a team to go over and beyond to reach the company’s ultimate goal. With that in mind though, it should be treated as a very scarce and finite resource (my teammate Matt Krisiloff discussed this in equity for scientists starting companies) and you should set a high bar for anyone that will be compensated that way.

Ideally, you want to team up with someone who not only helps you build credibility on paper but who is invested in the technology you are building, is very responsive and helpful with making connections and introductions, and wants to work with you for the long term [1].

A good diagnostic for this can be how engaged a potential advisor is, how fast they respond to your emails and calls, make time to chat with you, and if it feels like there is a rapid idea exchange between them and you. It’s surprising how many people are happy to just help before terms haven’t even been mentioned yet. This doesn’t mean you should not compensate them for their support, but you could use this initial time to make sure you build a good relationship first before making them formally an advisor.

Another important point is that you should have the feeling that there is mutual respect, that they think highly of you, and that you can have honest conversations with them. If no one shies away from sharing their opinions and constructive feedback, just a few minutes of discussion can be extremely productive.

You should also think about how helpful the advisor will be in the next 5-10 years and if you think their skillset and network will be very valuable for the company long term. It might also make sense to onboard certain advisors only later since you will need specific support at different stages of your company. For example, at a heavy R&D stage you will want to team up with different mentors than you would during process optimizations, scale-up, and going through regulatory approval. 

Another diagnostic you want to run is how many other companies they are advising or are part of and how likely it seems that they are able to carve out additional time from their already busy schedule to support you. There are many very friendly scientific advisors that want to be supportive (and that’s a great thing). Still, often they are involved in many other companies, collaborations, and research projects and it can be difficult for them to find sufficient time to immerse themselves in your technology enough to be very helpful.

It’s generally good advice to have everyone who receives equity as part of their compensation package on a vesting schedule [2]. This way there is a strong incentive for the advisor to stay engaged and bringing up a vesting schedule itself could be a good diagnostic in itself too.

Removing an advisor later on because you are realizing that they are not adding much value anymore, they stopped responding, or are overall not as helpful as you thought they’d be, is definitely possible too. In most cases though, this will not be an easy conversation. It can create resentment, which in the worst case could impact your company’s reputation if they are an influential person and well-connected.

Try to be selective about what advisors you want to team up with, and, as with other teammates, ideally, build a relationship first to make sure it’s a good mutual fit long-term.

Thanks to Pablo Hurtado,  Bianka Seres, and Matt Krisiloff for reading the drafts and for improving the post.

[1] That’s often naturally the case if you are starting a company together with your former PI and they join the company as an academic co-founder and advisor.

[2] A very common format for a vesting schedule is four years with a one-year cliff. After one year 1/4th of the shares vests and after that each month an additional 1/48th.