Mentor-Mentee Relationships at German Accelerator

Written by Julia John-Scheder

Interview With Mike Serrano-Wu, Ph.D. Partner, Sprout Bioventures and German Accelerator Mentor and Current Life Sciences Company Eternygen

We talked to Mike Serrano-Wu, serial entrepreneur and partner at Sprout BioVentures, German Accelerator mentor as well as Marco Janezic, CEO & Founder of Eternygen and his team about their mentor relationship in our Life Sciences program.

Eternygen, a Berlin-based startup founded by Marco Janezic in 2012, focuses on developing treatments for dietary-related metabolic diseases that can be brought on by obesity, pre-diabetes, and diabetes. Due to high levels of the “triple epidemic” of those diseases, the U.S. is a target market for this company. After joining our program in April, Eternygen has worked with Mike Serrano-Wu as their strategic lead. He is a co-founder of several startups, an investor, and serves as a board member for early-stage companies in the U.S. and Canada and has been mentoring German life sciences companies for German Accelerator for several years.

What prompted you to expand internationally to the U.S. and how did you become involved with German Accelerator?

Marco Janezic: Being a company developing treatments for metabolic diseases, such as NASH [most severe form of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease], our main target market is the United States. We have been in touch with the German Accelerator Life Sciences program since its inception a few years ago and from the very start loved the idea to get access to the U.S. network. Since we proceeded to develop our lead therapeutic offerings significantly in the last few years, we decided to apply to the German Accelerator this year and we’re really happy to have been selected.

As a current participant of the Prep Program, what are your main goals for the company?

Marco Janezic: Receiving valuable feedback on the business case and our lead asset from different perspectives is of incredible value, as well as getting access to U.S.-based KOLs [key opinion leaders].

Have you worked with mentors before joining the German Accelerator program? Was it different to work with a dedicated strategic lead and if so, how exactly?

Marco Janezic: We have not had access to a structured mentoring program before participating in the German Accelerator. Having Mike Serrano-Wu as our strategic lead and single point of contact has made interaction within the program really smooth. We really appreciate the time, the strong commitment, and the independent outside view on our lead therapeutic asset development program, since having an outside perspective was key to open our minds to new points of view. The involvement of a dedicated strategic lead with a background in the same therapeutic area is of particular value for us because he deeply understands the scientific background, the competitive landscape, and knows the most recent investors’ perspectives as well.

What draws you to be a startup mentor for German Accelerator companies?

Mike Serrano-Wu: I love learning about new ideas and trying to help entrepreneurs gain traction. Entering new, established markets like the U.S. can be very challenging, so I’m happy to share lessons I’ve learned to lower the hurdle.

What do you hope to accomplish when agreeing to serve as a mentor for a company? Is there any kind of special preparation you would recommend that the company does in advance?

Mike Serrano-Wu: I try to achieve a quantum increase in slope – does the company have a steeper (upward!) trajectory than before entering the program. To make the best use of the mentoring interaction, a company should have its technical foundation solidified – why do they believe it will work, and how will it change the current standard of care?

What are some challenges when mentoring a company in your view?

Mike Serrano-Wu: One challenge is resisting the temptation to get too hands-on and letting my own scientific and entrepreneurial instincts take over. As a mentor and strategic lead, my first responsibility is to listen to what the company is seeking.


How would you describe the relationship with Mike Serrano-Wu?

Marco Janezic: We saw Mike as our point-man within the program. He selected a “first class mentoring team” which fits perfectly with our strategic needs and the scientific questions. We have a very open, interactive, and productive exchange of ideas during the weekly scheduled meetings, which makes intense work (and progress) on the program-defined work streams possible. Even though the work is remote, the experience is focused and highly productive. Mike is very committed to the project and really driving the exchange.

How would you describe the relationship with Eternygen?

Mike Serrano-Wu: It’s a fantastic collaboration; we happened to catch them right before/ during a key fundraise process, so they were already thinking about many of the strategic considerations we were advising on.

What was your biggest surprise while working with them?

Mike Serrano-Wu: I was surprised at the effort they put into this; each week they came very prepared and clearly had thought deeply about what we discussed previously.

What have you learned from your mentee?

Mike Serrano-Wu: I’ve learned a tremendous amount about the challenges of NASH drug discovery.

What are your three main takeaways from what your strategic lead taught you?

Marco Janezic:

  1. We learned how to present our equity story in a more differentiated way to position it well in the highly competitive NASH field.
  2. We had to dig much stronger into the deep science behind our lead asset: this has greatly enhanced our understanding of the key mechanisms and made us even more convinced of our value add.
  3. It has opened up an entirely new network of experts, investors, and KOLs in the U.S. for us and sharpened our strategy as to how to tackle the U.S. market.

What are your top three tips for any startup to get the most out of mentoring?

Mike Serrano-Wu:

  1. Educate, but listen – you are the experts, but this is a great opportunity to escape tunnel vision.
  2. Clearly state what you need – there’s a tremendous network available, but you have to ask!
  3. Embrace the pivot – don’t be afraid to reboot your strategy if warranted.

Due to COVID-19, the German Accelerator programs run virtually now. Has the working relationship changed since then?

Marco Janezic: We started the program in April, so for us, the program was virtual from the very beginning. The video call-sessions have proven to be intense and efficient. Also, working virtually enabled us to have meetings more regularly than it would have been possible with face-to-face meetings. Having this close feedback loop enables us to continuously work on our most urgent topics from a business development and clinical planning perspective, respectively.

Due to COVID-19, the German Accelerator programs run virtually now. (How) has the working relationship changed since then?

Mike Serrano-Wu: Minimally – I work with partners all over the world, so I am used to working from home and taking phone calls at all times of the day.

Marco, in your view, what makes an entrepreneur?

Marco Janezic: Someone who does not give up his/ her entrepreneurial conviction under any circumstances, but is flexible enough to change approach in the light of fresh data.

Mike, in your view, what makes an entrepreneur?

Mike Serrano-Wu: Someone who sees risk in NOT doing things.