When you’re pitching your startup to the potential investor across from you, Meridith Unger says, it helps to have experience sitting on both sides of the table.
“I think having an investor’s mindset is a huge advantage when you’re in the entrepreneur’s seat,” says Unger, the founder and CEO of Nix Biosensors. “Just walking into a room, if they know I’ve been a venture investor in the past … that brings some credibility from their standpoint that we are going to know how to work together, to know how each other thinks.”
Unger and her Harvard Launch Lab-based company, which makes wearable hydration sensors for the consumer fitness and military markets, are well-known in the startup scene. They’re almost legendary for their ability to win pitch competitions — the most recent of many being the 2018 SXSW Pitch Competition for Sports & Performance Data — and to gain admission to top accelerator programs.
“I’ve been fortunate in that I kind of know the anatomy of a successful pitch deck. I know how to pitch a story to be compelling, from what’s the problem, to how are we solving it, to how are we going to execute on solving it,” she says. (If you want hear more from Unger on pitch competitions, Harvard Innovation Labs Executive Director Jodi Goldstein’s recent piece for Forbes is recommended reading.)
A large part of that comes from years of being the pitch-ee rather than the pitch-er. Unger spent the first part of her career on the funder side prior to making the leap to entrepreneurship.
She started her business career young. Even in high school, Unger says she was fortunate to get some “real cool internships,” thanks to the fact that both her father and older sister worked in the life sciences industry. Despite her love for science, she says one thing she learned over those early years what that she didn’t want to work in a lab. So, coming out of Bryn Mawr College as a prize-winning math student in 2001, she instead took a job working for Silicon Valley Bank in their Boston-based Life Sciences practice.
“I got the opportunity to get financial snapshots of just about every venture-backed biotech company in the Boston area,” says Unger, who in five years worked her way up from credit analyst to lender. Along the way, she also interacted with a lot of venture capital partners — at least enough to know that joining their ranks wouldn’t be easy. Which is why, she says, she decided to try it.
“For whatever crazy reason I thought that needed to be venture capital in life sciences,” she says. “I don’t know, maybe the college version of myself wanted to be inspired and challenged by being told that she couldn’t do something.”
So she went and gathered the venture partner prerequisites: a couple years of consulting work, an MBA from a top program (Harvard Business School, Class of 2010).
But working in VC turned out to be a poor fit. She chooses her words carefully when describing the experience.
“It’s one of those industries where it doesn’t really pay to be different. There’s a lot of politics and hierarchy that exists in those firms that’s a little bit protectionist and there’s a lot of big personalities,” she says. “And I think if you don’t sort of really embrace that kind of culture right off the bat, then it doesn’t really work for you. And I think that’s why we see so few women and people of color, and why we see junior people moving around a lot in venture whereas the partners seem to just stay.”
So she turned to institutional venture funding instead. She was working for Boston Children’s Hospital’s Technology Development Fund when the idea for Nix started taking shape.
At the time, a researcher was working on a wearable dehydration diagnostic device for the emergency room, where doctors were still measuring dehydration by the age-old method of pinching a child’s fingernail and waiting to see how long it took for the color to return. That got her thinking about the possibilities of non-invasive sensors that could read the biomarkers present in bodily fluids such as sweat, saliva, tears, and even breast milk.
She returned to Harvard in 2014 on a Blavatnik Fellowship. Her first startup (trying to develop a drug for ALS/Lou Gehrig’s Disease) didn’t pan out, so she returned to the sensor idea. At the time, the market for fitness wearables like FitBit was exploding, while hospitals were using more and more non-invasive diagnostics.
“We realized there was a massive space in between, where we could leverage the importance of some of the biosensors measuring things people care about relative to health and wellness, but ideally taking some of the benefits of consumer wearables, where they are simple, and consumer-facing, and more affordable,” she says. “And not regulated by the FDA.”
“In my wildest dreams, we would almost end up being a company like Nest, where we would pioneers of a category of really simple, beautifully-designed, simple biosensing devices that are designed for consumers, just where Nest did that for the whole connected home category,” she says.
Nix is currently headquartered in the Harvard Launch Lab, and Unger’s team includes the engineering team of Brett Cochran, Mike Roberts, and Dan Tonderys, while Bianca Sinausky handles business operations.
The company’s idea of a single-use hydration sensor that informs a user’s hydration strategy by telling them when to drink, what to drink, and how much to drink has resonated with funders. In addition to South by Southwest, Nix has won the Reebok Accelerator award at the MIT Sloan Sports Conference, the Harvard Business School Alumni New Venture Competition and the Harvard Innovation Lab’s Dean’s Innovation and Sports Challenge.
But Unger says if she were forced to choose between having a good story and telling a good story, she believes telling a good story is more important. Based on her experience on the other side of the table, she says funders are often paying more attention to who they’re funding, rather than what.
“I think entrepreneurs underestimate how much investors are really just looking at you,” she says. “Everything from how you portray your confidence and your passion, to the branding that you show in your pitch deck, I think there are numerous ways to show that you really have your story together, you’ve done your homework, you know what you’re talking about.”
Based on her own success, when asked whether she would describe herself as a “pitch maven,” Meridith Unger just laughs.
“Yeah, no,” she says. “But I’ve been blessed that most people can’t tell when I get nervous. Everyone gets nervous public speaking, but thankfully my body does not betray that, typically.”
False modesty, perhaps? Unger says that’s for others to judge. After all, she’s used to being judged.
Meridith’s three rules for pitching
1. Be confident
“Figure out the body language and the tone of your voice and making eye contact and all of those things that are going to show that you absolutely know what you are talking about. It’s very easy if you get nervous to say ‘um’, and ‘like,’ and especially when you’re nervous it’s hard to convey anything clearly, so that would be No. 1.”
2. Branding matters
“I see so many pitch decks where people have put no time and effort into the branding, and it’s easy if you’re in biotech or renewable energy or something really tech-enabled, it’s easy to think your tech speaks for itself and that you don’t need a brand, or if you’re a B2B company or something like that. And I couldn’t disagree more. When you have a deck that shows that you know your stuff, that you have your stuff together, that conveys confidence.”
3. Never memorize
“You’re going to come across so much more confident and so much more articulate about the problem if you’re just having a conversation with your audience. And it’s hard to do that when your pitch is timed, and most of the time when you’re in a competition or something like that, you’ve got two minutes or five minutes or ten minutes. But if you try to memorize it, you’ll will be nervous, you will probably stumble over your words. And that will trip you up completely.”