Open to learn: Evan Edwards and EpiCard

EpiPlan
Evan Edwards knows a thing or two about business plans. The recipient of an NCIIA Advanced E-Team grant in 2000, Edwards has been working toward commercializing his invention—a credit-card-sized epinephrine injector for people with severe allergies, dubbed the “EpiCard”—for the past few years. We spoke with Edwards about what goes into a business plan, the lessons he’s learned about writing them, and his advice for nascent inventors looking to build a company around a new technology.

You can do it
The fact is that if you’re smart enough to come up with a worthy invention or a worthy product, you’re smart enough to write a business plan. All you have to do is take advantage of the resources out there, and there are a ton of them. The first and best resource is people you know: mentors, professors, entrepreneurs, people who have been there before. Beyond personal help, there’s a multitude of online help sites, books, etc. When Eric [Evan’s twin brother, who is vice president of EpiCard] and I were looking to polish up our plan for the Darden Business Plan competition at the University of Virginia, we went to Barnes & Noble, and ended up finding several books on writing effective business plans that really helped us out. We were the only student engineering entry, and undergrads at that, and we finished in the top four and won a period of incubation with Darden.

It’s gonna change—a lot
Business plans are ever-changing. The first business plan we wrote for EpiCard was about ten pages. But as the scope of the company expanded we included more and more in the plan; for instance, we started looking to find ways to tap into the military market, so we included more of a military bent into it. And then we realized we didn’t have to stick to injecting epinephrine alone, and incorporated into the business plan our research into other drugs and pharmaceuticals that could be used in EpiCard—insulin, and nerve gas, smallpox, and anthrax antidotes. And we’ve continually revised and updated the market analysis and financial projection sections, refining, adding content. It’s a constant process.

You’ll learn more than you think
When we started writing the business plan for the Darden competition we found competitors we never even knew existed. Knowing those competitors were out there was critical for us, and it’s critical for a lot of NCIIA E-Teams. Many E-Team inventions are an improvement to what’s already out there; you say, “I like this device, and I know a way I can make it better.” And you assume that one device is your only competition. But as you start researching you find other patents, other companies that are looking into the same things you’re looking into. These might be global companies, so that even if you have a patent in the US you might have to worry about international companies entering into the market. So it’s important to understand that while you’re developing the business plan you’re also finding out about things that are extremely important to your venture’s chances of success.

Act on the feedback you get
You’ll learn a lot about your company’s strengths and weaknesses when you go to present your business plan to venture capitalists and angel investors. We’ve made the rounds and presented our plan, and the feedback we received from the angels and VCs was very specific and very helpful. We’ve been a family-run business, but the VCs pointed out that it looks bad if your entire board consists of family members, and recommended we look into that and reformulate the company. So we went out and talked to key people in the pharmaceutical industry, some doctors, and got them on board, and that’s definitely helped solidify our credibility.

As you’re developing your business plan, and you start presenting it to these certain groups, you realize the areas of your business you need to focus on the most.

Lean on others
I come from an engineering background, and my brother from biology, so we knew we had a good product and knew the market, but we had no idea when it came to the financial data. If you go to investors with data that’s questionable or inaccurate, they’ll call you out. They’ll say, “Where did you get that number from?” You need to know your information; you need to know your sources. When we incubated with Darden they provided us with a panel of experts that really helped us with the financial side.

And that brings me to the real piece of advice I want to give: you have to interact with people. Talk with local businesses, join a venture group, join an on-campus entrepreneurship club. By going to their meetings and attending their seminars you’ll gain an understanding of how to write a business plan, or how to valuate your company, or how to do the financials. Whatever you need. You’ll make your strengths even stronger and you’ll shore up your weaknesses. By being in the company of businesspeople at Darden, by being around entrepreneurs, I was able to feed off them and really learned a lot about how to run a business.