The Existential Pitch

David Sable
5 min readAug 18, 2023

The Basic Science of Entrepreneurship in Biotechnology, Part 1

Our endings are not what we envision when we begin. I sit down to write about the end of the first stage of labor and I end with a piece about fatherhood. I start college an aspiring accountant and end my education a reproductive endocrinologist, one who teaches accounting.

How do we navigate our course? We measure.

We keep track. We keep score. We take the vital signs.

How well defined? How precise? How reproducible and how biased?

How reliable?

How true?

Welcome to BIOT 4180 (Hamilton Hall, Columbia University)

I went to a summer camp staffed by philosophy majors from Brooklyn College. One day at the lunch table, in between tables competing to see which could yell “Go Sheepshead Bay” the loudest, we were challenged to imagine a world where there are only blue socks.

In such a world, does the blue-ness of the socks even exist, or is it just assumed, an inherent part of sock-ness. Only when placed next to a white sock or a red sock does the blue-ness of the sock become evident.

A mind-blowing concept for the pre-adolescents of bunk seven at Camp Nah-Jee-Wah.

At about the same time, in art class in school, we learned that yellow, red and blue were the primary colors, and that all of the rest of the colors were created from some combination of those three.

Now that was worth knowing. Faced with a problem that involved colors, my tool kit was full, with only three ingredients.

But the world of color proved to be a confusing place. I understood red, blue and yellow, but if tasked with retrieving the blue crayon from the big yellow crayon box, do I choose navy blue, sky blue, cornflower blue, azure blue, royal blue, periwinkle or aqua? Red is not only red, but also cardinal, burgundy, scarlet, vermillion and maroon; yellow can be lemon, arylide, and chartreuse.

Years later, during my senior year of college pre-med sprint, the basis of color re-emerged. Color could be broken down into three elements: hue, saturation and brightness, with infinite gradations of each; passed through a prism, however, that each of these separated back into Roy G Biv. And each of the Roy G Biv colors were a combination of the three primes, red, blue and yellow.

The search for truth in color led to a greater truth about truth: that is, that while your truth and mine may both be true, they may also be different. If we agree to paint the room blue, I might envision powder blue and you see azure; neither of us sees shamrock or olive.

When pitching, you need to be acutely aware of the clarity of your language. The detailed picture in your mind of what you are building: the problem you seek to solve, the specifics of your solution, the value that you create — needs to be replicated in the minds of your team, your investors and partners. Screen shots of landing pages, animated imagery of proteins landing on receptors, and before and after sad/happy faces only go so far, and spreadsheets — with or without helpful graphs — alongside them are at best nudges towards clarity.

Your toolkit is filled with words. Reach into that toolkit thoughtfully. Help us see what you see. You are both creator and translator, giving your listener a Rosetta stone to help understand your vision. You are creating something novel.

It is intuitive to you.

It will not be intuitive to others.

So compare your new idea to something that’s common sense to me now.

Aristotle understood this. “Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else” he writes in The Poetics. Use what I, the listener, the pitchee, actually do understand to help me see what I don’t.

Doctors get this. Practicing in New Jersey, where we are stratified by proximity to particular exits from the Turnpike, nods of recognition usually followed comparisons between human wellness and what goes on under the hood of a Toyota.

From Aristotle to Doctor to Entrepreneur to Artist

The entrepreneur is peculiar type of artist, an artist tasked with serially recruiting others’ contributions to their unfinished piece. Beethoven didn’t have to describe to the scherzo specialist he recruited from LinkedIn where he was going with the Ninth Symphony; history has no record of Michelangelo raising a series A to create David, using a miniature cast of the right hand as his prototype proof of concept.

But to take your idea from abstract concept in your mind to tangible benefits for others, to reach value creation****************,**************** you need to tell your story over and over and over again, each time figuring out the specific dialect that the listener needs to hear in order to process your words into an internal replica your picture.

This elevates storytelling to a core competence.

And for many (most, probably) entrepreneurs, it’s a skill that you have to learn by doing.

The stakes are high. On the other side of your pitch, I’m assessing both your vision, and you. When I read a novel, I need to trust the storyteller. If the character in chapter one is unrecognizable in the actions of the same character in chapter 2, I stop reading.

I no longer trust the author. I won’t stick around long enough to decide whether I like the story.

In our shop, we reserve the term “promotional” for the founder whose goal is to figure out exactly what we want to hear — independent of reality — and retrofit his or her story to those expectations, rather than to provide a realistic vision of what they are building. They are not educators, bringing us along on a vision of value creation; they are looking for the boxes to check, the inside track to the good grade, the fastest route to closing the sale.

“Promotional,” in this context, is not a positive.

When pitched with something truly novel, I am at a double disadvantage. Not only do I need to learn a new approach to solving a previously unsolved problem, but I need to trust that you will honestly teach me how to understand what you’re doing, to teach me the vocabulary, to walk me through the math.

So the pitch is two dialogues, in parallel. Spoken out loud is “what I am building and how I am doing it.” Closed captioned is “who is this person and can I believe anything they say?”

During Q and A, the “can I believe” often gets assessed first.

(More to come)

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David Sable

bio fund manager, Columbia prof, ex-reproductive endocrinologist, roadie for @PriyaMayadas. I post first drafts.