Two University of Florida graduates’ journeys merge in San Francisco to launch agricultural breakthrough

How a marketing advisor helped transform our company!

“I became a scientist and researcher because it was my passion — why would I ever need marketing?”

I would soon realize that the best ideas don’t always win, but the best marketing does. The realization hit me hard when attending a marketing panel shortly after I started the IndieBio accelerator in San Francisco. Before 2017, my technology development training at the University of Florida (UF) prepared me to use the scientific tools to develop a technology from the laboratory to the field. However, business development, commercialization, and marketing were totally new and scary territory for me. So, I decided to deal with the new business territory, one piece at a time, starting with marketing.

Mr. Karl Schiller, Dr. Fatma Kaplan, Mr. Neil Cohen

That’s when I met Neil Cohen, the moderator of the aforementioned panel. As I listened and tried to learn, I realized I had no idea how to use the marketing tools espoused by the panel to turn Pheronym, Inc. into a viable business. Luckily, Neil had free office hours which I immediately signed up for it at IndieBio. He gave us specific advice on how to use effectively social media to our advantage. We also learned that Neil was a fellow Gator, and graduate of our Journalism school in PR. Wow! We found a family member in this new city.

Online marketing

We started our company’s marketing in earnest and soon learned it was not just about social media and can be very expensive for a startup. One day we needed to send out a news press release on an important milestone for Pheronym. Once I calculated how much it would cost (preparing the text, pictures, videos and distribution channels), it was almost impossible to afford. So, I reached out to Neil for advice. Without hesitation, he offered to write the release at no cost. That lead to the advice in a number of other areas as our business began to gain us wide recognition and advance our business goals. We started getting compliments on our marketing from other startups, established companies and even from professional marketers. We were told that Pheronym was good at both science and marketing compared to many startups which are either good at marketing or science, not both.

We then realized that our needs had changed for marketing — it was time to have a marketing advisor. Of course, Neil was our first choice for a number of reasons. Neil has an amazing background in marketing and diverse experience in working with many corporations from big corporations to small startups. For example, he worked for corporations like Hilton (Vice President Marketing Communications) and SEGA (Vice President of Marketing). He also had a lot of experience with advising startups like us and accelerators such as TERRA Food and Ag accelerator. Furthermore, he has founded a startup and understood how things worked from the founder CEO side. Of course, working with another amazing Gator made us feel right at home in the middle of California.

How do you do marketing when you have a tiny budget like between $0 and $500? How do you prioritize funding; R&D or marketing? Without R&D, you can’t make any progress toward a product. Without marketing and branding, nobody knows you, meaning no credibility, no sales and no money. It is kind of chicken in the egg and egg in the chicken. How do you get to do both when you do not have enough? The first thing he did with us was to develop a strategy to be consistent with our messaging. Then we planned when we should get our message out. As you are guessing the timing is very important. After that, we determined the appropriate platform for the message: a press release, social media, or a newsletter or all together? How do you synergize them? And much more…

Having an advisor like Neil allowed us to strategically market our company with no budget. When Neil agreed to be our advisor, he did not want money. He was OK with equity which everybody knows a big risk, but he believed in us as founders.

My career with pheromones and nematodes (roundworms) started in 2005 at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at UF. I isolated and identified the first C. elegans mate finding pheromone, published in Nature in 2008. Then I was hired by USDA to apply this new finding to agriculturally important nematode species as environmentally friendly solutions. This was because insect pheromones were demonstrated to be very effective to control insect pests. The same concepts can be applied to nematode pheromones. Now, through development and testing for the past two years, it is a proven technology that we can use nematode pheromones to control pests. I believed in the technology that would make a difference to improve soil health and provide sustainable eco-friendly solutions. However, bringing a new technology required more than science skills, it also required business skills including marketing. We are delighted that our fellow Gator Neil Cohen also saw the potential in our technology and decided to join us to bring the first nematode pheromones to the market. Go Gators!!!

Author: Dr. Fatma Kaplan is the CEO/CSO of Pheronym, an entrepreneur, and an accomplished scientist with experience in both biology and chemistry. She has a Ph.D. in Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology and postdoctoral training in Natural Product Chemistry with a focus on isolating biologically active compounds. Dr. Kaplan discovered the first sex pheromone of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans and published in Nature. Then she discovered that pheromones regulate other behaviors in both parasitic and beneficial nematodes. She has very high impact publications and her dissertation (beta-amylase’s role during cold and heat shock) was cited in textbooks within 5 years of publication. Dr. Kaplan worked as a scientist at NASA, the National Magnetic Field Laboratory and the US Department of Agriculture — Agricultural Research Service. Dr. Kaplan co-founded Pheronym to bring nematode pheromone technology to the market and to provide effective, non-toxic pest control for farmers and gardeners.

CEO of Pheronym, Inc.

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