Even before Raj Krishnan officially started his own biotech company, he had the name picked out. He wanted to call it BioDyn.
Problem was, David Charlot, his friend and chief technology officer, didn’t like it. For a very specific reason.
“I didn’t want it to sound like Cyberdyne from ‘The Terminator’,” he said.
In the movie, Cyberdyne is a California corporation that builds armies of evil cyborgs to unleash a nuclear holocaust on mankind. Not exactly the best connotation.
But that wasn’t enough to dissuade Krishnan, who was then a graduate student at University of California, San Diego. So he took the name to a group of business students and asked their opinion.
“They said it sounded like we were building dinosaurs,” he said.
Finally convinced to give up, Krishnan decided to go with the longer name that had originally inspired it. And thus, Biological Dynamics was born.
We are following the 28-year-old Krishnan as he launches Biological Dynamics. His journey, while unique to his experiences, also serves as an example of what it takes to successfully start a biotech these days.
When an entrepreneur like Krishnan decides to start his own company, one of the first things he must do is choose a name. Although the choice is fairly frivolous compared to the other things a company founder has to worry about — patenting the technology, securing lab space, roping in investors — it also carries serious impact on the company’s future.
The right name will be catchy, remind investors and customers of what a company does and sound powerful and, well, dynamic. The wrong name will be easily forgotten, or worse, sound like a joke. And if a company chooses a bad name, it can be expensive and damaging to change it.
“Companies build a brand and an identity around their name, so if they change it, they lose a lot of that,” said Bill Oxford, president of local advertising agency The Oxford Group.
Oxford is one of many consultants who make naming companies part of their jobs. Another, Igor Naming Consultants in San Francisco, has created a taxonomy system of biotech company names to divide them into categories like “functional” or “evocative.” (Local companies Genentech and Genzyme are “functional,” Isis is “evocative” and Illumina and Life Technologies are “experiential.”)
But despite the high stakes, most entrepreneurs do not have the money for these consultants.
So they are left to their own devices and the advice of business partners or friends. Although each founder has his own story for how he picked his company’s name, many biotechs follow the same naming trend. Their names sound like constellations or cars (in one case, it turns out, too much like a car), and are sleek, catchy, somewhat science-y, but still cool.
Here are a few of their stories:
• When Kobi Sethna launched his biotech company, which looks for pharmaceuticals in ocean microbes, he decided pretty quickly what he wanted his company’s name to be. Sethna is a fan of mythology, so he picked the name Nereus after a god of the Aegean Sea who fathered 50 sea nymphs, the Nereids.
“Nereus was very prolific, fathering 50 daughters, so we thought if could even create even two or three products, that would be a nice situation for a biotech company,” Sethna said.
• David Walt, a chemistry professor at Tufts University in Boston, said when he co-founded the local genome sequencing company Illumina, he and his partners had a tough time picking a name. They originally wanted to name the company Sensa, a Boston pronunciation of “sensor,” which is what the company initially planned to make. (Think along the lines of “Pahhk the cahh in Hahhvad Yahhd with a sensahh.”)
But when they did a trademark search on the name, they found it was already taken. By a soft grip pen. Since their company’s technology was based on fiber optics, they then looked for a name that evoked “light” and landed on Lumina. But that name was taken by Chevrolet for its family sedan. Running out of ideas and out of time, the founders finally settled on “Illumina.”
“We all liked it but it took a while before it became a recognizable name,” Walt wrote in an email. “Many technology folks thought it was Alumina • a common material — so we had to spell it all the time.”
• Another local entrepreneur, Mike Kamdar, spent precious time and money picking names that were already copyrighted by someone else. He said these copyright and trademark searches cost between $1,000 and $2,000 each, which is expensive for a startup.
Kamdar first wanted to name his company after a constellation, but found the name was taken. Then he moved on to Integral Therapeutics, but that was taken too.
“We were spending a lot of money searching, and our venture backers were getting concerned,” he said.
Finally, someone suggested that since the founders drank so much Starbucks coffee, they pick something fairly unconventional: Venti. Then to give the name a medical feel, they tacked Rx on the end, producing the name VentiRx.
Since their company was not coffee related, there were no trademark issues with Starbucks. Plus, the company works on treatments for respiratory diseases and the name almost evokes “ventilators.”
“It’s unique and memorable, and is something people want to listen to,” Kamdar said. “When they hear it, they want to know how we came up with the name.”
Despite the endless options and the money that can be spent on consulting companies to wade through them, most founders choose names they have a personal connection with. It’s almost like naming a pet.
That was true for Krishnan when he named Biological Dynamics (not BioDyn).
“For us, the name was less of a marketing tool, and more just something to be proud of,” he said. “It’s a personal thing.”