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How To Name Your Life Science Startup

In 2014, a promising young immuno-oncology startup named Alinos was incorporated. It had a great team and great technology. Unfortunately, the crew hadn’t yet established the website. When it came time to register the company domain, Alinos found it was taken by another business — a business that specialized in adult entertainment.

To state the obvious: Naming a startup is hard! Everyone involved seems to have conflicting opinions and there are countless hazards you need to actively avoid.

Thankfully, there are some basic guidelines to follow, a number of which apply to many industries. For example:

  • Do a thorough internet search
  • Check that the domain name and social media handles are available
  • Conduct a trademark search through USPTO.gov.

For biotech, pharma, and healthcare startups specifically, there are some additional challenges and considerations. When searching for a name, ask yourself the following questions:

Is it memorable? A lot of genomic companies have “gene” as the root of their name, which makes it difficult to stand out. Variants of ‘bio,’ ‘thera’ and ‘onco’ are also lavishly overused. If you really want to use a common descriptor, have it follow an original and punchy core. Think Denali Therapeutics, Gritstone Oncology, or COI’s Iron Horse Therapeutics (aka Lou Gehrig’s nickname, a famous sufferer of the disease that Iron Horse is working to treat — ALS).

Is there a story? Related to this, is the idea that a name should contribute to your overarching company story. Investors, the media, and the wider industry want to feel inspired by life science startups. Use this to your advantage. A quirky example: the drug discovery company TwoXAR. It was founded by two people that share a relatively uncommon name, Andrew Radin. Hence, two times A. R. The name provides a window into the company culture and origins, and it definitely stands out.

Is it global? Our industry is exceptionally international, from the researchers to the manufacturers. Ideally, your company name will be accessible for most languages. At a minimum, make sure it’s not offensive or embarrassing in your major markets. That includes your company name and any abbreviations or acronyms that may be used down the road. 

Does it allow you to evolve? You may be a rare disease company now, but what if your platform grows to include more common metabolic diseases? While it’s tempting to zoom in on what defines you now (a target, a disease, a drug modality), think long and hard about all the possible directions your startup could move in (both Andrew Radin’s are now in it for the long haul).

Final thoughts…

For all your hard work, things can still go wrong. Who knew in 1989, when ISIS Pharmaceuticals was founded, that a global terrorist organization would later be given the same name. The company pivoted and now calls itself Ionis Pharmaceuticals.

The upshot here, is that Ionis is a success. And so is Synthorx – the biotech formerly known as Alinos. Ultimately, the focus should always be on building a company with robust science and a solid team.

Additional resources:

For some technical insight, here’s a rundown of the 10 major types of company names; from existing-yet-repurposed words (Avelas) to blended names (Adanate = adaptive + innate immunity) and phrases.