Mount up! Let’s hear more about this unicorn.”
So begins every episode of a new reality show called “Unicorn Hunters,” built around an outlandish twist on a well-worn premise: What if people could actually invest in the startups they see on television?
It gets weirder from there. The panel of judges, who debate whether to invest on air, includes Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, former U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios, and former NSYNC band member Lance Bass. Together, the seven judges form “The Circle of Money,” where companies must venture for cash and validation. The show’s marketing team even coined a new word for the production’s work: “enrichtainment.”
The show’s goal is startlingly lofty: help ordinary people access the high-risk, high-return world of the private markets, which will “democratize wealth creation,” they say.
Fundraising on a reality TV show is a strange choice for biotech companies. While there is currently record investor interest in the industry, private therapeutics companies have almost never elected to raise money in public. But biotech startups certainly do love publicity. Many rely on announcements and the media coverage that follows to attract potential employees, investors, and scientific partners.
Starton Therapeutics, which is featured on the show’s third episode, is no exception.
“After this, we’re going to be well-known as a company,” said CEO Pedro Lichtinger. Starton is working on patches that deliver cancer therapeutics and anti-nausea medication.
However, crowdfunding still carries a stigma in biotech — so appearing on the show could, theoretically, hurt a company’s ability to raise money from more traditional investors in the future.
“There’s this sense that it means you must have screwed up or were not able to convince ‘real investors’ ‘the old fashioned way,’” said Ethan Perlstein, the founder and CEO of biotech company Perlara, who crowdfunded some of his own academic work in the 2010s. “I still think the wider world of traditional VC-backed companies — that ecosystem — is going to look at this as an oddity or a kind of gimmicky thing.”
At least one investor agreed with Perlstein. “I’m not sure it gives you the right type of visibility,” said one venture capitalist who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
“If you have a great program that is meeting a high unmet need, why wouldn’t you want and be getting attention from high-quality specialist investors?” the investor added. “Rightly or wrongly, it feels like a funding approach of last resort.”