How Do You Build Networks When You Can’t Say Anything?

This post is either a bold or a completely misguided attempt to mix the practical steps of networking with the (idealistic?) notion that we as members of an innovation region have a responsible to build and maintain strong networks.

In March, I told you about a community building experiment, the Biotech in Wisconsin Meetup group. One of my main goals was to reach deeper into organizations, to draw out a group of people that aren’t participating in existing programs. While my ultimate goal of community-driven events is still a ways off, the meetup was a launching point for conversations about why people did/didn’t participate. A repeated comment about why drawing people out to events represents a challenge: competition/confidentiality.

Initially, the idea didn’t resonate. Since I got involved more than a decade ago, the biotech community in Madison has been welcoming and open. But is my perception the same as the reality you would find entering the local biotech scene today?

Is Our Community Closed or Open?

The types of biotech companies that are built Madison/Wisconsin and the growth of the local industry likely contribute to the perception that you can’t go to an event and discuss the projects you are working on.

  • Contract Research – Wisconsin has a variety of companies that do research and manufacturing under contract and the identity of customers in that space is often not public information. Even revealing a target or type of drug can be identifying. The processes being developed or experiments being done are often proprietary.
  • Public vs. Private – As our biotech community has grown, we have more public companies in our midst, mostly as outposts due to acquisition. There are clear rules about disclosure for public companies. Particularly when much (or all) of senior leadership is in a different place, saying nothing is significantly more straightforward than figuring out what can be said and when.
  • Competitive Products – Accidentally having a conversation with a competitor (or within earshot) about what products in development is much more likely as certain segments, including medical devices and tools/reagents, have reached critical mass in Wisconsin.

Are Regional Networks Really Important?

Is this idea just another learning to play well with others? What’s the big deal about having strong, open networks? One of the most frequently cited works on networks and innovation in regions, Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128, was written by AnnaLee Saxenian. Published in the mid ‘90s, the book looks at the electronics and computer industries in the ‘70s and ‘80s. To keep this post (relatively) brief, I’ve pulled the Conclusion (and added the emphasis) from an article Saxenian wrote in 1996 called Inside-Out: Regional Networks and Industrial Adaptation in Silicon Valley and Route 128 but included the link so you can read the background research.


This comparison of Silicon Valley and Route 128 industries highlights the analytical leverage gained by treating regions as networks of relationships rather than as collections of atomistic firms. By transcending the theoretical distinction between what lies inside and outside the firm, this approach offers important insights into the structure and dynamics of regional economies. It directs attention to the complex networks of social relationships within and between firms and between firms and local institutions.

The Silicon Valley experience also suggests that the network form of organization flourishes in regional agglomerations. Proximity facilitates the repeated, face-to-face interaction that fosters the mix of competition and collaboration required in today’s fast-paced technology industries. Yet the case of Route 128 demonstrates that geographic clustering alone does not ensure the emergence of regional networks. Competitive advantage derives as much from the way that skill and technology are organized as from their presence in a regional environment.

Why do you have to say something, anything?

Given the previous section, I would argue that there is an imperative to cultivate networks so that our ecosystem the greatest chance of growth and success. And I am a believer that while organizations have to facilitate but that people are the ones who make things happen. But what’s in it for you personally?

While you may know all of the details of your current project, explaining how the new product will impact the company (revenue, competition, etc.) can have a positive impact on your career trajectory and/or job security. The ability to convey the value you provide to an organization is important externally as well as internally. Having employees that can talk about what they do is a positive sign for the culture of an organization and can help in recruiting. And if you get caught up in the shifting landscape of biotech, a built in group of people in the community who know you and your skill set can aid in finding your next landing.

How can you build a network when you can’t say anything?

While I wrote about networking previously, my only advice on what to talk about was to think about it in advance. What I’ve heard from people interested in building connections is that they feel they can’t say anything about what they are working on. Here on some of the things I talk about when I can’t talk about the details of my day to day work.

  • Learn the Products – If you work in a group developing a new product you can’t discuss, go to the website and develop some material on the group’s prior products – what the applications are, how the product compares with competitive products. In my experience, people are interested in engaging in the discussion about the science, not learning exactly what you do every day.
  • Know the Rules – If you work in a regulated industry, the FDA provides a plethora of reading material that you can familiarize yourself with. There are many examples from industry about interpreting guidelines that you can use to launch a discussion. Here is a current story about a company who interpreted the guidelines for launching their clinical trial differently than the FDA.
  • Follow the Money – In our industry, following the trails of companies and/or assets bought and sold could be a full time job. Knowing where your company is on the food chain can be an interesting conversation topic but also a way to explore where the industry (and potentially your career?) is headed. For companies relying on equity financing, there are plenty of ways to learn about the biotech angel and venture capital investments.

The Challenge, Should You Choose to Accept It

Figure out what you want to talk about and get out in the community to build networks!


2 comments on “How Do You Build Networks When You Can’t Say Anything?

  1. David
    September 20, 2013 at 8:44 pm #

    Excellent post. In my experience there are two additional factors that hold some people back from building networks. The first is apathy. When I invite a colleague to a networking event, I occasionally get an eye-roll or a shoulder-shrug. This is usually their nice way of saying “who cares?”. For the slightly apathetic, this response is usually overcome after their first successful networking event. Once they see the benefit their apathy dissipates. For the stubbornly apathetic, a little arm twisting can help.

    The second factor is time management, something we all have to deal with. A few of my colleagues are in a constant state of chaos, claiming they don’t have time to do anything outside of what they’re working on. We all experience days like this, but living a perpetual state is a result of poor time management.

    I think part of the responsibility lies with those of us who are engaged. We can sometimes provide the necessary activation energy to get those who are less engaged, involved.


  1. Biopharma should choose targets using a baseball-style draft | Biotech, Baseball, Big Data, Business, Biology... - September 30, 2013

    […] because work can be done in the open.  As Laura Strong pointed out in a recent post on her blog, The Next Element, one of the problems of trying to network as a biopharma worker is that so many things are verboten […]

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