Biotech: Outside Looking In

In a post in March, I suggested that I would represent the “less glamorous side of things” in the biotech industry. This week gave me an opportunity to attempt that directly.

Setting the Stage

Earlier this year, Bruce Booth at Atlas Venture started a new thing – a great thing: having management from their biotech portfolio companies write blog posts in a series called From the Trenches on Booth’s Life Sci VC blog. Booth is one of the (very) few biotech VC who blogs consistently, and the quality of his posts is excellent.

A recent post from Kevin Pojasek, CBO of Annovation, COO of Quartet Medicine, is about Operating Inside The Atlas Seed Portfolio. A tweet from Lisa Jarvis, reporter at C & E News, captures the essence:

fascinating post from @drkpoj on how seed cos work w/CROs. fave 1 stop shops are in UK/EU/Asia & risk sharing common

Making the Exchange

Here is a conversation that Lisa’s tweet sparked on Twitter. The players you didn’t meet above are Ethan Perlstein, founder & CEO of a new drug discovery company, and David Grainger, Partner at Index Ventures.


Answering the Question

Does biotech “insider status” really help get/keep CRO attention? Yes. Does status also help garner the attention of potential investors? collaborators/partners? employees? PR firms? journalists? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. And yes. Hopefully, this revelation is not a surprise to you. And you may also consider that this situation is not unique to biotechnology.

Looking In from Outside

Here are a few thoughts on being on the outside looking in in biotechnology.

Connect: Social media can be used as a tool to participate in conversations with insiders. As the biotech community continues to grow on platforms such as Twitter, Quora and AngelList, outsiders have a means to add their voice to discussions that usually happen behind closed doors. I’ve met with numerous insiders (who by the way have been helpful and supportive) that would otherwise have been (likely out of reach) cold contacts if not for our interaction on social media.

A couple of people have suggested that my social media profile suggests I am inside. I respectfully submit that the playing field is not as level in person as on the internet.  As an example, there are a variety of biotech conferences that I attend, as do many of my insider colleagues. At the end of the conference days, we generally head to two different circuits of parties. While I’m not looking for new best friends, these parties include discussions about business and opportunities to build professional connections. Again, the challenge of online participation is more in joining the conversation vs. in person where finding (or being invited to) the conversation is critical.

Prioritize: Using rap lyrics to convey a message about entrepreneurship has been popularized by Ben Horowitz, and over the years there have been a variety of songs that resonate with me about the journey I’m on at Quintessence. Here is a verse from one such song Remember the Name by Fort Minor:

He doesn’t need his name up in lights
He just wants to be heard whether it’s the beat or the mic
He feels so unlike everybody else, alone
In spite of the fact that some people still think that they know him
But fuck ’em, he knows the code
It’s not about the salary
It’s all about reality and making some noise
Makin’ a story, makin’ sure his clique stays up

To me, the lyrics are a reminder that my goal is to create, to develop, to get a drug I believe works to patients. Not to be on the inside.

Remember: Success in drug development can come from good fortune. Here’s an article suggesting that even at the discovery stage, about one quarter of drugs involved serendipity. I’ll add in the insider voice of David Shaywitz, a Forbes contributor and Senior Director at Theravance, who co-authored a piece in Financial Times with Nassim Taleb titled: Drug Research Needs Serendipity. That article is mentioned in a Shaywitz Forbes post, that contains an email from David Grainger to Shaywitz:

So many projects fail for reasons that couldn’t have been predicted earlier no matter how much you spent on early-stage experiments. It’s not about the quality of your decision making if none of the preclinical data you could collect can predict the failure in an expensive Ph2a study. Once you accept that, you have to change your approach. – D. Grainger

What do I take from the role of luck in drug development? That there are a variety of pieces that come together for success, many of which aren’t controlled by where you sit (or don’t sit) at the table. Coming back to those lyrics by Fort Minor:

This is ten percent luck, twenty percent skill
Fifteen percent concentrated power of will
Five percent pleasure, fifty percent pain
And a hundred percent reason to remember the name

Asking the Next Question

But what if the insiders are the ones with the greatest ability to develop new drugs? (Reminder of my bias: I obviously have a vested interest in that not being the case.) I suggest  a couple of books that might impact your thinking on how people form opinions and make decisions, including Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow) and Nassim Taleb (Fooled by Randomness). For a peek into the Kahneman book, here is a NYT piece from Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence that ends:

In general, however, you should not take assertive and confident people at their own evaluation unless you have independent reason to believe that they know what they are talking about. Unfortunately, this advice is difficult to follow: overconfident professionals sincerely believe they have expertise, act as experts and look like experts. You will have to struggle to remind yourself that they may be in the grip of an illusion.


One comment on “Biotech: Outside Looking In

  1. hollyipltd
    February 2, 2015 at 1:01 pm #

    Interesting post. You may want to have a look at my piece on biotech financing on the IPKat blog (see which is sort of related to some of the things you discuss but for a more generalist audience.

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