Leadership Series 3: Achieving Success as a Biotech Leader

There has never been a more opportune time for those in academia and healthcare to accelerate discoveries into advances for treating patients. However, many discoveries often remain trapped in medical journals instead of being fully leveraged to save lives and reduce suffering. To make an impact, academic leaders must encourage and embrace an entrepreneurial spirit and engage the private sector in a synergistic manner.

Indeed, my dream is the same as every other physician-scientist — for our scientific discoveries to become new drugs or diagnostics that will make an impact on people in need. While the traditional academia-biotech-pharma engine has produced many transformative new medicines, this approach has yielded costly drugs, long delays, and many failed clinical trials. Each of these underscore the need for new collaboration paradigms as well as an improved understanding of how to work with the private sector including the creation of new biotech companies.

In my career, I was fortunate to have mentors who taught me how to become an effective leader and entrepreneur, ultimately yielding real world treatment advances from our discoveries. In launching companies such as Aveo, Karyopharm, Tvardi among others, I have learned, and often the hard way, the key ingredients needed to set up a successful biotech enterprise. First and foremost, a successful company must have the key elements of a highly validated and truly novel scientific discovery, exceptional drug discovery and biology capabilities and access to seasoned clinical expertise. As the company grows, operational excellence, creative financing and business development become essential factors for success and sustainability. From the outset, it is critical to have the right people in the right seats on the bus who can contribute to a culture of collaboration. Those on your team must demonstrate resilience and possess knowledge in their domain, confidence in the face of risk and urgency to tackle and execute the business objectives.

At its very essence, a biotech company is uniquely designed to organize and put in place a talent infrastructure and the financing needed to convert early stage high-risk ideas into proof of concept in the clinic. Ultimately through phase 1 and 2 clinical trials, the company will be able to validate the drug’s safety and effectiveness. Thus, biotech serves as a bridge across what I see as the “Valley of Opportunity” to bring new drugs to market to help patients.

Given my experience as a biotech company founder, I am often approached on the best path for individuals to take in launching their own company. It has been rewarding to help others in the same way I was mentored decades ago. Throughout my career, I have benefited greatly from devoted mentors whose counsel I sought. The ingredients that created these meaningful relationships were based on a shared desire to make a real impact on patients and to challenge the status quo. My mentors were highly diverse in their gifts ranging from scientific research to drug discovery to business and finance to the organizational skills needed to create new, transformative companies. Each mentor imparted their practical knowledge and wisdom required to become a successful biotech entrepreneur.

Based on what I have learned, my advice to others starts with a sound idea with strong genetic validation, a clear vision of the ultimate goal, and a detailed plan needed to create a successful company. A critical skill is the ability to recognize discoveries that are truly novel (non-obvious) and can be made proprietary via filing of a patent. Patents are critical as this will protect the discovery and justify investment of the hundreds of millions of dollars that will ultimately be needed to bring a drug to market. No patent, no investment, no patient benefit. In addition, a successful entrepreneur in biotech must possess effective leadership skills – the ability to inspire others to join you in the endeavor—whether it is investors to capitalize the company, management to run the company, or external business development partners to sustain the company.

Early on in the process, it will be up to you as the biotech founder and leader to build a great team, to cultivate a collaborative working environment and culture that encourages creativity, disciplined execution, and the courage to stay the course despite setbacks that will inevitably occur. Launching a successful biotech company requires people in leadership roles who are open to and willing to take risks, who are fearless in embracing new science, and who demonstrate the resilience, patience and endurance it will take to develop a new drug. Further, it helps for individuals leading this effort to possess the know-how, confidence and guts to tackle business goals often mired in uncertainty and complexity or those who are willing to fast-track their learning to take all of this on. Thus–in addition to excelling in your own field of science and expertise, you have to become business savvy and understand what it takes to build and grow a business as well as its people. Either you yourself must be able to lead in this way or you will need a seasoned trusted partner who possesses these attributes.

Here is my top list for achieving success as a biotech leader:

(1) Embrace an entrepreneurial mindset and take smart risks; however, be sure to hone your scientific ideas and develop a clear vision and goals around these ideas.

(2) Build a broad knowledge base in medicine, science, administration, and business management and/or or bring together individuals possessing the various skill sets to help you nurture and cultivate your idea—in other words put a talent infrastructure in place.

(3) Surround yourself with a diverse group of talented and trusted mentors throughout your career and maintain humility as a lifelong student who listens and learns from others’ experience. If possible, serve on biotech advisory boards to gain real world experience and perspective.

(4) Develop a robust financing plan to insure success and aggressively pursue non-dilutive grant support when possible to develop a sound proof of concept which will attract top tier investors needed to take your company through its various phases of growth.

(5) Inspire others through strong leadership qualities: honesty, positive attitude, clear communication and listening, willingness to learn from mistakes, resilience, persistence, empathy, composure during trying times and a thoughtful decision maker and problem solver.

(6) Create a collaborative and caring work environment and give credit to others.

There remains an enormous unmet need to develop new drugs to help those suffering and failing standard of care. I estimate only 1 in 50 biotech companies founded today will ultimately grow and develop into a sustainable business capable of producing commercial products. The odds are not great for most new startup companies of any kind to endure. Solving the Rubik’s cube of how you make the right decisions to maximize the science, effectively use talent and prioritize the most important opportunities in the most capital efficient way is critical to long-term success. Paving the way for more effective leaders in biotech, especially from the academic setting, will help accelerate the conversion of knowledge into impactful therapies and diagnostics to improve the human condition and provide hope to patients around the world. The opportunity to become a successful entrepreneur in biotech is open to anyone.

Other Articles in the Leadership Series:

Leadership Series 1:
Striving for Excellence in Healthcare Leadership

Leadership Series 2:
Mentoring Matters

Leadership Series 3:
Achieving Success as a Biotech Leader

Leadership Series 4:
Developing and Leading High-Performing Healthcare Teams

Leadership Series 5:
Leading in a Turbulent Time

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