A group of highly-motivated San Diego State University students organized the Biomedical Technology Students Association (BTSA) a couple of years ago. Last month Jennifer Fouquier and Lauren Keeler – this year’s leadership team – invited me to give a talk to the BTSA. Jennifer wrote, “…perhaps you have a presentation about some of the current trends or hot areas of biotech…”
In my usual distracted way, I said sure…and about a week before the talk I started fretting because I really didn’t have a talk “in the can.” The last time I gave a talk like that was probably five years ago. I think we can all agree things in biotechnology have changed a lot since 2009.
I did my best to array some 30 minutes of thoughts – expecting about 10 students to show up (I neglected to check out their webpage beforehand – a fatal speaker mistake for certain). The BTSA turned out in force (about 75?) and was a wonderfully discipline-diverse crowd….but light on business students. After a spirited exchange on what the group thought “hot areas in biotech” might be, I began talking about current biotech business trends. As I looked around the audience, I realized every third word out of my mouth was greek to them. (Second fatal speaker mistake: using jargon). Jennifer and Lauren encouraged me to dive in because most people in the room were getting ready to look for jobs in biotech and they figured they needed to start learning the jargon.
I wish it weren’t so – but biotech on the business side has just as much jargon as an immunology talk (this is a typical article I read on a daily basis). It’s no secret that I used to work in biotech companies, my partner at home is a founder of a biotech NewCo, and I serve on biotechnology industry boards – so I tend to fall into biotech business patois pretty easily.
In apology to the BTSA I spent some time cartooning the life science company lifecycle (figure above, click to make larger – or download pdf here) and emailed it to them last week. I thought I’d share it here as well. The multiple disclaimers include: 1) the cartoon is best representative of biopharmaceutical product development and 2) this is a snapshot in time; wait 3 months and the cycle will be different.
One of my charges at CSUPERB has always been to “reduce the gap” between the university and the life science industry. Each year the CSUPERB-I2P Early-stage Biotechnology Commercialization Challenge reminds me how great that gap is. As I wrote in a grant proposal last summer, “…many academic researchers remain ‘blind’ to the intricacies of and behaviors needed for biological sciences technology commercialization.” I’ve said it many times before: not all academic researchers need to reach across that gap. But those who want to partner or work with companies do need to open their eyes and mind the gap. It’s readily apparent to industry experts when academic researchers don’t know what they don’t know about technology commercialization.*
It is important for job applicants and potential faculty collaborators to understand the stage at which a potential employer or partner is in the company “lifecycle.” Incentives, job descriptions and salaries vary along the lifecycle – applicants need to not only understand, but “buy-in” to where the company is. You won’t interview well if you want to carry out independent research projects at a start-up company (some big companies might let you do so). You might want to save 9 months of cash if you’re working for a start-up company; very few make it to the BigCo stage without facing mergers, acquisitions, or setbacks (= downsizing or lay-offs) along the way. That’s a fact of life in this industry. That’s also why many of us have chosen to work for start-up companies in San Diego or San Francisco; if our little ship goes down – we trust we can find another job at another company without a major relocation (= move). Some people like working at the start-up stage but lose interest as the organization enters the NewCo or Privately-held EmergingCo stage. Others think all this is a crazy way to navigate a career. Many of us think the travails of moving a scientific discovery toward a therapeutic product is the most exciting and important teamwork we’ve ever done.
*Steve Blank and his colleagues have done a great job this fall developing a common language around biotech commercialization – check out his new biotech investment readiness scales.