The 9 Things Wildly Successful Biotechs Have in Common


Wildly successful biotech companies have more in common than great science, experienced leadership and ample funding. They have a certain way of thinking that propels everyone working there beyond day-to-day concerns and enables them to do great things. BioSpace asked company leaders and financiers what exactly those intangibles are. Here are the top nine commonalities:

1. Diverse Talent: “You can’t just have great scientists. You also need great managers and staff who will build culture,” Sung You, managing partner at PBM Capital and chief business officer at SalioGen Therapeutics, said. “It’s important to build a team that has experience throughout the entire drug development cycle, all the way to commercialization.” Therefore, she advised hiring people with diverse backgrounds and experience.

“The people on the management team have to be doers,” Andy Scharenberg, M.D., CEO, of Umoja, said. “They must already have shown they know what to do and are willing to wade in and do it, and they must be able to teach their teams by modeling and coaching.”

It’s also important for them to have built a team and managed it well. As CEO you’re not just executing on your vision, You said. “You’re also rallying the team to share that vision, so leadership skills are important.”

Wildly successful companies also can tap diverse networks for advice. “This isn’t about name-dropping, but about knowing these people well enough for them to be part of your support network as you’re building the company,” she said. No leader has all the answers, so being able to reach out to the right people is crucial. “Drug development is a team sport.”

2. Sophisticated Board Members: “It’s important to have a sophisticated board that has done a lot, to help you see around corners,” Scharenberg said. “The necessary skills will change as the company matures, but at each level, “You have to nail your finances.”

You said she considers her board members as strategic thinking partners who can advise and help solve challenges. As the company grows, it should expect to add board members to address the company’s emerging needs.

3. A Team Mindset: “Developing a company isn’t an individual process. Leadership must be willing to accept input as the process is honed,” Scharenberg said. Transparency, clear communications and treating people well are important team builders. The CEO must sustain the culture and shape its growth as the company evolves.

With a geographically distant workforce, companies are finding ways to create and reinforce culture online.  Be proactive regarding setting expectations about how and how often team members communicate and understand that culture building is important.

4. Strategic Finance: “Successful people think about strategic optimization and build a long-term financing strategy,” Jonathan MacQuitty, Ph.D., head of the Life Sciences sector at Lightspeed Venture Partners, said.

Early-stage investors don’t always understand biotech and so don’t anticipate the long development timelines and the need for multiple injections of financing. “Each financing round is built with the next financing round in mind,” Scharenberg said. "So if early investors create a situation that hinders the ability to generate subsequent capital, they will hinder the company. Therefore, companies need investors who understand there will be a period of burn, challenges that take longer than anticipated, and are committed to the company.”

5. Adaptability: “Companies need different things at different times,” Scharenberg pointed out, so CEOs must bring all the elements together while growing the company and hiring new people.

As an example, the scientific founder may need to step into a different role or develop management and financial skills if the company is to reach the next level. Likewise, the expected scientific path may morph. Build an organization that can accommodate changes, and allows for multiple paths to success.

6. Patient-centricity: “However success is defined, companies that succeed are patient-centric. Frequently, people get very excited about early research, but that isn’t something you can give patients today,” MacQuitty said. Your product “has to be developed very deliberately… to create real value and get past the hype. Hype is a remarkably effective way to make money in the stock market,” he said, citing GameStop and Theranos as examples. “Instead (of thinking about the stock price), think about the patient.”

7. Steady Focus: “Successful companies are focused,” MacQuitty said. Despite technologies that have broad potential, “If you want to have an impact, you’ve got to focus.” It’s rare, for example, to find a chief medical officer who can simultaneously manage programs in central nervous system disorders, cancer and COVID. With that in mind, work to your strengths.

That’s true beyond the science, too. For example, biotech companies gather lots of types of data, from natural histories to molecular data. “If you’re not a data-crunching company, it’s tough for you to compete in that space and it’s not the most efficient use of your time,” You said. “Focus on what you’re good at and outsource or partner for the rest.”

8. Clear Manufacturing: Ideally, “You want a manufacturing system the FDA is familiar with,” MacQuitty said. Regulators undoubtedly will question any new technologies regarding safety and how they will affect the product. So, if you are introducing new technologies, work with the FDA early on so the Agency understands the process and is comfortable with it.

9. A Supportive Ecosystem: It doesn’t matter whether the company is located in a biotech hub or elsewhere as long as it has ready access to people and resources to take the company to the next level. That is easier in biotech hotbeds like Boston or South San Francisco – even in the age of virtual companies and Zoom meetings – because there are research institutes and multitudes of people at all levels who can work with the company as advisors, consultants, employees and collaborators.

“So, there is no one-size-fits-all advice in terms of space. It’s a matter of finding the right environment for you to grow out your company,” You said. But, she cautions, understand that eventually the company will have to grow.

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