Luck of the Draw
To some extent, many admit, success is “the luck of the draw.” Success may be harder to achieve today than in biotech’s early days because, as one gentleman says, “The low-hanging fruit has been picked.” Still, he says, there are some tenets that may increase one’s chances of success:
• Never build a company around a single technology or product idea. You need as many possibilities as you can muster because good science doesn’t always translate well into the clinic.
• Have teammates who complement your knowledge.
• Hire the very best people for every position who truly buy into the vision.
• Excel in both science and business.
• Raise as much money as you can when it’s available.
Above all, the successful are extremely determined. As one says, “It is easy to find a reason not to do something. Be very tenacious.”
Several respondents publicly provided their advice on how to achieve success in biotechnology and maybe even make it into the lofty ranks of molecular millionaires.
Charles L. Cooney, Ph.D.
Outside Director, Genzyme
Success is about relationships, Dr. Cooney says. Find colleagues and mentors who ask challenging questions and who challenge what you do. “It’s important who you associate yourself with.” He attributes his own success, at least in part, to sharing ideas openly and listening to what others say. “Good people have lots of good ideas in response to conversations.”
Additionally, “The interesting problems are at disciplinary interfaces. People shy away from these areas because it’s risky—they don’t know the answers,” but that’s also where the greatest advances can be made.
Dr. Cooney, a professor of chemical and biochemical engineering at MIT, used that advice as part of a multidisciplinary team of MIT professors who formed a consultancy during biotech’s earliest days, helping venture capitalists make sense of the new industry and helping biotech companies hone their strategies. Genzyme was one of those companies and it invited Dr. Cooney to join its board of directors.
James A. Bianco, M.D.
CEO and President, Cell Therapeutics
Scientists’ biggest stumbling block is not making the transition from scientific founder to a business person, according to Dr. Bianco. After 16 years as president and CEO, he says, “companies change as they grow, and the executive who may be excellent at leading a company of less than 100 people could be horrible at leading a company of more than 500.”
His goal has been to expand his knowledge base to understand everything that affects the company, including financial, legal, and marketing issues. For example, he says, “We have a CFO, but I was involved in all the financial issues so I could understand them.” Developing a broader knowledge base “helps prevent the company from being under-resourced or over-leveraged,” he adds. “That’s a character trait of a good leader.”
Arthur T. Sands, M.D., Ph.D.
CEO and President, Lexicon Genetics
The most critical factor of success, remarks Dr. Sands, “is to identify early a fundamental problem in science that when solved, will have significant impact for medicine. There are a lot of interesting undertakings, but not all will have a broad impact on human medicine. When you can connect those two properties—interest and broad impact—your career will more likely translate to success and funding.”
It is vital, he says, that you find a way to create value. The desire to create value must come before the desire for financial success.
In terms of educational training, “coming from biology, it’s very important to at least complete a postdoc fellowship and then move into biotech. Make a choice at that juncture.” Although the lines are blurring between academic and corporate research, “the steps of post-training lead down the path of terminal differentiation.” His advice: “Be relentless.”
Russell J. Howard, Ph.D.
Dr. Howard says that nine conversations made the difference in his career. “If I deconstruct my career, there’s been little continuity from one job to the next. There have been very big changes, and every major change was the result of a conversation and a five-minute decision. I’ve never applied for a job. Not one.” Instead, he says, “the persons were seeking me.”
He managed that, he says, by being “open at all times about talking about what you’re interested in. I told my kids, I have no care at all what your job is. All I care about for you is that you’re passionately interested in your job. You’ll be the best, and things will open up for you.”
Throughout the changes from marine biologist to immunologist, Dr. Howard says he focused not on salary or perks but on the research opportunities. At the NIH, for example, “I was a GS 9 or 10 and worked 24/7.” Following his family cross-country, he entered biotech “as a lowly postdoc,” until, frustrated and ready to move his family back East to return to the NIH, he finally approached the company president. That conversation resulted in a vp title, 3,000 sq. ft. of lab space, and some assistants. “There’s a huge amount of luck in life.”