With its ability to bring its first vaccine candidates from concept into clinical development in less than three months, BioNTech is making global waves as the biotechnology pioneers behind Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, and now more eyes than ever are looking at the biotech sector. As talented people around the world, including those from academia, clinical practice and industry, consider a career in this sector, they should examine the characteristics necessary to become a successful biotech entrepreneur.
Biotechnology, or more commonly referred to as “biotech”, is the fusing of science and business. It is an industry that creates vastly different challenges than what other industries are faced with and has long development timelines for product development and clinical trials.
The global biotech industry is a major economic driver that generated nearly $140 billion in revenue in 2016 according to Statista. Around the world, biotech companies employ millions of people and the demand for skilled professionals will continue to rise.
So, what is more important to the livelihood of biotech entrepreneurs? Is it the scientific breakthrough? Or perhaps it is the management and finance skills needed to bring the company’s innovation to commercialization? The answer is, all are equally important – good management fails because the technology could not support it, and good technology fails because of poor management decisions. Management and technology, as well as money, are the key components necessary for a successful biotech venture.
Facing an ever-changing regulatory environment, the biotech sector demands unique talent requirements, including the ones identified below.
A primary and mandatory characteristic that is necessary for a biotech entrepreneur is having a high-risk tolerance. This is important because biotech is a volatile industry. The only constant in biotech is change; biotech companies frequently change their strategies and priorities and shift the focus of their resources to different technologies and products as new data informs their decision-making process. And on a personal level, biotech professionals quite commonly find themselves changing jobs as companies come and go. In some regions of the U.S., the average biotech professional will change jobs once every two to three years. The biotech industry is continually undergoing cycles of restructuring, expansion, contraction and the merging of companies. And frankly speaking, companies that bet on the wrong drug development plan will fail.
High-risk tolerance also plays a hand in how biotech industry executives handle making the brave decisions. In biotech, one must be prepared to conduct the studies that answer the questions which will advance or terminate the product. Many companies delay engaging in those definitive studies as they continue to draw their salaries on the promise of something revolutionary.
There are certainly many examples of people who have done very well in the industry who have no scientific background. However, by and large, prospective biotech entrepreneurs generally should have, at a minimum, a bachelor’s degree in biological science or a related life sciences field, but preferably a post graduate degree in one of the life sciences specialties, including chemistry, molecular biology, biochemistry, genetics or physiology.
Biotech is not always logical, so the regular decision-making processes do not always apply. There is no guarantee that the smartest person from the best university will be a smashing biotech success. Experience is key to making the most reasoned decisions that will help propel the business forward.
In the absence of experience, being able to receive advice from experienced people in the biotech industry, as well as other industries, is crucial in the decision-making process. Biotech entrepreneurs need to be able to gather advice from an experienced cohort, rather than relying on one or two mentors.
Wearing Multiple Hats
It helps to have both a specialist and generalist knowledge as a biotech entrepreneur. Most biotech professionals will start their career with a specialty in one of the key disciplines, such as clinical sciences and/or operations, regulatory affairs, research, quality, marketing, or manufacturing. However, as one progresses into more senior roles, particularly at small biotech companies or start-ups that have small teams, that person will be called upon to weigh in on and move the needle on all sorts of factors that influence the business, including scientific innovations, legal issues, corporate governance, investor and public relations, regulatory and securities issues, and even patent issues. If an individual is interested in being a biotech entrepreneur, don’t just focus on one’s own specialty; it’s very useful to learn about all issues that influence the business.
As William Faulkner said, “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” Being brave in biotech requires the ability to make the big decisions, from establishing the timeline that will move the innovation through rigorous studies to making personnel decisions, including hiring the best talent and parting ways with those who do not fit with the company’s needs.
Maintaining Professional Network
It is important to build connections with everyone, including colleagues, professors, and industry professionals. Join a professional association and become an active member in an organization. Maintaining a strong set of professional contacts opens the door to new opportunities and provides access to industry experts.
Biotech innovations are never overnight success stories. The BioNTech/Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine currently making headlines is the culmination of over a decade of work. BioNTech’s Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, who established BioNTech in Mainz, Germany in 2008, have spent years pioneering personalized immunotherapy treatments for cancer.
Being part of the biotech industry means being part of something so much bigger than one’s self. Whether it is a dream of developing a life-saving vaccine or a medication or ensuring food quality to prevent widespread illness, etc., a career in biotech can make this possible. Being part of a sector that continually pushes and advances society every day can be intoxicating, and it creates new demands for innovative people to keep the momentum going.