Biotech Begins to Come of Age on Twitter

9/17/12Follow @xconomy

Two years ago, most everybody in biotech had heard of Twitter but most people were looking for reasons to ignore it. A year ago, people in the industry began realizing that even though they’re busy, it’s not a fad, and maybe they should see what the fuss was about.

Now we’re just beginning to see what this real-time platform for news and commentary can do for healthcare innovation. And what comes next will do the industry a lot of good.

It’s hard to get reliable numbers on the usage of Twitter, but one estimate I’ve seen says the 140-character microblog service is on track to reach 250 million active users by the end of 2012. Many of the earliest adopters of this six-year-old service were in the tech industry (no surprise), but there’s now a firestorm of more than 400 million tweets a day about presidential politics, Middle East revolutions, music, sports, high-tech gadgets, and all kinds of culture high and low. A small percentage of Twitter’s overall traffic comes from discussion of drugs, devices, diagnostics, or healthcare in general, but it’s all there and growing fast, too. Again, this growth is hard to measure, but earlier this year, Brian Reid of the PR firm WCG (@brianreid) posted a map that showed the growth and expanding reach of Twitter usage at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference.

There are plenty of reasons that people in biotech and pharma are coming to this party a few years after the techies. Of course, everyone’s busy. If you’re lucky enough to be marketing a drug, your advertising and marketing communications are regulated by the FDA to ensure a balanced presentation of your product’s risk and benefits. Trouble is, the FDA hasn’t yet issued clear rules of the road for how to communicate the risks and benefits on a Facebook page or in a 140-character tweet.

If you’re at a public biotech company, your executives’ statements are regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission to make sure the statements are factual and distributed to everyone in the market on a level playing field. Excessive hype is duly noted by short-sellers, and by attorneys who bring shareholder lawsuits. No doubt, there are reasons to tread carefully.

Clear as the downside may be, there’s also a clear upside now. If you’re not on Twitter now, it’s almost like it’s 1996 and you’re one of those people without e-mail. You know you are missing something big. In 2012, without being on Twitter, you basically would have no idea what people are saying in real-time about your company, your competitors, your partners, and trends in your industry.

“On the one hand, in terms of awareness and monitoring, there has been a sea change in the past couple years,” Reid says. “It’s a rare company that isn’t paying very close attention to what’s being said on Twitter. Everyone recognizes that what’s said online has ramifications that go far beyond just folks chattering on a social network. When it comes to corporate reputation, investor sentiment, how people are feeling at medical meetings, it’s all out there, it has influence, and people know they need to pay attention.”

Gautam Kollu (@gautamkollu) a marketing executive at San Carlos, CA-based Natera, a developer of prenatal diagnostic tests, said there’s far more focus on social media in general today than there was two years ago. “Back then, if you sat in on an ad agency pitch on what people in biotech should be doing, some agencies, not all, would throw something in there on social media,” Kollu says. “Now you listen to a pitch, everyone has this front and center.”

Even so, there’s still a whole lot of uneasiness out there about this change in biotech. I’ve spoken to executives who are comfortable telling me one thing in an on-the-record interview, yet nervous about saying the same thing on Twitter. Kollu says he’s had his wrist slapped for something he said on Twitter that his former employer didn’t like. I even traded e-mail last week with a savvy biotech industry source who insisted on remaining anonymous when discussing social media policy. According to this source, so many biotech attorneys are fearful, and so insistent on controlling messages, that it defeats the immediacy and personality that makes Twitter so popular.

Yet Michael Gilman (@Michael_Gilman), one of biotech’s more active and influential members on Twitter, says he’s not encountering that kind of fear, even after making the leap from a small company to a big company.

Gilman started tweeting back when he was the CEO of a small private drug developer called Stromedix, and without really having to worry about the FDA or the SEC or a paranoid boss, he carved out a reputation as a smart, insightful, and witty commentator on the day’s industry news and information. Even after his company was acquired by Weston, MA-based Biogen Idec (NASDAQ: BIIB) earlier this year, and he became a senior vice president at a big company with a lot more process and procedures, he has kept up his Twitter habit, not just using it as a source for news, but for a platform in which he can banter in public with entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and journalists.

All of that continued even after he sat down and read a 20-page company social media policy at his new company, and concluded he could still basically do what he had been doing before when there weren’t any formal rules. And so far anyway, he says nobody at Biogen has rapped his knuckles for saying anything out of line.

“At Stromedix nobody told me what to say and not to say. But I’m not stupid, I know what’s OK to talk about and what’s not OK to talk about,” Gilman says. “If you looked at my tweets from Stromedix and analyzed what companies I wasn’t talking about on Twitter, you could probably figure out who I was talking to [about partnerships behind the scenes].” He adds: “I was pretty discreet then, and am pretty discreet now.”

For example, Gilman generally steers clear of projects Biogen has an interest in, and when he does discuss them—as in the case of anti-amyloid beta antibodies for Alzheimer’s—he’s sure to disclose Biogen’s stake in any public comments.

If you’re one of those folks who isn’t yet “lurking” on Twitter—following the action without joining the conversation—here’s a quick snapshot of what a conversation is like. Gilman had one last week with Chris Morrison, an editor with Elsevier Business Intelligence (@InVivoBlogChris). It started when Morrison floated a question Gilman is expected to address at an upcoming event.

“Can u tamp down on risk while keeping reward high? it’s the cold fusion of biotech”

Here’s how Gilman answered:

“Fave topic. Answer is of course you can. But you need to understand what kind of risk you are taking. Harder than it sounds.”

As often happens, other people joined the conversation, such as Michael Koeris (@mkoeris) of Sample6 Technologies and John Carroll of FierceBiotech (@JohnCFierce). Gilman went on to elaborate on his thoughts about risk:

“I’d take technical risk over regulatory or commercial risk ANY TIME.”

“I feel like we are able to understand technical risk, judge it, mitigate it, discharge it relatively cheaply…”

“Problem with commercial risk is that it is usually discharged late in program and at great expense. Plus it’s a moving target.”

“Regulatory risk can be virtually random — a lightning strike — and therefore unmanageable…”

Right there, in not very many words, you’ve got some useful commentary about risk in biotech. But there’s more than just chatter going on here, there is a rapid-fire cycle of breaking news, context, and independent commentary. If you can find the right people to follow, it can be very revealing, and provide a big informational advantage to those in the loop.

There are other advantages besides … Next Page »

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  • http://twitter.com/mkoeris Michael Koeris

    Great quote by @popsalks – totally agree

  • http://twitter.com/kevintoshio Kevin Chow

    Agree with Michael Gilman — Twitter is a great medium to stay on top of breaking news in biotech. Instead of the old way of waiting for the next day’s Biospace (or other daily alert), a quick scan of the Twitterfeed first thing in the morning (or the night before) can be highly informative. Just follow the feeds from the leading journalists and bio/pharma companies. No risk in doing that.