Mark Levin’s business is biotechnology, so it’s no surprise he knew zilch about a tech company called LinkedIn as recently as two years ago. But these days Levin sounds like he can barely do his job without it.
“I’m not the most social media savvy person. I haven’t used a lot of these tools at all,” Levin says, referring to blogs and Twitter. “But I’ll never forget, the first message I got from LinkedIn was an e-mail from what looked like someone called link-a-din. I remember asking myself about Mr. Link-a-din. I was trying to figure out ‘who the hell is this person?’”
Levin, a founding partner of Boston-based Third Rock Ventures and one of the more prominent biotech venture capitalists in the U.S., was a LinkedIn Luddite two years ago. To some extent, he still looks like one: his profile contains no photo, no professional biography, and only tidbits of information posted about his employment history. But appearances can be deceiving. He says he has amassed more than 5,000 connections, and the number keeps growing daily. He says he spends at least a half an hour per day on the site, sifting through more than 100 incoming connection requests a week, and firing off dozens more requests to people he wants to get to know. LinkedIn’s algorithms have gotten to know his tendencies so well, the site is constantly suggesting new people in biotech and pharma companies that he might want to meet. He often does.
Levin became so obsessive at one point this year that LinkedIn temporarily shut down his account, until he called the company and assured them he’s a real person using the site for business. Just during a 15-minute phone interview with me on Friday, Levin said he got three new connection requests. One was from an MD that caught his eye immediately.
“About 18 months ago or so, I realized that is an extraordinary way to be in contact with people,” Levin says. “Our biggest challenge is to find great people. We don’t know everybody. And you can find a lot of great people here.”
While many in the tech press mock LinkedIn as an oh-so-boring compiler of mere resumes, it has become the indispensable online hub for networking in life sciences—an industry where relationships make the world go round. LinkedIn has a relatively puny user base of 187 million members around the world, compared to Facebook’s 1 billion, and there’s no question people spend way more time engaging with Mark Zuckerberg’s social network. But it’s also true there’s no question which site matters more to the life sciences. LinkedIn is the singular site for finding people in biotech, whether they are biologists, chemists, toxicologists, admin assistants, business development people, finance pros, or CEOs. There were more than 513,000 people in the LinkedIn database who self-identify as members of the “biotechnology” or “pharmaceutical” industry when I searched on those keywords Friday afternoon.
For journalists like me, this is an everyday reporting tool with almost as much value as Twitter, and possibly more. Even though I only use the basic free version of the site, it’s become an awesome clearinghouse of sources that I call on for help with scoops and analysis. I can slice and dice my network of 2,900 contacts by industry, title, location and more. It’s become a treasure trove of personal e-mails for sources, which I never have to manually update when people leave for new jobs, as they often do. It’s even turned into a place where people read a lot of my stories and the resource where I sometimes find new stories to pursue. In fact, I got the idea for this story by noticing that Levin and I have more than 500 connections in common.
Levin, as a venture capitalist, comes to the network for different reasons, but he raves all the same. Nothing great in biotech can happen without a magical mix of an idea, technology, people, and money.
“Our No. 1 goal in life is to know the best people in the industry who are going to make a difference in our companies,” Levin says. “I don’t remember when it exactly became clear, but it was clear to me that a lot of people were using it to stay in touch. We’ve realized it’s an extraordinary recruiting tool. The more I’ve spent time there, the more aggressive I have gotten.”
Levin isn’t kidding about the emphasis on recruiting at Third Rock, which has a “recruiting partner” in Craig Greaves, a former recruiter at Biogen Idec (NASDAQ: BIIB) and Cubist Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: CBST). Levin says all this connecting and re-connecting sometimes leads somewhere fruitful, sometimes not, just like with all other recruiting techniques.
But Levin and his partner at Third Rock aren’t just fiddling around making random contacts, they are being systematic about the connections they form. Once he forms a connection on LinkedIn, he said he sends the new contact a short follow-up note to see what’s new in their lives or careers. He then e-mails his fellow partners to see if any of them know the person. Third Rock uses a premium version of LinkedIn, which has an application that automatically downloads all of Levin’s new contacts into a central database so that all members of the firm can see the person’s profile, Greaves says.
Sometimes an in-person meeting gets scheduled to follow up right away to see if there might be some kind of potential for a match at a Third Rock company. Often Third Rock uses the site for targeted searches, like, say, for an antibody engineer, Greaves says. Other times, it’s just to get acquainted with people who aren’t looking for work now, but might be able to join a startup, consult, or form a valuable partnership with a Third Rock company sometime later, he says.
“We are laying the groundwork and building a network for the long term,” Greaves says.
No doubt, LinkedIn has its potential for misuse just like any other technology, and users need to think about how to use it properly. Back when the site was formed in 2003, people were urged to connect only with people they knew well, because otherwise people might think you were tainted if a shady operator ended up appearing in your network. I think that stigma has largely gone away, because a connection is perceived now as really just like trading business cards, and not an endorsement or recommendation. People have also long worried about whether bosses might be able to use it to spy on their workers, and suspect whether they were getting restless, looking for a new job. I used to leave my entire connections list accessible on the web for anyone who connected with me, until I started connecting with people I don’t really know, and realized some may have ulterior motives that might interfere with my ability to break news.
There are plenty of areas on the site that leave something to be desired. LinkedIn Groups have always struck me as spammy, so I’ve unsubscribed to most of them. The site can be annoying with its constant urges to “update your profile” or “add skills to your profile” or now to “endorse” various people in your network. The whole site appears to be trying really hard to keep people glued to it like Facebook, by constantly updating their status and checking other people’s employment status, which can be annoying and a waste of time.
But the most irritating thing about LinkedIn, to me anyway, is that even though it has achieved critical mass, many C-suite executives and venture capitalists still resist signing up. For example, when I searched on the 40 names of “young and proven” biotech venture capitalists listed in this column two weeks ago, only 24 of the 40 (60 percent) showed up in the LinkedIn database.
I find it baffling that so many senior people in the industry still resist taking advantage of this resource, and have to wonder if they have some better idea on how to network. There’s no getting around the importance of networking. Biotech is a geographically far-flung industry, with hundreds of companies and vendors, who all need to work together in trusting relationships to keep the whole enterprise afloat.
Industry conferences have always been, and still remain, the gold standard way of networking. But those events take time and money, and nobody can do it every day of the week. LinkedIn is becoming the indispensable resource that glues an entire industry together, and helps people make connections between people and ideas and opportunities that would otherwise never be made. While biotech could certainly use a few more groundbreaking advances to make the drug development process more efficient, one of the fastest-growing new tools for the industry is a free resource just a click away on the Web.
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