Editor’s note: Court Turner was a speaker in the bootcamp for biotechnology entrepreneurship at this week’s BIO 2014 Convention in San Diego. —BVB
As a venture partner at San Diego’s Avalon Ventures, I divide my work day into three distinct activities: Coffee (at the best coffee shop in San Diego); Yoga (at a studio near my office); and Data (generated by the scientists in Avalon’s portfolio companies).
If you’re an entrepreneur in the life sciences, I recommend you find a way to incorporate similar activities into your work schedule. An entrepreneur must network, process, and execute every day. Exactly how that is done is up to you.
Network (The Coffee Shop)
Whether you are searching for a new opportunity or you are in the middle of one, an entrepreneur needs access to a diverse network of individuals. My favorite place is a low-key storefront that brews coffee with its own house-roasted beans. There, I have met scientists with whom I have started new biotech companies, software programmers who have helped me solve company issues, and recruiters who have provided the temperature on hiring in town. One never knows when the next great idea or business partner will walk in.
So here’s my question for all the entrepreneurs out there: Are you regularly in a place (or places) where the next big idea might be lurking? Where you can meet new people? For me, networking is most effective after the fifth conversation (definitely not after the first). I have never found “networking” events to be impactful; they represent an evening of initial conversations. My coffee shop has become a caffeinated version of the ‘80s sitcom Cheers, where everyone really does know my name. I can’t tell you how many times my conversations in this specific coffee shop have led to an Avalon investment in a new life sciences company or to a key employee who can help me take a current company to the next stage. The coffee is great, the clientele is relevant, and the impact has been tremendous. This is how and where I start every work day.
What do you get from networking? Ideas.
These days, the landscape is always changing for early stage biotech, and Big Pharma’s interests are not always easy to read. In my opinion, a great startup idea is only great if it fits into the context of the overall industry (especially a regulated industry like drug-making). It has to have commercial value and utility. So, if I don’t have time to really separate and reflect on all of the ideas and plans of a particular initiative, it is impossible for me to start.
Separate time (where no one is permitted to interrupt) enables me to think critically and objectively, and to filter the likely from the impossible (weighing the relevant timeline and capital restraints). Of course, your instincts and experience still color the conclusion, and that is where you learn if you have what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Hopefully, over time this process will result in business successes to give you more confidence in your own thinking (versus following a formula that is no longer relevant).
Yoga has become one way that I can regularly process the chaos of work into useful thoughts and actions. I find running also serves that purpose; on my own without the risk of a distraction. For some reason, I am more organizing with my thoughts when I am in motion. Without this important commitment of my week, I don’t think the information I gather from networking and interacting with employees and business partners would be put to best use.
What do you get from such processing? A Plan.
If you can’t execute, you can’t be an entrepreneur. I have always viewed entrepreneurship as a test of your ability to find the idea among the chaos of information. You can network and reflect every day of the week, but without execution that produces robust data, you have accomplished nothing. There are many people who are good at networking and/or discussing ideas. There are many people who are good at executing a specific plan. But if you want to be an impactful entrepreneur, you have to be able to do all three, all of the time. And that plan has to be yours.
Things do not move sequentially in the biopharma business; they move like a hurricane. New information and problems come from all directions, and they can be relentlessly brutal. When I am hiring for a portfolio company, I am looking for someone who likes to play in the hurricane, not avoid it. The data for a drug development program must advance despite the myriad issues that will inevitably arise without warning.
In the life sciences, we win or lose on the data. So executing on the science is imperative. Through your leadership, the company must generate data in a superior manner and on a demanding timeline. If the company is unable to do that, the window to advance the program or sell the asset may be lost. The execution is never about the coordinated steps to a conclusion; it is the creativity of the steps that came from the right conversations and the requisite processing to do things right the first (or second) time. The only thing worse than bad data is bad data from a poorly planned experiment. No excuse for that.
What do you get from successful execution? Credibility.
I don’t believe there is a single formula for success in biotech innovation. But you can begin to identify basic activities that should contribute to progress and eventual success. Although the success will be defined by a commercial market, the ways in which you forge ahead will be more personal than you think. Coffee, yoga, and data work for me, but every entrepreneur should find his or her own way. Good things can happen if you develop your own daily routine for networking, processing, and executing.
Court Turner joined San Diego’s Avalon Ventures in 2008 as an advisor and became a venture partner in 2010. He is a lawyer, and currently serves as the chief executive of Avalon portfolio companies Synthorx and Carolus Therapeutics, and as the chief operating officer at two other Avalon companies, Sova Pharmaceuticals and Avelas Biosciences.