Advice Received, But Not Taken: Tales from the Biotech Trenches

3/7/11

Biotechnology is a challenging business, with drug development timelines that are long, costly, and dependent on the approval of government regulatory agencies. The vast majority of biotechs never succeed in developing a new drug. There are many issues that contribute to whether or not a company achieves its goals and makes it in the marketplace. These include great science, solid financing, and quality executive leadership. A little bit of luck never hurts either.

One of the other key factors is getting top quality advice, and then successfully executing a plan based on that information.

Different companies will have distinct needs: some may need financial guidance, while others need help with experimental design, clinical trial sizing, patent strategies, or regulatory assistance. Getting the right advice may determine whether your company survives and thrives, or becomes a footnote on someone’s Biotech Graveyard Website. Thus, it’s critically important to tap into the expertise of those who can truly help you.

Experience has taught me, however, that there are two kinds of people seeking advice: those that really want it, and those that actually don’t.

I’ve outlined above the rational for the actions of the first group. It’s a pretty straightforward approach: find an expert, tap into their experience and knowledge base, adapt their advice to your particular situation, and make it happen. More confounding is this second group, the ones who don’t actually want the advice they request. They seek opinions merely so they can convey to others that expert advice was sought. However, they are not really interested in what their recruited experts have to say. As Josh Billings observed, “most people, when they come to you for advice, come to have their own opinions strengthened, not corrected.” Let me share a few stories from the biotech trenches:

Several years ago, a well-known biotech company proudly announced the appointment of a world-class scientist to their Scientific Advisory Board. Landing this guy was a great coup. He was well-known and respected as a major domo in several fields, and was a named inventor on some very lucrative patents. There was no doubt he could serve as a fountain of wisdom and knowledge for the company’s young staff. A while later, I ran across a senior executive from the company, and I queried him as to how many excellent ideas had been provided by their highly touted Thought Leader.

I found his answer both surprising and disappointing, a clear reflection on my naiveté at the time. Not only had the Thought Leader not given them any new ideas, he had failed to provide significant input on projects that the company was already engaged in. It turns out the Thought Leader actually missed a good percentage of the Scientific Advisory Board meetings due to his frequent “Please Stroke My Ego” world tours. Management was OK with this, however. The true purpose of having this Thought Leader on the Advisory Board was simply to mesmerize the company’s investors, to reassure them they were a top-tier organization capable of bringing a heavy-hitter onboard to provide counsel.

The company would trot out this guy’s name and reputation in a heartbeat, but consistently failed to take advantage of what he might have been able to offer. Whether this reflected more poorly on them or their Thought Leader is difficult to determine. I can’t say if he was doing this for the stock options, to enhance his own reputation, or was just too egotistical (like many actors) to turn down this featured role with the company. Maybe he signed on with good intentions, but got derailed by his (numerous) other responsibilities. The bottom line: the corporation would have been better served by signing up a young lion (or lioness) for their Advisory Board whose insights and opinions might have been both readily available and valuable.

A consultant I met at a conference further enlightened me with a story … Next Page »

Stewart Lyman is Owner and Manager of Lyman BioPharma Consulting LLC in Seattle. He provides strategic advice to clients on their research programs, collaboration management issues, as well as preclinical data reviews. Follow @

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  • David

    Outstanding article Mr. Lyman!