[Updated 2 pm ET 9/30] Let’s imagine, for a second, you are someone in your 20s or 30s, getting started in the biotech industry. You want to work somewhere you can acquire a well-rounded set of experiences over the next five to 10 years so that you will have what it takes to be qualified for a senior management role in a startup. You can even imagine yourself someday building something from scratch as a startup CEO.
Where should you go today to get those skills? Put another way, what are the best training grounds for the biotech entrepreneurs and leaders of tomorrow?
There is no obvious answer to this question in biotech, like there is in other industries where companies like GE and Procter & Gamble have long been magnets for future business leaders. Several of biotech’s most storied real-life graduate schools—Genentech, Genzyme, Millennium Pharmaceuticals—have seen their famous cultures, and executive ranks, disrupted in the last five years by acquisitions. One recent candidate to enter that class, Onyx Pharmaceuticals, also chose to be acquired. Other companies throughout biotech history, like Amgen, Chiron, and Immunex, have become successful without spinning out many entrepreneurs.
So without the benefit of historic hindsight, which companies are doing the best job churning out industry leaders today? I put this question, last week, in front of Vicki Sato during a visit to her office at Harvard Business School. I figured she’s as well-positioned to answer it as anybody. She’s a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, a professor of the practice of molecular and cell biology at Harvard University, and a former president and chief scientific officer of Cambridge, MA-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: VRTX). She’s also sat on many boards of directors for companies in different sizes and stages of development.
Before naming names, Sato has some general advice to her students at HBS who have these types of aspirations. A lot of students are drawn to the classic “three guys in a garage” startup with a big dream. While some might be able to do that, by essentially jumping in at the deep end of the pool, most are better off gradually working their way into it, Sato says.
“If you go to one of these 3-4 person operations, sure there’s a lot to do, but no one has the bandwidth to sit down and help you through things,” Sato says. “If you learn well that way, it can be a terrific experience. But I tend to send students to companies where there’s more ‘there’ there. It’s people with enough experience, and the bandwidth to mentor. There’s also enough growth happening that the individuals can reach for things and have an opportunity to grow. It’s not just having someone say ‘sit at this desk, handle this problem, and send it back to me when you’re done.’”
The translation I took home: Big enough to have a real roster full of major league talent, but not so huge like Big Pharma that people tend to carry out a set of tasks so narrow that they don’t see, or feel responsible for, the big picture.
When I walked into Sato’s office, I went in with a working idea that a biotech training ground needs to provide exposure to all the key experiences that define life in the industry. The business is based on a meaty stew of disciplines that just don’t come together under any one roof in college. There’s hardcore science, clinical trial design and conduct, regulatory affairs, intellectual property strategy, legal affairs, investor relations, and public relations. An able leader of this kind of enterprise needs to be someone who can connect all the dots and inspire the troops to achieve a lofty goal. This is a set of experiences and skills that whole companies really can’t get until they are at least five, and probably at least 10 years old, and have been through the inevitable ups and downs.
“To be a fully integrated training ground, you need a certain amount of [wine] bottle age,” Sato says. Even among companies that have had staying power or financial success, many companies just don’t make the cut as training grounds. “It is hard to find the management team that really dazzles. That has always been true,” she adds.
With that, here are the companies Sato singled out as the best biotech training grounds for the future, with some brief explanations from her. Some of the names, I suspect, will surprise you. I’d love to hear some more voices on this subject, so if you have any names or commentary to add, please send me a note at email@example.com or leave a comment below.
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