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Learning the Business of Science: Reflections from a BCBA Project Manager

by James Lennon | April 3, 2017

My experiences with BCBA have been both personally and professionally rewarding.  As a project manager for a recent BCBA project, I led a team of six graduate students and post-docs through a product-market fit and competitive landscape analysis for a Bay Area biotechnology company. We worked closely with the leadership of a company that developed a novel platform technology to identify new drugs against a certain class of proteins. With this technology, there were many different applications that the client could pursue, from developing therapeutics for oncology and infectious diseases, to cardiovascular disease and metabolic disorders. How does a company select the most promising path to commercialization? What factors should drive this decision? These were the strategic questions that our BCBA team helped this client answer.

Overall, there were several distinct aspects of my BCBA experience that I particularly valued. First, we had an impact on an actual real-world client. It’s incredibly rewarding to see your recommendations being adopted by a fast-growing company trying to push promising therapeutics to the clinic. Secondly, I expanded my skill set beyond my scientific expertise. As is the case for many BCBA team members, I did not have much prior experience in business; however, I was able to utilize my problem-solving skills developed through research to approach these business-related questions. Combined with my fantastic team members and BCBA mentors, we were able to collectively drive the project forward to provide important business insights for the client. It was through this process that I learned a lot about how businesses compete in biotech and how to develop an effective strategy. Lastly, my experience with BCBA has convinced me to pursue life science consulting. I had previously assumed that my skills and interests made me best suited to be an industry scientist. However, over the course of my time at BCBA, I have now seen how valuable our problem-solving skillset and knowledge of science can be outside of benchwork. My experience with BCBA has prepared me to make the transition into the business world where I can continue to impact biotech while simultaneously expanding upon my research background. I have outlined the key steps to success and the skillsets developed over the course of our BCBA project below.

Framing the right questions

For our BCBA project, my team and I began by first identifying two major questions that we needed to evaluate. First, for what diseases was the client’s technology most applicable? Secondly, for each of these disease indications, what were the broader business considerations that would confer success or failure? By answering these questions, we could begin to develop an effective strategy for the client.

Creating our plan

Similar to all BCBA consulting projects, we started by forming a strategy to gather the data we needed to answer these two questions. My team, which included a variety of backgrounds and expertise in biology and engineering, began by brainstorming a plan to obtain this information from research literature, market research reports, and by talking to leaders in academia and pharma/biotech to obtain key insights. At the very beginning of the project, we divided the work among team members and planned to meet the following week to discuss our findings. However, our strategy did not work out as we had originally hoped. To conduct our analysis, we found that data we required either did not exist yet or was only available within market research reports to which we did not have access. We spent the next few weeks trying different methods of obtaining the data we needed, only to discover that each one proved intractable. We were stumped. As is often the case in consulting, this is when the project became interesting and we needed to get creative.

Iterating forward

Over the next month, we would meet each week and discuss our ideas, debate different strategies, and come to a consensus. On the third or fourth iteration we decided to take a different approach. Our previous strategies involved finding data that would directly answer our most important questions, but this approach was too specific. The data did not exist and, unlike science, we did not have the tools to obtain them. But what if we broadened our scope and answered a handful of less-specific questions? To give an example, my team needed to identify diseases for which our client’s technology was most likely to yield a desirable and commercially-successful therapeutic. This topic was too narrow to investigate. Instead, we began asking related questions, such as: What diseases are published on the most? Which of those publications reference the class of proteins that our client works on? And for what diseases have these proteins most successfully passed FDA approval? By answering all of these broader questions, we were beginning to build a coherent story.

We applied this approach to the rest of our project and the results were definitive: there were two key disease areas that our client should pursue based upon the large unmet need and well-validated scientific evidence linking these diseases to the class of proteins that our client’s technology could target. Therefore, the key takeaway from this portion of the project was setting up a robust and well-defined strategy to evaluate the complex market in different disease areas. But within that strategy, being prepared to pivot or reassess as you learn more. Once we overcame this obstacle, we quickly narrowed our focus to these two disease areas and identified a list of specific diseases to prioritize targets against which the client should develop therapeutics using their platform technology.

It’s critical to remember that our client was not operating in a vacuum but rather competing within a fast-changing and complex industry. Therefore, in parallel, we analyzed the competitive landscape for our client’s technology platform. We did this by identifying the top competitors and evaluating their technology, by searching through company websites, reading research articles, and speaking to key industry leaders. We were able to answer important questions about our client’s key competitors and how the client’s strengths and weaknesses compared. More broadly, we also evaluated the client’s business strategy as a platform technology company. Through these analyses we were able to provide a comprehensive strategy recommendation for our client that culminated in an in-person presentation and group discussion with the C-suite. After 3 challenging months, there is no better feeling than having an excited client validate your work and engage in an informative and spirited debate around the implications of your findings.

James Lennon is a project manager at Biotech Connection Bay Area. He’s also a graduate student at Stanford University.