Cynthia Robbins-Roth: Surviving the Crash

Cynthia Robbins-Roth's life has eerily mirrored the life of the biotech industry. She began her career as one of Genentech's first research scientists. Later, in the late 1980s and 1990s, she became a leading industry consultant and media voice.

Then, in 2001, at the peak of her career, she crashed--literally. Robbins-Roth was injured in a plane crash, creating a personal crisis that more than matched the wrenching financial crisis that sent shock waves through biotechnology companies. Today, just like the industry she loves, Robbins-Roth has recovered her vigor and is poised to face the challenges ahead.

In 1996, Robbins-Roth wrote an essay for Science's Next Wave describing her early years as an entrepreneur. Despite her success as a scientist in industry, Robbins-Roth concluded that she wasn't cut out to be a traditional employee. "My strong opinions made it very difficult for me to go along with some of the decisions made by managers who outranked me," she wrote in that 1996 article. "And I absolutely hated the feeling of being trapped on a project that I viewed as poorly thought-out." So in 1986 she partnered with Carol Hall to found her own consulting business (BioVenture Consultants), and, soon after, began the publishing venture that produced BioVenture View, a monthly biotech industry magazine.

Altering Course
Soon after she published her Next Wave essay, Robbins-Roth altered course. Unable to give both her publishing and consulting businesses the attention they required, she decided to sell the publishing business and focus on consulting. Even so, she could not get away from the publishing business entirely. An acquisitions editor at Academic Press read her Next Wave essay and approached Robbins-Roth about writing a book. The acquisitions editor had been through a similar career transition, so Robbins-Roth's story hit home, and in 1998 that project came to fruition with the publication of Alternative Careers in Science: Leaving the Ivory Tower (Scientific Survival Skills). The book's second edition hit the shelves in August of this year.

After selling her publishing business to the U.K.-based PJB Publications, Robbins-Roth and her partner spent the next few years in up to their elbows in the biotech industry. She advised start up biotech companies on business strategy and served on the boards of directors of several companies, as well as on a few scientific advisory boards. Those were heady times. Robbins-Roth worked hard.

And she learned. Boards of directors, she says, were especially educational. At times, she became frustrated with the courses of action boards would recommend, and found that she couldn't always make a positive contribution. "Just because you think you're right and everybody else is wrong … that isn't even the point. The goal should be to be helpful. If you can't be helpful with the agenda of the people running the show, you should step away," she says. That lesson also applies to employees, she notes, but consultants have an advantage. "As time goes by, you realize there are groups and individuals out there with whom you really enjoy working. The great thing about being an independent consultant is that you can choose to work with people with whom you feel aligned."

The tech boom rewarded good consultants with fat contracts. Hard reality was looming, of course, as the industry neared a crisis, but for Robbins-Roth, reality hit harder than most. On August 6, 2001, she was severely injured in a small plane crash. She suffered serious head trauma and had to have her jaw wired shut. "I was out of it for awhile," she recalls.

There is never a good time to be in a plane crash, but Robbins-Roth's timing could have been worse. "I had the good sense to have a serious accident when the market was down," she says. "My customers lost the ability to pay for ridiculously expensive consultants like me, so it worked out."

It took quite awhile for Robbins-Roth to recuperate; she says she didn't really recover her energy until last fall. When she did, the first order of business was to take a hard look at her work life. "I was working a lot [before the accident]. I loved it, but was it really what I wanted? The more I thought about it, the more I thought, 'I'm not willing to work that hard any more.'"

Less Interest in New Companies
The changes in the biotech industry in response to the crash--the financial crash--also left her cold. Venture capitalists seemed less interested in building new companies and a new industry. "Their emphasis is to get bigger, to make more money, which makes it harder for them to do the early-stage funding that I find interesting. I'm not intellectually engaged by what are basically financial transactions. Maybe if I were I'd be living in a fancier house."

So Robbins-Roth approached the publisher of BioWorld and asked about going back to writing a column. The first installment in March of this year was a direct outgrowth of painful personal experience. The plane accident's aftermath resulted in large medical expenses for Robbins-Roth and her husband, even though they had excellent insurance coverage. "We were lucky that we had the wherewithal to take care of that. Not everybody does. It was downright scary."

The experience got her thinking about the biotech industry and its relationship to insurance. "Biotech has always perceived itself to be this little hothouse. It's special; it deserves to be protected. But our products are being used in the real world. It doesn't matter how exciting they are if patients can't afford to use them, or if you're bankrupting hospitals."

Her columns soon led to other opportunities. As she watched the biotech industry react to the tech bust, Robbins-Roth became interested in how the industry itself is structured. Her columns in BioWorld attracted the attention of Australians and New Zealanders who were working to develop a biotech industry of their own. The model that California used in the 80s--building infrastructure, raising a bunch of money in venture capital, and then going public--isn't possible in those countries. "We can't do it here anymore, either," Robbins-Roth points out.

The issues aren't limited to the biotech industry. "If you've got a really exciting early stage technology, what's the most time- and cost-effective way to push it down the path (toward) commercial opportunity, without constantly rebuilding infrastructure? How do you incorporate the reality of globalization? There's a whole world out there with really good scientists, and they don't want to be restricted to having to come to the U.S. if they want to do cool science."

Accordingly, Robbins-Roth is working with a New Zealand Trade and Enterprise-- New Zealand's economic development agency--where she advises startup biotech companies on business strategy, and gives talks to students, scientists, and government officials. She has also traveled to Taiwan and Singapore to get a better handle on how nascent biotech industries are developing in various environments.

All of those issues figure to keep Robbins-Roth busy in the years to come. Besides writing columns, she continues to consult, but at a more strategic level. "It has very much changed from time-intensive, working closely with early-stage companies, and helping them do things to thinking about big-picture issues. I see what's happened as a natural evolution into a larger and larger worldview." The consulting work ties into her writing, she says. "Everything feels kind of integrated."

What does the future hold? Robbins-Roth isn't sure. "I enjoy ranting and raving, so I'm guessing I'll be ranting and raving about something." Given the challenges facing the biotechnology industry--changes at FDA and insurance coverage, to name a couple--there figures to be no shortage of topics to rant about.

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