GAITHERSBURG, MARYLAND—AptaFlu is a low-cost home test that determines whether an illness is just an ordinary cold that will soon pass or influenza, which might benefit from a medical visit. Femitra, an oral capsule, treats Clostridium difficile colitis using engineered bacteria that offer the advantages—minus the messy disadvantages—of fecal microbiota transplantation from donor stool, an unorthodox treatment that has demonstrated effectiveness against this often-intransigent infection. Allergy-Sure, an allergy test on a chip, rapidly determines whether a patient with an unverified allergy to an antibiotic in fact is allergic, when a drug is needed to treat a serious infection.
Each of these products addresses a real health care problem and is based on current science. These are not, however, real, current products. (A product called Femitra does exist—it’s in phase-III clinical trials—but it’s a different one.) Instead, they are finalist proposals presented in the Idea Challenge, an innovation contest among 10 teams of early-career scientists at the Leaders of Tomorrow (LOT) Summit, a conference held 31 March here at the headquarters of MedImmune, the biologics R&D arm of the international biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. The teams had 2 weeks to identify a current health care issue, devise a feasible solution based on reputable research, analyze market possibilities and probable costs, and prepare a 5-minute presentation to pitch their concept to a panel of venture capitalists and other funders who might help move the new product to market.
Billed by its organizers as “the Mid-Atlantic region's first student-led, cross-functional and inter-generational leadership Summit featuring students, young biotech leaders, bio-pharmaceutical industries, government, and entrepreneurs,” the conference brought together 50 graduate students, postdocs, medical residents, law students, policy fellows and others chosen competitively from 250 applicants to spend an intense day learning about the biotechnology industry.
The scientists, who had not known each other previously, were assigned to teams according to their interests and spent the days preceding the LOT Summit working remotely to devise a practical and useful innovation in a specific field: big data, diagnostics, health IT, regulation and policy, or therapeutics, to name a few. At the conference, a panel of venture capital and government-funding experts listened to the pitches, asked questions, and named Allergy-Sure the winner. The Femitra team was the runner-up.
The contest was just one part of a daylong program that covered various aspects of the biotech industry and the innovation process. Presenters included corporate executives, representatives of federal regulatory and funding agencies, investors, policy analysts, and entrepreneurs—including one company founder who is a Nobel laureate. In outlining the technology and history behind Definiens, his firm, Gerd Binnig, who shared the 1986 physics prize, underlined the meeting’s overall message: Commercialization is the means by which useful, even life-saving, technologies get into the hands of the people who need them. Working to achieve that aim is, hence, an endeavor worthy of the ablest scientist.
The participants didn’t need convincing. The LOT Summit’s organizers had set out to attract people who already measure impact not by citations or journal prestige but by effect in the wider world. In an interview with Science Careers, Marina Carla Cabrera, a postdoc at MedImmune who headed the LOT Summit’s organizing committee, says anyone with at least a master’s degree or equivalent and an interest in learning about biotech was eligible to complete an application that emphasized questions about leadership experience, goals, and the expected effect of attending. Recruitment focused on the mid-Atlantic region because the LOT Summit was held concurrently with the Maryland Regional Biotech Forum, a 2-day conference that attracted hundreds of company executives, financiers, scientists, academic figures, and government officials to discuss ways of strengthening and expanding the already large biotech industry cluster in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.
With the support of MedImmune executives, Cabrera first sought volunteers for the five-member volunteer Executive Planning Team from institutions throughout the region. She found a fellow MedImmune postdoc, two Ph.D. candidates, and a former postdoc now working in intellectual property. Next, a call for applicants went out through the region’s universities. Half those chosen to attend were Ph.D. students; postdocs were the next largest category. There was a smattering of medical and law students, M.D.-Ph.D. students, physicians, lawyers, policy fellows, and one pharmacy student, among others. Participants came from universities from New York City to Charlottesville, Virginia. There were geographic outliers from Michigan and Massachusetts. Several of those who attended came from government agencies and private companies.
About a quarter of those attending aspire to work in biotech and another quarter in big pharma companies. Others were interested in careers in consulting, government, and venture capital, according to information the participants supplied. A few hope for careers in academe, law, and medical practice. Forty people have experience leading professional associations or student clubs, 16% have been involved in entrepreneurial ventures already, and 10% have started businesses of their own.
Elements of success
The contest provided participants with a taste of how innovation, a sine qua non of biotech companies’ success, happens in a commercial context. The speakers aimed to help them develop attitudes and skills needed to prosper in that environment. “Every academic believes that they have discovered the cure” to some condition, but translating research-based ideas into real-world solutions requires knowledge and experience that academe teaches very poorly, said Marc Tessier-Lavigne, president of Rockefeller University in New York City, in a plenary lecture. Leadership and entrepreneurship, qualities crucial for that process, are “acquired skills” that scientists—especially the 80% to 90% who will not have academic careers—need to learn to be effective, said Alan Leshner, chief executive officer emeritus of AAAS (the publisher of Science Careers). Better collaboration between universities and industry can help provide such learning opportunities, both he and Tessier-Lavigne argued.
What skills should one strive for? AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot described the qualities of effective leaders: They build cultures of shared purpose to motivate their team, they play to win, they listen to and learn from others, and they take risks. Indeed passion, the ability to work with others, and intelligent risk-taking are crucial to success in industry, entrepreneurship, and research, he added. An effective leader, Soriot continued, remains “relaxed and approachable” in dealing with people even as she competes hard. The key to his leadership approach has always been to “hire the best and maintain high standards,” he added. Effective leaders motivate people by making projects interesting and important for them and by being generous with credit and praise, other speakers added.
Though essential to success, taking risks brings the possibility—indeed, the inevitability—of failure. It’s therefore vital to learn from mistakes, several speakers noted, but dwelling on them is destructive. To maintain personal relationships—central to a successful career—Leshner advised participants to “apologize instantly. Groveling is a very good strategy, [though] hard for scientists.” His greatest career mistake, he said, was “arrogance” he showed in his early years as a faculty member.
To develop the skills and knowledge needed to advance, learning from experienced and effective people is essential; hence, so is the need to reach out to people who can help you, several speakers said. “People want to mentor you” as long as you are “respectful of their time,” advised Syed Khalid, a medical student at Chicago Medical School in Illinois and researcher who has cofounded three companies. Because “different people are good at different things,” he added, cultivating many advisers is a good idea. So is knowing what, specifically, you need from each one. “People love to give advice,” Leshner said, adding that he has never turned down such a request. Those seeking advice should take care to make the requests personal and avoid using generic methods such as boilerplate LinkedIn messages. In order to appear serious, they should introduce themselves with both their first and last names.
Experience and insight can come from many sources, the speakers noted. Several praised the useful learning that can happen while working in businesses unrelated to one’s career goals. Khalid, who believes in “using all your experience,” described how working for the Geek Squad at Best Buy taught him a great deal about how people use technology and how to deal with customers. Running a bar during graduate school gave Josh Henkin, a Ph.D. cell biologist who now advises scientists on career transitions, insight into business practices and leadership. Speakers repeatedly noted the special value of internships and postdocs within biotech and pharmaceutical companies for gaining knowledge and insight useful in building careers.
As the long day ended, the organizers judged their first effort a success and resolved to make improvements in the event’s second edition next year. That should give another batch of young scientists a look at the opportunities, risks, and challenges involved in moving beyond campus and into the biotech industry.