Having brought its first vaccine candidates from concept to clinical development in less than three months, BioNTech is making global waves as the pioneer behind Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. Because of such success stories, more eyes than ever are looking at opportunities raised by the biotechnology industry. As talented people around the world from academia, clinical practice, and other industries consider careers in this sector, they should examine the characteristics necessary to become successful biotechnology entrepreneurs.
Biotechnology fuses science and business. It is a major global economic driver that, according to Statista, generated US$140 billion in revenue in 2016 (1). Biotech companies employ millions of people around the world, and demand for skilled professionals continues to rise. However, the sector creates different challenges from those facing other industries. It also works within long, complex timelines for product development and clinical trials.
So what is most important to the livelihood of a biotechnology entrepreneur? Is it the ability to engineer a scientific breakthrough or the managerial skills needed to commercialize an innovation? Both are important. Good leaders fail because their technologies cannot support them, and good technology fails because of poor decision-making. But amid an ever-changing regulatory environment, the biotechnology sector demands other unique skills.
Defining Biotechnology Leadership
Risk Tolerance: Biotechnology entrepreneurs need high risk tolerance to weather industry volatility. The only constant in biotech is change. Companies adapt strategies and shift resources as new data inform their decisions. At a personnel level, biotechnology professionals commonly change jobs as companies come and go. In some regions of the United States, the average such professional changes positions every two to three years. The industry also restructures continually, expanding and contracting with the development and merging of companies — and those that bet on the wrong drug development plan will fail.
Thus, biotechnology executives must make decisions bravely. They set timelines for conducting clinical studies that determine whether to advance or terminate a product. Many companies delay such studies, drawing investment from the promise of something revolutionary. Executives also must make critical personnel decisions, hiring the best talent and parting ways with employees who do not fit with their companies’ needs.
Relevant Education: Examples abound of people who succeeded in biotechnology with no scientific background. By and large, however, biotech entrepreneurs should have at least a bachelor’s degree in a life science and preferably a postgraduate degree in a specialty such as cellular/molecular biology, biochemistry, or genetics.
Life Experience: The industry does not always behave logically, so conventional decision-making processes do not always apply. The smartest person from the best university might not be a smashing biotech success. Experience is key to making decisions that will help propel a business. In the absence of experience, entrepreneurs must be able to gather advice from a cohort of experienced industry contacts rather than rely on one or two mentors.
Well-Roundedness: Biotechnology entrepreneurs benefit from having specialist and generalist knowledge. Most industry professionals start their careers specializing in clinical sciences/operations, regulatory affairs, research, quality, marketing, or manufacturing. But as employees progress into senior roles, particularly at small biotechnology companies, they will be asked to weigh in on scientific innovations, legal issues, corporate governance, investor and public relations, regulatory and securities issues, and even patent concerns. If you want to become a biotech entrepreneur, don’t focus on one area. It’s useful to learn about all kinds of issues that influence your business.
Networking Capability: Connect with colleagues, professors, and industry professionals; become active in professional associations. Maintaining contacts opens new opportunities and provides access to industry experts.
Building the Biotechnology Industry
Innovations don’t happen overnight. The headline-making BioNTech–Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine represents more than a decade of work. BioNTech’s Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, who established the company in 2018 in Mainz, Germany, have spent years pioneering immunotherapies for cancer (2).
Working in biotechnology means being part of something much bigger than yourself. Whether you dream of developing a lifesaving vaccine or ensuring food quality to prevent widespread illness, a career in biotechnology can make that possible — and it takes innovative people to keep the momentum going in such a constantly changing industry.
1 Key Figures on Established Biotechnology Centers Worldwide from 2012 to 2016. Statista, 2017; https://www.statista.com/statistics/215185/growth-in-established-biotechnology-centers-worldwide-since-2009.
2 Fox K, Pleitgen F. The Scientists Who Developed the Pfizer–BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine Are a Turkish-German Power Couple. CNN, 10 November 2020; https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/10/europe/biontech-pfizer-vaccine-team-couple-intl.
Paul Brennan is president and chief executive officer of NervGen Pharma; email@example.com; https://www.nervgen.com.