This blog was written by Ros Deegan, CBO of Bicycle Therapeutics, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC.
On my first morning as a US-based employee, I took advantage of the hotel’s shopping service by ordering the ingredients for a spaghetti Bolognese. That evening, I unpacked a can of tomato sauce, a raw onion, a tube of dried spaghetti, a bulb of garlic, an assortment of fresh herbs and one supersize jar of dried fruit, the label for which read Mincemeat. Mince – British English for ground beef – does not translate. I’d love to know what my personal shopper thought I was cooking.
This is only one of multiple misunderstandings I have experienced during my transition from Britain to America. A barman once served me a glass of Porter instead of the requested glass of water. Most Americans like my accent but automated voice response systems do not. And don’t get me started on spelling: you write ‘tumor’, I write ‘tumour’. Or rather I write both and a lot. Sometimes I wish I had picked a different therapeutic area. At least we’re not selling aluminium. Or is that aluminum?
Language is one of several things I find myself addressing to operate a transatlantic biotech company. At Bicycle, it is not one sea that needs to be crossed, but rather four Cs: categorization, coordination, culture and communication.
Bicycle was built based on UK ideas translated by a UK based, European team. In line with our vision to become a top-tier biotech company not limited by any one geographic bubble, we established our US subsidiary last year. Working over 3,000 miles apart reduces what our US and UK colleagues know about each other’s personal lives, motivations and moods. This separation can lead to unwelcome categorizations. Avoiding categorization requires constant effort and attention. I think we need to start by avoiding language that groups employees by geographical location. Yes, it’s tempting to spin a joke about British sarcasm or the American tendency for hyperbole. But each snide remark chips away at common ground and encourages division. At Bicycle, we are fortunate that Kevin Lee, our UK-based British CEO, lived and worked for several years where I am now based in Massachusetts. And until a decade ago my home was in England. A foot in both camps helps us to get ahead of this issue.
Another way of minimising categorization is by setting up interdependent teams across our sites. Matrix functions, such as project management and senior leadership, are spread across both countries. At the same time, we recognise that functional efficiency trumps the benefits of real time collaboration in certain key areas. For that reason, our technology platform remains located in the UK and our oncology therapeutics capability is based in the US. This appropriation keeps the technology team physically close to scientific founder Sir Greg Winter, whilst allowing us to identify high affinity bicyclic peptide binders for both our oncology team and our partners in other therapeutic areas.
Coordination goes beyond time zone-focused calendar management systems. It’s about appreciating what each party is doing and understanding how every component of the organization fits together to encourage an integrated and harmonious working environment. In effect, we are trying to reproduce the daily interactions that naturally occur in a company located at a single site.
There are plenty of digital tools that can assist with coordination. We currently use Skype for Business, an instant messenger tool that is helping us to stay in the loop with ongoing projects, to ask questions of each other, and to act as a transatlantic water cooler. Other instant messenger tools such as Slack, Basecamp, and Trello could do this and replace internal email in a single searchable forum. In the past, we have experimented with Slack. However, email is our workhorse and the ability to search a single archive has not sufficiently tempted us to change the way that we work.
Another approach that we have taken to improve coordination between sites is the creation of a PowerPoint presentation for every one of our projects. Each deck is regularly updated, stored in the cloud and available to every employee.
In addition to digital tools to help with coordination, we are being creative with how we connect individuals. We are increasing our use of video conferences over teleconferences, including the use of portable devices that can be carried between meeting rooms, and we are in the process of mounting a large television screen and attendant webcam in each site so that we can maintain a constant (and silent) uplink between the UK and the US. Our hope is that seeing colleagues will enhance a feeling of oneness. This installation is the digital incarnation of a glass wall between the laboratory and the office, with the added benefit of allowing written messages to be shared for birthdays and other special occasions. We also plan to experiment with turning the sound on at a set time each week so that we can enjoy a simultaneous coffee (or tea!) break.
I am now thinking about the deployment of tablets permanently connected to a video chat app. (When my husband is travelling, we sometimes leave FaceTime running on our Apple devices during my evening and it feels like he is doing work in another part of an open plan room. Sometimes we chat, sometimes we are quiet, and sometimes I ask if the lettuce in the fridge has been washed.) The next evolution of this concept is a tablet that can be driven around an office or lab remotely to have personal discussions and meetings on the other side of the Atlantic.
Every country has its own culture and social norms. Coming back to language, the British tend to communicate indirectly. An American friend, upon moving his young family to England, was told by staff at the nursery school that his toddler, Jack, ‘hadn’t had his best day’. My friend left the nursery confident that Jack was settling in well. Maybe it hadn’t been his son’s best day. But clearly, it hadn’t been his worst. In fact, Jack had been in a tantrum all day, alternating between tears and rage. His father didn’t realize this for several months until he finally acclimatized to the British way of speaking. Other phrases to watch out for are ‘not bad’ which means ‘pretty fantastic’ and ‘that’s interesting’ which means ‘effectively irrelevant’.
On the flip side, Americans’ tendency for fake niceness can trip up Europeans. ‘Hi’ is almost invariably accompanied by ‘how are you?’. It took me several awkward corridor encounters of responding to a rapidly retreating colleague’s back before I realised that this isn’t a question.
In practice, the dogma of two countries separated by a common language doesn’t affect scientific interactions but we do see raised eyebrows in management discussions. Our CFO’s first day was marked by our CEO talking about a big of a ding-dong that he’d had the week before.
Within Bicycle, we are building a transatlantic culture that embraces customs, social norms and linguistic quirks from both nations. Many companies set themselves up to promote competition between locations or even co-located divisions. At Bicycle, we are inspiring a ‘One Team’ approach with no boundaries between locations, functions or grades. Another of our core values is ‘Be the difference – work with passion, focus on the therapy and patient benefit’ and we embed this sincerity of purpose within our one team.
Communication starts with painting the picture of why we are working in a dual site organization. (Indeed, the company’s third core value is… ‘Positive challenge – communicate transparently with positive intent.’) To that end, it is essential that we showcase and celebrate the benefits of operating in more than one country.
The UK team have been quick to embrace the benefits of accessing Boston’s world-class oncology talent. Recent marquee hires include Nick Keen (ex-head of NIBR US oncology research) and Peter Park (ex-head of biology at Mersana Therapeutics). From a US perspective, we celebrate the strength of the existing Bicycle team and unparalleled access to academics from the rich heritage of the UK’s scientific institutions. Our finance team is particularly excited by the UK’s R&D tax credit that reduces qualified expenditure by up to a third. And as leaders in a global industry, we enjoy being shielded from the group-think that can sometimes pervade the Boston biotech ecosystem. Finally, all our employees benefit from being a bigger fish in the British biotech pond (Bicycle’s £40m Series B earned us coverage on the BBC) versus swimming with the shoals in Boston’s biotech ocean.
In addition to maintaining a consistent message, we try to over-communicate to compensate for the things that are inevitably lost to time and distance. Our real-time screen will help with this initiative as we will see each other working. I hope this will foster a feeling of shared responsibility and effort. In the end, however, there is no substitute for personal interactions so we are increasing the number of employee rotations between sites at all levels of the company. We are instigating a buddy system to empower individuals to support one another before, during and after a rotation. And in July, we took face-to-face interactions one step further by bringing all our employees together for an event at the Imperial War Museum Duxford, which is located a short distance from our UK site. In our subsequent daily digital interactions we have all enjoyed the significant benefits of having met in person, even if only on this single occasion.
Finally, communication brings us back to language. Running a transatlantic biotech company is about speaking each other’s language both factually and figuratively. We are fortunate that our geographic distance keeps this front and center, and I experience better communication across 3,300 miles at Bicycle than I’ve seen across corridors in other companies. For my part, I am learning to say ‘awesome’. And my American colleague, Peter, loves the British word ‘numpty’. But when it comes to asking for ingredients to make a spaghetti bolognese, my solution is even simpler. I eat out.
Thanks to Pamela Esposito, Nicholas Keen, Kevin Lee and Michael Skynner for reading drafts of this post.