Building Community: One Stride At A Time

Posted September 26th, 2017 in #RunningAtlas, Atlas Venture, Boston Cluster, Corporate Culture

Building a shared sense of community helps create the relationships and interactions that bring people together and make teams and sector ecosystems successful. Community is a core part of building a distinctive culture.

With a portfolio of related investments, industry networks, and need for constant idea flow, venture firms are natural conveners of and catalysts for this kind of community connectivity.

Most successful VC firms have invested in a wide range of ways of cultivating these relationships, from executive industry events, CxO gatherings across their portfolio, topical bootcamps, social functions, academic conferences, etc…  Atlas has certainly invested heavily in the breadth of these efforts over time, and continues to do so.

In addition, in a world where our time is limited and we have a thousand things to do, it’s often difficult to maintain any balance in life. Healthy activities like exercise routines are often the first thing to get sacrificed in the long list of other priorities, dominated by work and family.

Over the last few years, we’ve tried to build a deeper community within the Boston/Cambridge biotech ecosystem by combining work and health through a group activity: running. I don’t need to expound upon the litany of physical and mental health benefits of running, but it’s worth exploring the why and how of running as a community-building tool.

Running is the new golf.

Golf historically has been a great sport for business: nearly anyone can play, use of handicapping allows mixed skill groups to compete, there’s plenty of time to talk, and golf is a game that reveals your true stripes (e.g., calm under pressure, cheating is frowned-upon, etc). But golf takes too long for most of us. And hacking up a course can be more frustrating than relaxing.

Running – at a modest pace – is something most folks can do. At a conversational cadence, there’s plenty of time to talk between breaths. And you can bang out a reasonable workout run alone, with a running partner, or in a group in less than an hour. It’s also got great health benefits, certainly more so than modern cart golf.

For many of us who are time-constrained, multi-tasking by mixing our running workouts with professional networking is an ideal solution. With reliable running partners waiting for us (a key to getting out of bed at times), we often pass the miles talking about topics we’re passionate about – medicine, science, and building biotech companies. What’s not to enjoy about that?

Further, healthcare should be about health, not sickness – and as leaders, executives, and entrepreneurs in the healthcare field, we should aspire to be role models for healthy behaviors if and where we can. Running, along with many other forms of exercise, checks that box over and over.

Here are a couple examples of how we build community via running here at Atlas.

Inspiration through perspiration.

Several years ago, Atlas brought together a team called “Runners, Drugs, & Money” to participate in the Reach The Beach (RTB) relay in New Hampshire; the team name says it all – we like to run, we all work on making new medicines, and we fund programs and startups to get it all done.  2017 was the fourth year for this team.

RTB typically involves teams of 12 runners who take turns, in series, to cover 203-miles over the course of ~27 hours. With travel to and from Cambridge, it’s 36-hours of team-based intimacy in the vans. Each runner gets three legs, including one in the darkness of night armed with headlamps and flashers. Sleep isn’t really part of the program, though squeezing in an hour or two sleeping under the stars is not uncommon. One squad of twelve has two vans that ferry runners and rest-ers around the course. It’s a total blast, trust me.

For the past two years, Atlas has sponsored two teams – alpha and beta – with 24 runners. We had 21 different companies represented on the team this year: big pharma, small biotech, entrepreneurs, investment folks, and Atlas team members. The roster included four women, as was covered by Luke Timmerman in the Timmerman Report, a fellow RDM teammate, earlier this week. We also had eight alternate runners, most of whom joined the active roster this year as injuries or work conflicts got in the way of running for others.

Beyond being fun, there are several themes that I’ll emphasize as the euphoria of the RTB relay fades into memory.

First, relationships matter and events like this foster meaningfully deeper bonds of connectivity. It’s not just about short twitter-style or transactional relationships; like most sports, teammate bonds are truly long-term relationships built on shared experience and comradery. Many on the team have run together for multiple years, with a relatively modest rate of turnover (about a third of the team changes per year). In fact, as loyalty is a hallmark of trust-based communities, that’s a key team inclusion criteria; if you want your sport on the team’s roster the next year, it’s yours. Teams are frequently based on mutual commitments to each other and this one is no different.

Second, we inspire each other to excel and push our personal limits. Our business comes down to people, and we’re incredibly fortunate to be able to surround ourselves with exceptional individuals who truly care about not only what they do, but also the people they engage with. With cowbells and “booyah” enthusiasm, there’s plenty of moral support as you’re trying to push it to your personal best. It’s so hard not to feel inspired when at 3am, in the middle of nowhere New Hampshire, your biopharma teammates help you bring your exhausted and smelly body back into the van, while they tell you how awesome you were on the course. We don’t compete against each other – we’re competing against ourselves with the power of the team behind us. This is the stuff of grit and teamwork that enriches the soul, and the legs.

Third, it’s all about “doing well by doing good.”  We think about impact in everything we do. This year, thanks to the leadership of Robert Urban of J&J, we expanded our team-based charity model, where individuals commit to various dollar-per-mile contributions across nearly a dozen charities. The team logged 7359 miles over the course of the three-month training period this summer. In addition to providing visibility into the team’s fitness, every mile was a team contribution to our charity pool. Every mile, from every team member, counted. By doing this, we leveraged the enthusiasm of the entire group to do some good for the broader community – and raised over $82,000 for our designated charities: New England Disabled Sports, Rosie’s Place, METCO, UNICEF, Ellis Memorial, Life Science Cares, Special Olympics Massachusetts, Birthday Wishes, Arm in Arm, American Stroke Association, and Direct Relief.  As a group of passionate healthcare executives (who also love to run), we’re proud to help demonstrate the importance of committing time, energy, and funding to making a difference for others.

RTB is a fantastic event. And it’s 36-hour intensity, amplified by the pharmacological mix of endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and caffeine, makes for an experience that creates deep ties that bond.

But we actively try to build our community through running more widely than just the singular RTB moment.

Starting in the spring of 2015, we began organizing a regular weekly running club, dubbed #RunningAtlas, that attracts 10-25 folks on any given Thursday. We run about 4.5 miles around the Charles in the Boston humidity in the summer and the frigidity in the winter – only the most inclement weather keeps us away. The group meets every Thursday at 7am at 400 Technology Square and is open to all – whatever your speed and frequency of attending. Although there are several runners from Atlas portfolio companies who join regularly, we also have new pharma execs walk on to the quad to join us alongside grad students and post docs from the Broad and Koch down the street. Runners stroll in from LabCentral around the corner. And we’ve had West Coast guests come and drop by for a few miles with us. All are welcome, both male and female runners alike. Importantly, as a disclaimer, I’m not a fast runner at all. To be the new golf, “conversation pace” is central to the activity – and that’s what we focus #RunningAtlas on.

Running around the Charles with the biopharma community has helped us recruit several great EIRs (e.g., Jason Gardner, Mark Manfredi to name just two), and build relationships with a number of soon-to-be EIRs in our portfolio (who shall remain nameless until we’ve hired them). We’ve also solidified deeper connections to Pharma, as well as academics from the top institutes in town. It’s a great way to get to know someone. Further, it’s an excellent way to preview a Board meeting with a startup biotech CEO/CxO, or discuss strategy with a big pharma R&D exec. I’ve run with folks from nearly every portfolio company I’ve ever been involved with over the past decade.

All this said, running is only one tool for building community. It’s worth noting that only a subset of the Atlas partnership actually enjoys running, so it’s certainly not the only or even primary tool. As I mentioned at the outset, we and other VC firms invest significantly in activities that bring our extended biopharma community together, with the aim of creating valuable connectivity, via a wide range of approaches, including both sport (e.g., tennis round-robins, hiking), social (e.g., after-work social functions, offsite events, poker night), and professional (e.g, career development sessions, CxO networking dinners). As a venture firm, we’re naturally a key node in the network that can catalyze this type of connectivity, and it’s a major element of the culture.

Atlas truly runs on community, and fostering deeper and more meaningful personal relationships across biopharma is a big part of it.

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