Jonathan Montagu

Float Like A Butterfly: Agility In Biotech

Posted June 13th, 2018 by Jonathan Montagu, in Bioentrepreneurship, Biotech startup advice, Corporate Culture, From The Trenches


This blog was written by Jonathan Montagu, CEO and co-founder of Hotspot Therapeutics, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC.  

In the quest towards building high-performing teams, biopharma can lift a page from the tech playbook around agile organizations.  This blog builds upon comparisons with tech relating to business model, investment returns and the dynamics of the different VC ecosystems.  In this post, I would like to draw lessons from how tech startups actually work and organize themselves.

One of the most dominant themes in tech is Agile software development, an approach that has been adopted by all of the most successful startups around the world.  Agile involves creating a simplified piece of software that is then iterated rapidly through input from real customers.  Iterations are generally short – typically one to four weeks – and are aptly called ‘sprints’.

On its face, it doesn’t appear that we in biopharma have much to learn from Agile but I believe that the philosophy behind much of the Agile Manifesto are extremely relevant to R&D heavy organizations including:

  • Prototype iteration aligned with user needs
  • Efficient, face-to-face communication
  • Short feedback loops

Prototype iteration

Agile was a reaction against software development practices that promoted extensive upfront planning, crazy Gantt charts and code that took years to deliver.  When the software was finally delivered, it was already obsolete because the market had moved on.  In contrast, Agile emphasizes the role of learning in new product development.  This is done by creating a simple, usable piece of software, called a minimum viable product (MVP), that can be put in the hands of users to generate feedback.  This feedback then drives the next cycle of innovation.

This sounds a lot like drug discovery practiced well.  In my experience, R&D teams that make the most rapid progress are always looking to generate relevant pharmacology data as early as possible.  This may mean generating cell-based or animal data on a compound that lacks ideal potency or ADME properties.  It reflects a bias towards doing an experiment now because you can learn something important, even if it’s not the perfect experiment.  The effect of this type of thinking is to reduce the time to meaningful insight, which in many cases can dramatically change the course of a program.  In the context of clinical studies, adaptive designs and digital-health technologies may allow us to reduce the cycle time, allowing biotech to get closer to the tech ideal.

Agile demands that certain individuals serve as the voice of the customer and are tasked with ensuring the user need is always front and center.  Similarly, great drug discovery teams are razor focused on the patient right from the beginning.  This is easier in areas like oncology where patient stratification is well established but beyond this Target Candidate/Product Profiles remain an important discipline in drug discovery.

Efficient and face-to-face communication

To enable rapid product iteration, joint problem solving is critical and that’s why Agile emphasizes the need to communicate effectively with team members.

For many of us, email no longer achieves this goal.  We can receive hundreds of emails a day and it is not easy to determine which are worth our attention.  Given this, most of the tech startups I know are replacing email with a tool called Slack.  Slack is an instant messaging platform that offers important benefits over email:

  • Communication is instant and frictionless leading to a free flow of ideas and creativity
  • Messages are classified into subject ‘channels’ enabling the reader to decide which topic or group he/she wants to devote attention to. Moreover, there’s no need to remember to keep team members in the loop which improves transparency and alignment
  • Images, files, links are seamlessly integrated into the flow of the conversation rather than as a stack of files at the end of an email that need to be downloaded. This aids comprehension and communication.

This is a typical view of Slack:

In the context of a R&D heavy biotech startup, we use Slack to communicate on all topics including sharing data and highlighting new findings from publications.  Team members can contribute their thoughts live, leading to new experimental ideas without the need to fill the calendar with more meetings.  The free-flowing nature of the discussion creates a type of virtual water cooler.

Having adopted Slack, we have now reduced our daily email volume by about 75% because conversations with internal colleagues and key external collaborators are all conducted real-time on the platform.  Our team members have noted significant gains in how connected and well-informed they feel about what is going on inside the company.  We have created a channel for each drug discovery project so team members are always in the loop on the latest thinking and data.  Private channels come into play so we can communicate with subgroups around more sensitive topics.  We also make use of channels for creative ideas #idea_generation and #random for some fun around team events, birthdays and cooking recipes.

It isn’t trivial to shift an organization to a completely new way of communicating but for us it has really been worth it.  Senior management must be fully committed to the open communication style that Slack promotes and thought needs to be put into how to organize channels.  Channels must then become the dominant way of communicating to avoid Slack devolving into a new form of E-mail.

Short feedback loops

The concept of the daily stand-up meeting originated at Borland Software and was apparently the secret sauce behind how eight people wrote a million lines of code in eight months.  It’s now viewed as a critical component of how Agile teams share information needed to coordinate activities and to remove obstacles in their way.  Stand-up meetings ensure the learning cycle remains short and maximally effective.

To be most impactful, a stand-up meeting should occur at the same time every day and everyone in the team must take part.  The format is simple: team members stand up in turn to explain what they did yesterday, what they are doing today and what’s preventing them from doing their job.

We have established a similar practice at HotSpot with a thirty-minute meeting that occurs every day at 8.30am.  Everyone in the team has their minute or two to speak.  The effect of the daily meeting is to give our team a regular heartbeat.  Everyone comes out of stand-up knowing the most important thing they need to accomplish in a day.  For many of us, the stand-up meeting is a highlight of the day, an opportunity to connect with colleagues and celebrate a success or rally around a collective problem.  With a group of inquisitive scientists, the potential for distraction by cool data is high, so discipline is needed to make sure any deeper discussion topics are taken off line.

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Admittedly, there are limits to which the Agile analogy can be applied within biotech since writing code isn’t the same as designing molecules and the regulatory environment is far more onerous in pharma.  For example, it is not possible to make small tweaks to a molecule in a phase 3 study.  However, biotech and tech companies do share a common desire to create the best environment for innovation and I am certain that we will be able to learn more from our tech colleagues in the years to come.

Jonathan Montagu

Jonathan Montagu

CEO of HotSpot Therapeutics
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