Generations: Talent Dispersion in Biotechnology

Posted November 29th, 2018 by Tariq Kassum, in Corporate Culture, From The Trenches, Talent

This blog was written by Tariq Kassum, COO of Obsidian Therapeutics, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC.

The evening of April 26, 2009, I walked from my hotel room to the nearest bar. The bar was called the Asgard, and it was on an unfamiliar road called Sidney Street, in a place I barely knew called Cambridge, Massachusetts. I wanted some comfort food before my big job interview at Millennium Pharmaceuticals the next day. I ordered a beer and burger, but as I took my first sip, a little voice in the back of my head reminded me that expensing a beer was probably not the best idea when traveling for an interview. I paid for the drink myself and stuffed the receipt into my jeans pocket.

I was seeking to leave Wall Street, where I was a hedge fund analyst, because I was tired of anxiously watching little green and red numbers blipping about on my stock screen. I wanted to move to an operating biopharma company where I could really make a difference. But the job-hunting was tough – most companies, especially the mid-sized ones, were in retrenchment following the financial crisis. Millennium was different, though: it was expanding aggressively following its acquisition by Takeda and had a smash hit in Velcade. A great opportunity.

The comfort food worked. The next day, I met with Anna Protopapas, Dan Curran, and several others, and despite my lack of a traditional pharma background, I was hired. Over the coming years, I was able to learn and grow in a way that I could never have imagined, as I already detailed in a previous blog post. But an even bigger surprise was the size and quality of the professional network that I built during my time at Millennium. That network of friends and colleagues is durable now, almost ten years later.

Best of Both Worlds

Many of the people I worked with at Millennium have gone on to great things. There are too many to enumerate fully without resorting to a boldface names-type laundry list, but the group includes CEOs and C-level executives all across the biotech industry. Some examples include Deborah Dunsire (Lundbeck), Anna Protopapas (Mersana), Mark Manfredi (Kyn), Todd Shegog (Synlogic), Mike Vasconcelles (Unum), and Laurie Keating (Alnylam).

The crazy part is that this list of luminaries isn’t even close to the full extent of talent from Millennium. I was part of what you could consider the “second generation” of Millennium – let’s call it the Velcade era (or maybe the Takeda era). The previous generation of Millennium executives – the leaders of the “genomics era” – have gone on to perhaps even greater things. Mark Levin, Kevin Starr, and several other former Millennium executives founded Third Rock Ventures. Multiple important biotechs such as Alnylam, Momenta, and Agios were started or led by early Millennium employees.

While I am not really plugged in to other biotech company networks, they also seem to be powerful engines of talent. Genzyme, in particular, seems to have been extremely successful in turning out a series of executives who have gone on to great things (think of Geoff McDonough of Generation Bio, Jeff Albers of Blueprint, and David Meeker of KSQ). And this phenomenon is, of course, not isolated to biotech. PayPal alumni have gone on to great success in social networking and technology. I anticipate that the first generation of Facebook alumni will create some remarkable (and, most likely, wildly addictive) things.

Cause and Effect

I have a few hypotheses for why so many successful people tend to come out of a small number of magnet companies. I suspect all of these reasons are probably in play to some degree. You may even be able to replicate some of them within your own organization.

Perhaps the simplest explanation for the preponderance of strong alumni networks is that good companies hire well. Therefore, the apparent success of their alumni may just be selection bias at work. I’m a fan of this hypothesis because I’ve noted through my career that great people are astute judges of talent. As a result, excellence tends to congregate. Great companies also have the luxury of being “destination employers” and therefore have their pick of top people with the right skills, experience, and, critically, values.

Second, I think a medium-sized, growing company – like Millennium, back in the day – is a great place to learn and develop new skills, because it’s not so compartmentalized that departments already exist for everything. There’s still white space for individual development. Accelerated personal development, of course, means that upon departure, you have a richer skill set to draw on for future success. I still remember the career advice that I got on my first day at Millennium: “stick your hand up and volunteer to try new things.” I doubt I would have heard advice like that at a mega-pharma.

Finally, the alumni network itself is a powerful force for success. Obviously, connections can help you find a chemist, a lawyer, etc. But we often forget about the value of friendship, especially when forged through times of shared challenge. The friends you make at a past company can encourage you when things are bad and keep your ego in check when things are good. You can bounce career ideas off them; you can empathize with them when the funding falls through; and you can bond over shared history when you need a little reset. This is a tough business where attrition is endemic. Who better to keep you in the game for the long-term than your friends?

All Good Things

Eventually, a catalyst comes along that leads to the dispersion of talent from a great organization. Acquisition, integration, growth – each circumstance is unique. And great leaders in one strategic situation are often poorly suited to a new environment, so turnover is to be expected. Just like in an ecosystem, recycling is a natural and expected process.

Time will tell who the great future incubators of talent – the future Millenniums – will be. I have some ideas, but I don’t want to curse any of them by naming names. But I know they’re out there, and I know that some great companies are around the corner, waiting to be built.



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