By Deanna Petersen, Chief Business Officer of AVROBIO, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC
Most of the titles in a biotech C-suite are generally self-explanatory. The Chief Technical and Manufacturing Officer runs operations in CMC and analytics. The Chief Financial Officer handles financial strategy and investor relations. The Chief Commercial Officer prepares for bringing investigational therapies to market.
Then there’s the title I hold: Chief Business Officer (CBO). This one is a bit more ambiguous. Clearly, I’m in charge of some “business” stuff. But what exactly does “business” mean for a young biotech – and how does it change as the company races from startup to clinical-stage to (if all goes well) global marketing of an approved therapy?
I think of the CBO role – somewhat like its cousin, the Chief Operating Officer – as calling for a utility player; the job can be defined in various ways and is often shaped around a particular candidate’s strengths and experiences. Clearly, business development (BD) and pipeline strategy are core functions: The CBO is typically responsible for establishing the long-term pipeline strategy of an organization, leading the evaluation of assets and negotiating the strategic deals that build that pipeline and accelerate the growth of the company, from technology acquisitions to R&D collaborations to marketing partnerships. Beyond that, though, there’s so much more the CBO role can and does encompass.
It helps immeasurably, for instance, to be skilled at and interested in communications. BD deals require you to communicate clearly and persuasively, both to the other party (why should they negotiate with you?) and to your own internal leadership and board (why should they sign onto this deal?). Being able to develop and deliver strong messaging became a core skill set for me early on, and an important part of my CBO role at AVROBIO.
I’m often asked for career advice from others interested in the CBO path at a biotech start-up, so I’ll devote this blog to offering tips on both how to grow into a CBO title and what to expect when you get there.
Career tip #1: Diversify your academic studies
You might think that the one key credential for a CBO is an MBA. That is certainly useful. But if you want to be a CBO for a biotech startup, I always counsel people to diversify their studies and dive as deep into the sciences as they can before pursuing their business degree.
I got my undergraduate degree in biology and had just begun a Ph.D. program in molecular biology when I felt a tug toward the business side. I still remember the renowned PI whose lab I was working in expressing his concern when I quit the Ph.D. program to work toward my MBA. He actually told me that I had gone to the “dark side.” A few years later, however, that same professor called me into his office to say he had just gotten a call from Genzyme; they were intrigued by his work and seeking to collaborate. This time, his tone was quite different: “I have no idea what they’re proposing or how to have a relationship with industry,” he told me. “Could you please help me navigate this?”
The lesson here is that it pays to speak two languages: to understand both the science and the business side of biotech. (In fact, if you’re going to do business development contract work, this is a must.)
I landed my first job as an MBA graduate because of my biology degree. The woman in charge of the University of Iowa’s Tech Transfer Office called me out of the blue to offer me a position. She said she had looked up the academic background of everyone about to graduate from the university’s MBA program – and I was the only one who also had a science degree. Since understanding the science is at the heart of every tech transfer transaction, she needed someone who could speak both languages. She turned out to be a fabulous mentor and I ended up running the office after she left, a wonderful experience that helped me understand both the science and the business of biotech at a deeper level.
Career tip #2: Look to gain well-rounded experience
And that takes me to another important point – find jobs early on that allow you to grow and build your overall understanding of “business.”
After the tech transfer office, I worked in business development first at a biotech startup, then at a late-stage clinical company and finally at Shire, which hired me as their VP of business development in 2009.
These were all formative experiences for me. I met and grew from my interactions with terrific mentors. I learned the basics of BD: how to evaluate potential deals, how to make persuasive presentations and how to go toe-to-toe in negotiations – and emerge victorious. (For my tips on negotiation, please see my prior blog posts here and here.)
I think of biotech BD as a three-legged stool – you need scientific, business and legal experience to do it successfully. If you’ve followed tip #1, you’ll have two of those areas covered from your academic training. You don’t necessarily need to enroll in a full-time degree program to cover the third leg, but you can and should seek educational opportunities that will help fill in the gaps. For instance, I took two classes in patent law to help me understand the ins and outs of IP. Be creative in finding courses and workshops – and be disciplined about doing the work when you do enroll. It will pay off in the long run.
One more point on experience: Early in my career, I learned the tenets of good leadership. Empower your team; show humility and respect for others in all you do. Stay open-minded; collaborate to solve problems; be willing to change course if needed. Persevere through obstacles; learn from mistakes; don’t back down from challenges. It’s crucial to learn these “soft” skills early on and to find good mentors who model excellent leadership.
Career tip #3: Define what CBO means to you
Congratulations! You have been named Chief Business Officer of a biotech startup. This is where the fun really starts. You have the opportunity to shape the future of this young company: The busines model, the pipeline strategy, the partnership plans, the culture and the vision.
You also have the opportunity to shape your role as CBO so it both matches your skills and serves the company’s needs.
My best advice for those joining a small startup is to throw away any preconceptions about the CBO role and dive into everything, with gusto. When I joined AVROBIO, the entire company consisted of just four of us, sitting around a table at Atlas Venture, dreaming about bringing transformative lentiviral gene therapies to patients. In those early days, we held both oncology and rare disease assets and were not sure which direction we’d go.
As I said at the start of this blog, being a CBO in a startup requires you to be a utility player – like the ballplayers who are equally comfortable as shortstop, catcher and outfielder and can even pitch in a pinch. Need to secure a bank loan? The CBO can do it. Set up a subsidiary in Australia? Sure, why not. Write a press release? File patents? Negotiate a manufacturing agreement? Done, done and done. To be clear, I did not go into the job at AVROBIO knowing how to play all those roles. But I made it my mission to learn on the job. I told AVROBIO’s CEO, Geoff MacKay, that I would serve as “chief-of-whatever-it-takes-to-get-the-job-done” (outside of clin/reg), because that’s what the company needed me to be at that time.
Importantly, however, I did not stay in the role of chief-of- whatever-it-takes-to-get-the-job -done. That’s critical in the startup phase, but it can be detrimental as the company grows. As CBO, you’re not there to build fiefdoms or to claim dominion over every function that touches in some way on “business.” You’re there to do whatever most helps the company advance.
As you grow, you need to bring in top-notch talent to run core functions, which we did. For me, my strengths lay in two areas: Building value for stockholders by setting pipeline strategy and negotiating deals (the more complex, the better!). I also had a strong interest in telling the AVROBIO story, to make clear what we are trying to do for patients through our science and how the company is differentiated from others in the field. So positioning and communications also became my domains, working with Monique da Silva, our extraordinary SVP, Corporate Communications. We brought in outstanding individuals to run finance, legal, commercial and other key functions.
I firmly believe that you can’t be a good CBO if you’re possessive – if you try to claim too many roles as your own. You have to assess what you’re best at and what the company needs most from you and work toward that equilibrium. This also means you need to be able to let go of functions you may have played an important role in during the company’s early days. That can be really difficult because these departments all start as your babies. But being a part of growth is more rewarding.
Career tip #4: Don’t get too comfy
All that said, my last tip is my most important: Stay flexible.
Even after my CBO role at AVROBIO started to take shape around my core strengths, I remained ready to jump in where needed. As it turned out, a few years into the company’s growth, we hit a bit of a rough patch at the intersection of culture and strategy, and I realized that I could play an important role.
In the gene therapy world, it’s crucial to get to commercial stage with a safe, effective therapy before your competitors, because you are dealing with small indications with a limited number of patients to treat. That means all companies developing one-and-done therapies need to move with exceptional urgency, as their business model depends on being first to market with superior therapies. Yet at this particular point in AVROBIO’s trajectory, not everyone understood the importance of speed to our success as a company. Some kept their teams too lean and worked methodically through one project at a time, in an effort to keep spending down and de-risk every step before moving forward. Others couldn’t get away from the ‘big company’ mentality they had previously been trained into. I understood where they were coming from, but to me, that approach was antithetical to a gene therapy business model. We needed to take acceptable risks, invest boldly and push programs forward in parallel, rather than sequentially, if we were going to succeed.
You might think that culture is not within the purview of a CBO, but to me, at this time in our growth, it seemed 100% mission critical. After all, it went to the very heart of our business model.
I and others began advocating an approach called “smart speed.” In a nutshell, it boils down to encouraging every single employee at AVROBIO to rethink and reinvent the way they did their job and be willing to take calculated risks. It also required moving away from ultra-lean teams so we would have the bandwidth to pounce on new opportunities when they arose. (Our Chief Human Resources Officer, Georgette Verdin, and I describe the “smart speed” vision in more depth in this blog post.)
Working closely with my colleagues, we were able to seed and nurture this culture of smart speed at AVROBIO. I still consider it one of the most important things I’ve spearheaded as CBO. A good CBO utility player can do things like this many times for a variety of special projects: identify potential roadblocks, remove them and keep the company moving forward.
As you can probably tell, I love my job and the way it has evolved… I’m in my happy place. I find being a CBO challenging, exciting and rewarding. I hope these tips help you think about how to shape your job and find an equally fulfilling career.
AVROBIO is currently conducting clinical trials to evaluate the safety and efficacy of its investigational lentiviral gene therapies. None of these investigational gene therapies has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or any other regulatory agency. For more information, go to www.avrobio.com.