By Robert Gould, Ph.D., president and CEO, Epizyme, Inc.
Life science companies like Epizyme increasingly rely on contract research and manufacturing organizations to achieve their goals. Whether a company is “virtual,” “strategically outsourcing,” or “capital light,” its success is dependent on great partners. At Epizyme, we believe fostering and establishing longterm partnerships is essential to our goal of building a great company committed to discovering personalized treatments for patients with genetically defined cancers. As a venture-backed, private company, we have a mixed model of outsourcing where activities are developed internally, with the intention to find a partner organization that can execute those activities superbly and with precision. We believe that while successful execution may occur with many companies by setting clear goals and priorities, ensuring follow through, insisting on realistic deliverables, and rewarding the doers, there are very few companies where the journey together is a journey of mutual progress toward building greatness.
Building a great company requires a commitment to core values, and great partnerships succeed when all parties share core values. Jim Collins and Jerry Poras highlighted in their 1994 classic book Built To Last that visionary and successful companies were committed to “essential and enduring tenets” upon which the success of the company was built, even though those core values may sound nothing alike from company to company. However, there are common themes in all the tenets of the companies highlighted in Built to Last. Those themes are commitments to superior quality, unwavering reliability, and constant communication.
In the world of life sciences, where the output is improved quality or quantity of human life, those themes take on an even greater importance. Quality, reliability, and communication have to occur in every business relationship in the life sciences arena in order for both the client and the CMO to achieve their common goal of greatness, and for the suffering of human beings to be relieved
“Quality is not an act, it is a habit.” — Aristotle
It takes energy to act. Habits occur almost without thinking. In a CMO, quality has to be so engrained that the company lives quality. The leaders of a company must set the standard for quality and habitually expect quality, not tolerating a “good enough” attitude. In some cases, the quality of the output is binary: the compound is made or not made, specifications are met or not met. In many cases, however, quality is more difficult to judge. For example, how many data tables should be checked to accept the entirety of a data set and the validity of the conclusions?
We assess quality from the first interactions with a company. Is the correspondence free of typographical or grammatical errors? Does the potential partner listen to how your team introduces themselves and then address them appropriately? While these things in and of themselves are trivial, they can reflect a company culture that accepts something as “good enough.” If quality is a habit in the company, then it will pervade every interaction with the company.
Quality assessment continues through contract discussion and negotiations. Do the potential partners listen well, and do edits to contracts reflect the discussions? Are documents prepared accurately?
“A doubtful friend is worse than a certain enemy.” — Aesop
Reliability and consistency are critical to enjoying the journey together. For an early-stage, privately funded company, the silent sound of time is the silent sound of money moving out the door. We therefore need the confidence from our partners that timelines can be met, and met reliably. Both parties must set realistic expectations for key deliverables both in quality and timeliness, but those have to be balanced carefully with the need for speed to move product.
“The secret of war lies in communication.” — Napoleon Bonaparte
How does a contract organization balance the drive for speed, set realistic expectations, and assure that quality specifications are clear and can be addressed? The answer is through frequent and regular communications. With the explosion of electronic communication capabilities like Skype, WebEx, or FaceTime, there can be no reason not to have direct and informed communication on the status of projects. Even the five-minute conversation that says “everything is on track” is important. Never assume with your partner that no news is good news.