By Robert Copeland, PH.D
Over the past 30+ years, I have enjoyed a rich and fulfilling career in biomedical science that has taken me from large pharmaceutical companies to academia and back, and most recently into the frenetic and exciting world of startup biotechnology. Despite the varied professional ecosystems, when it comes to achieving success, a few commonalities have crystallized for me. Below I share five key tenets that I have found critical to success over the arc of my career.
1. “THERE IS NO GLORY IN CERTAINTY”
I start with a quote from my wife, Nancy Copeland, that she often gave as advice to our two daughters as they grew up. In short, if you want to do something truly meaningful, it usually means doing something novel — something that hasn’t been done before. In other words, if you want to change the world, you have to embrace the uncertainty of working at a new frontier — a space that is untested and a little scary.
2. CHALLENGE ASSUMPTIONS
To be successful in any profession, you must be willing to dispense with mythology and test the established facts that others labor under. This is always true in science, but it is equally true in all businesses. Hence, a healthy disrespect for authority is important!
One common myth is that people who work in large pharmaceutical companies are risk-averse and not entrepreneurial. My own experiences prove otherwise: Many smart, resourceful, dedicated people have been at every company I’ve worked for, albeit they sometimes can get bogged down by bureaucracy and inane corporate rules. Without a doubt, some rules are necessary and important for running a business, but when arbitrary customs (e.g., “this is how we’ve always done it”) get in the way of meaningful progress, one needs to challenge the status quo.
"It's easy to dismiss company culture as merely 'HR-speak,' but that is a fatal mistake."
While working at a large pharmaceutical company, I attended a meeting where a department responsible for developing a critical protocol said they needed six months to complete it. Irritated by this timeline, the head of the division asked me how long it would take my department to develop this protocol. I answered that I thought we could do it in six weeks. He then turned to the assembled team and said “OK, everyone heard that. Bob said he will have it done in three weeks.”
I was too stunned to respond to his cutting my timeline in half, but my team nevertheless delivered the protocol in just two weeks. Today, that division head is a trusted mentor and lifelong friend. What he taught me in that moment was: (1) dispense with untested assumptions, (2) set highly aggressive objectives, (3) understand that if you set aggressive objectives, they may not always be met. Had I not delivered that protocol in under three weeks, but nevertheless gotten it done sooner than the original six-month timeline, it still would have been celebrated as a success.
3. BE MISSION-CRITICAL
It is imperative that you be able to clearly identify which activities are essential to accomplishing a mission and those that are secondary or tertiary. Having identified the (usually few) mission-critical activities, one must be relentlessly focused on them. It is so easy in modern society to be distracted by a plethora of trivial pursuits during the business day: phone calls, emails, invitations for speaking engagements, networking conferences, etc. It is also easy to mistake fashion for substance, putting disproportionate resources toward something that may look good in the moment, but doesn’t really drive the mission forward. You need to be thoughtful about how resources are expended. I think this is best captured in the aphorism of Dr. Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo: “Consider carefully, act decisively.”
4. THINK HOLISTICALLY, FOCUS SELECTIVELY
As a biopharma entrepreneur, you must take an enterprisewide view of the varied activities that go into project success. Seeing how the various scientific and clinical disciplines intersect and contribute to progress is critical. Equally critical is seeing how nonscientific business functions integrate into program success, including finance, business development, facilities management, and legal. Although you should view enterprises holistically, you also must recognize that no one person can have comprehensive expertise in all these disciplines. It is thus equally important to marshal expertise in an effective manner, delegating responsibility for some disciplines to trusted and experienced colleagues, while focusing your attention on areas of your own specialization. In my case, I try to apply my problem-solving and analytical skills to all aspects of the company, but I also know that my greatest strengths lie in applying those skills in drug discovery and development sciences. Hence, while I oversee and engage on all enterprise activities, I make sure to set aside enough time to dive deeply into any scientific issues that may be challenging progress.
5. IT’S ALL ABOUT THE TEAM
As clichéd as it may sound, building and nurturing an effective team are the only ways I know of to be successful as a scientific organization, a clinical organization, and ultimately as a business enterprise.
The time and energy expended on thoughtful recruiting pays great dividends for the long-term success of any business. Hiring people with the right discipline expertise is necessary, but not sufficient. It’s just as critical to hire people with passion, energy, and commitment to the mission of the company — i.e., fire in the belly. This was a critical guiding principle when it came to assembling the team for Accent Therapeutics.
"Building and nurturing an effective team are the only ways I know of to be successful as a scientific organization, a clinical organization, and ultimately as a business."
Hiring such high-potential employees carries with it the obligation to create an environment in which each of these people can realize their full potential. It’s easy to dismiss company culture as merely “HR-speak,” but that is a fatal mistake. Drug discovery and development, which form the sine qua non of biotechnology, are among the most complex, challenging, and multidisciplinary endeavors that humans may attempt. Success in such efforts requires not just great teamwork, but also teams with the passion, drive, and resilience to adapt to and overcome a constant barrage of obstacles and setbacks. Overcoming challenges can only be sustained in an environment of mutual respect, mutual support, uplifting spirit, and some fun, too. As a leader, you must set the tone and standards for these cultural imperatives — checking your ego at the door — and truly committing to creating an environment in which everyone may flourish and contribute fully to the success of the enterprise.
ROBERT COPELAND, PH.D. cofounded Accent Therapeutics and serves as its president and CSO. He has thus far contributed to 19 new investigational drugs entering the clinic.