Seed Stage Investing in Talent

This blog was written by Jeff Hatfield, CEO of Vitae Pharmaceuticals, as part of the “From the Trenches” feature of LifeSciVC.

A few weeks ago, Michael Gladstone wrote a blog, here, about infusing young blood into the ‘C’ suite of biotech. I thought he made a number of important points and great suggestions about the topic. Today, I’d like to expand the theme and comment on the beginning of that process – attracting the next generation of talent into our life sciences industry.   Putting it in the context of biotech investing (since this is ‘LifeSciVC’): improving our ‘seed stage’ investing to grow the next generation of superstar talent.

Our industry’s need for bold, entrepreneurial talent is as great as it ever has been, in my opinion. That demand is being driven by the opportunity of: a steady stream of novel discoveries and potentially transformational innovation; big jumps in data technology, including super-computing, big data and smartphones; and clinical development and regulatory innovation, including biomarkers and adaptive trial design. There is no well-defined career path for jumping into these exciting fields, and yet there is a sizable pool of smart, entrepreneurial students graduating from our universities with the potential to drive the next generation of innovation. How do we reach them, and attract them to this industry?

A challenge to attracting talent to our industry is that it’s very difficult for a university to give students a view into careers in rapidly advancing fields. The kind of practical career counseling that a bright, energetic grad student needs is just not available on many of our campuses. The majority of career guidance offerings range from general opaqueness on our industry to comments where biotech and pharma are described as ‘selling out’ or ‘the dark side’ of science.

A university I’m working with, Purdue’s College of Pharmacy, has been trying to improve its connections with industry. Purdue works with a variety of outside organizations to design real hands-on experiences for students that provide exposure to interesting career fields. However, as Brooke Linn, Assistant Director of Student Services, acknowledges, “It’s a struggle to create these opportunities for non-traditional career paths”. That’s where we can help.

Last year, Vitae began working with Purdue on a project to provide PharmD candidates an opportunity to get career insights at our biotech company. Students now come to Vitae for a period of ~3 months as part of their formal curriculum with the University. Our goal is to give them a challenging, real-world learning experience and the opportunity to explore a broad spectrum of potential career interests.

Here are some key learnings we’ve had from our experiences, augmented with comments and observations from our latest student, candidate Sarah Stelzleni.

Create a discrete project for the candidate, so they take on real responsibility.

A student’s primary task in a mentoring program is to complete a special project. This project is best determined by talking with the student beforehand, to understand their interests, motivation and skill sets, and to align on what the goals of the internship should be.

Sarah’s interests are in the regulatory field. We wanted to provide her with direct experience on some of the key work streams that lead to a regulatory filing, and in this way let her learn how the massive scope of documents and decisions all actually come together. Her two-part project was, first, to identify potential rare or orphan disease patient populations that could benefit from Vitae’s novel, first-in-class RORgt program, a small molecule approach to inhibiting the TH17 immune system pathway that is advancing towards the clinic. Working with the Vitae team, Sarah helped conduct an extensive literature review of autoimmune disorders, looking for either a confirmed or potential TH17 signature in the disease process. Initially identifying around 160 such disorders, Sarah progressively culled the list using scientific literature, participating in key opinion leader and clinician teleconferences with the team, talking with company biologists, and applying her scientific training and judgement to the data. At the end of her project, Sarah presented to the management team a comprehensive evaluation and a solid recommendation of the highest potential indications.

In the second part of her project, Sarah worked with the clinical team, helping pull together the extensive experimental database we have on our lead RORgt compound, VTP-43742, as we build the formal IND for submission to FDA.

Build in broad team interaction

The project should require significant interaction with the organization, so that the candidate gets to know different people and different functions – this provides not only exposure to the business but also the opportunity to ask questions and build relationships.

Sarah: “One person I really worked closely with was Art Fratamico, the CBO. Art had a pharmacy background in common with me. He encouraged me to explore and ask questions about the business side of a biopharm company. He was especially helpful in getting me to think strategically, and in recommending sources for specific types of information – epidemiological, competitive, or information about what the phase I trial design might look like.”

Sarah called this – and I think she hit it spot on – exposing the student, someone coming in with virtually no experience, to “a little bit about everything.” She understood that eventually everyone specializes in a niche discipline. But to learn a little bit about everything, to assemble that internal map of how things work in the industry – that was incredibly useful to her. “It helped me decide what sort of direction I wanted to take my career in, because I could say ‘I like what this person did, or I could see myself doing this everyday, or this is something I didn’t like so much.’ Being able to see that was really cool.”

Prepare your team in advance.

Your staff should know what the project is, and that the student will be seeking them out for their opinions and for help with the project. They should know that students are not there to follow them around and watch them work, but are intended to work as a regular member of the team. Some people have the idea that mentoring requires a lot of extra work, but our experience is that we don’t handhold the student, and our mentoring doesn’t require any more time than working with and developing other colleagues and teammates. Sarah: “I was just so immediately accepted into the company, not treated like a student or an outsider, but rather like a co-worker or a peer. That said a lot to me about the culture of the company, and how willing people were to talk to me about what they did or why they love what they do. Along the way, Vitae staff went through my rough drafts, pointing out things to include, things to get rid of.”

Regular status checks ensure that progress is being made in the right direction; it also provides an opportunity to answer questions and navigate any roadblocks, and to help shape the deliverable.

Don’t just focus on the project.

Allow plenty of time for more general career mentoring. For example, I also worked with Sarah on her interviewing skills. She came to Vitae just before going to a major pharmaceutical conference where a lot of interviewing went on for fellowship positions. We did mock interviews in which I asked her the standard questions. I remember, the first time around, I just didn’t hear her present her skills in the right light. We threw around some ideas, and I asked her to develop several different stories that she wanted to tell, each one bringing out a different aspect of her capabilities. We met again a few days later and did another interview. It was a complete change – that brief time we spent had immediate returns. Sarah was eventually chosen for an extremely competitive fellowship position at Genzyme. I’m proud to say that she credits her experience at Vitae with making that happen.

Get the chemistry right.

We look for certain qualities in our mentoring candidates, and Purdue helps us screen for the right individual. We’ve had several students at Vitae over the recent past, and the ones who were open and inquisitive worked out best. Open in the sense of candidly volunteering information about their career objectives, preferences, views and so forth; and inquisitive in the sense of engaging others and asking questions. For instance, when crafting a work project, a red flag should go up when a student simply plays to his or her own skills and doesn’t venture outside their comfort zone. Likewise, the student who doesn’t charge ahead and check with others in the organization while working on their project will probably not have a successful mentoring experience.

In fact, the mentoring experience requires the right chemistry between both mentor and student, and to some extent you can prepare the ground for that. Earlier, I addressed the need to prepare the organization for the mentoring candidate. I asked Sarah to rank order what she felt were the top three qualities that make a good mentor.

“First is the ability to give constructive criticism – that’s how I was able to realize what my skills were and what skills I needed to work on.” Sarah’s comment about realizing what her own skills were is telling: students who come into a life science organization not only don’t know much about the industry, but they also need help seeing what their own capabilities are and how they align with a biotech company.

“Then, passion – it was such a revelation for me coming to Vitae and seeing the passion with which people worked and collaborated.”

“In third place, I would put generosity, the impulse to share. It can be intimidating for a student or a new hire to start at small biotech; they might be reluctant to intrude on the time of scientists or line leaders. I was very appreciative of how generous the staff was and their willingness to sit down with me and discuss my career.”

That last point is very important to me, and why I hope to convince readers to try some of the things in this blog. I personally feel great satisfaction at being able to help mentor students like Sarah. It pays back a debt established many years ago when I was in my undergrad science program. I wanted to combine my science training with a business focus. Most of the feedback I got then was very discouraging – “that’s not a good choice”, “science and business don’t mix”, etc.   I found one professor who took the time to listen, and who said, “interesting … well, if that’s what you want to do, here are some ideas on how you can make it happen”. While that entire interaction was only 10-15 minutes, it had a profound effect on my planning, and the rest is history. Now I have the opportunity to be that positive influence for others, and hopefully that’s contagious. Here’s a comment from another of our students, David, that suggests it can be.  “Jeff is in the position to give back to the next generation of students, and he does. I honestly hope that in the future, I can return the favor to the next generation.”

An urgent need.

If we want to optimize the continuing growth of innovation in this industry, then I believe we need to help the next generation of talent see the passion, excitement and career satisfaction that we all know so well. The opportunity to see up close the kind of collaborative science that happens in biotech, and to interact with the staff, can be a powerful stimulant to a young person searching for a career path. This kind of mentoring is the best mechanism I can think of – certainly the most time- and cost-efficient – to help create the next generation of biotech talent.

My decision to engage with Purdue and build a biotech rotation into their pharmacy preceptor program is definitely one way to go. I encourage others to think about whether this kind of project, or some other, might be possible.   I know it can deliver great value and personal satisfaction.   This is what I’m doing, and I hope you will think about similar ‘seed stage’ investing for talent.