Moving from Big Pharma to Biotech – Insights from Two Biotech CEOs

Big Pharma to Biotech - mary kerr_michael bauer_cover

According to John LaMattina in Forbes last year, more and more senior scientific executives are moving from pharma to small biotechs or startup initiatives. While the jury is out on whether this observation reflects a real trend or not, we at Labiotech are keen to learn about what drives people to make such a move!

Earlier this year we interviewed David Ebsworth of Verona Pharma about his professional journey from pharma to biotech, the ups and downs of the move, and we also asked what advice he would offer budding biotechnologists. Continuing this theme, I caught up with two more high-profile pharma executives who have recently joined the biotech world. I chatted with Michael Bauer of Cellestia Biotech and Mary Kerr of KaNDy and NeRRe Therapeutics.

Why Did You Make the Move?

After 25 years in senior management at GSK and ViiV Healthcare, Kerr moved into the biotech world in 2015 to become the CEO of KaNDy and NeRRe Therapeutics. Both companies are UK-based clinical-stage biotechs with a pipeline of novel treatments for chronic and debilitating women’s health problems, such as those associated with menopause.

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On her career in big pharma, Kerr recalls being very fulfilled and enjoying her time, and says she would recommend it to anyone. However, she wasn’t afraid to make a move when the timing was right: “I was at a stage of my career where I’d always wanted to be a CEO, but I wasn’t going to become CEO of GSK. But I could move into biotech and create something new and exciting at a time when I had energy and experience and a desire to do it. It just seemed like the perfect moment!”

Similar factors led Bauer to become CEO of Switzerland-based Cellestia Biotech in 2015, after 20 years at Syngenta, Novartis and a few smaller biotech companies: “I always wanted to get into a project as a founder or a co-founder because I enjoy the higher degree of ownership and involvement.”

For Bauer, reflecting on his own journey to Cellestia, it was also a case of right timing: “I think that, for me, collecting experiences in big corporations as well as working in some smaller biotech companies was a better path than going straight to biotech from university.”

What is so Much Better About Biotech?

Generic lab or biotech cartoon - big pharma to biotech interview

Many associate a career in pharma with job stability and steady funding, and I was keen to find out what biotech might offer that pharma doesn’t. After chatting to Kerr and Bauer it became clear that for them, fast decision-making and accountability are the main differences between big pharma from biotech, echoing the sentiments of Achillion’s Joel Barrish after his move in 2016.

Kerr loves the fast-moving and dynamic nature of small biotech: “There’s a lot of personal accountability and you’ve got to live and be judged by your decision. It’s thrilling and I like that. In big pharma, because of the broad-reaching impact, most decisions tend to involve lots of analytics, often requiring multiple rounds of discussions and layers of decision-making before the decision is finally taken in a highly calculated fashion. I like the freedom to make decisions in real-time as required.”

Bauer enjoys that Cellestia has “been able to advance the project very rapidly from candidate selection of lead compound to first in-patient, on almost theoretical timelines that are driven by the duration of the required studies.” Instead of waiting for committees to assemble and approve the next step, Bauer and his team sit together, with advisors as required, discuss a topic and make a decision. According to Bauer, “you are in charge and responsible for your own decisions, to take them and to live with them, you can’t blame anyone. Part of the fun!”

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What Has Been the Biggest Challenge?

Euros - Fundraising concept for Biotech vs Big Pharma interview

Perhaps not surprisingly, the fundraising side of biotech seems to be one of the biggest challenges!

Bauer found it interesting to “translate the day-to-day scientific jargon into an understandable language,” adding that this was “one of the biggest challenges for us as scientists who were not used to translating the work into plain language without being imprecise, and still being factually correct.”

Although Kerr doesn’t find the new funding landscape a particular challenge, she points out a critical difference between the two environments: “in pharma, if a project has merit, it’s likely to be funded, whereas in biotech, the CEO and the team need to convince investors that it’s worth investing in a project.

She added: “Even projects with merit may not always get funding for a number of reasons, because the concept isn’t fashionable (that was my experience with women’s health), or the story is not told very well, or they are not speaking to the right investors.”

What Makes Biotech Work?

According to Kerr and Bauer, it’s largely a matter of bringing the right blend of experiences together.

Bauer points out that “PhD students or postdocs can bring a project to a point where there is a patent and you can start a spin-off, but then of course you don’t have the industry experience you need to run a company.” He hints at Celestia’s success being down to the joining of two teams, namely “the founders from the academic environment and my colleagues and myself who complement the management from the drug development side with decades of industry experience.”

Kerr echoes this point of view: “I think biotech works because it attracts very senior people with broad experiences and skill sets built over years in pharma before going to biotech, and they can make that work for them.

“I have a management team of 5 individuals and between us we have more than a century of experience from pharma! We’ve seen many different scenarios, and we can put this into action – from the experiences of many years, many functions, many roles, and many companies.”

Good research team concept cartoon - biotech vs pharma

Can Anyone Do It?

Neither Kerr nor Bauer believes that anyone can or should make the move, but their reasoning is somewhat different.

Bauer feels that a successful transition to biotech is “largely down to an individual’s personality and mentality, and requires an ability and willingness to take responsibility for decision-making within a small team without hiding behind decision-making committees and corporate processes. Technical skills come with years of industrial experience, but the question is whether or not an individual is able to use these in a dynamic biotech context!

While Kerr seconds the need for extensive experience before stepping out of pharma and into biotech, she believes that having the right skill set plays a big role. “Biotech tends to be more skewed to scientists or physicians with a discovery or R&D profile. One needs to know enough about science to be able to make the transition! The ideal profile can see how the science can become a vision of a medicine and then turn this into a plan and deliver it.”

While Kerr is confident that “most senior leaders in big pharma, particularly if they’ve always worked in R&D or on the interface, can make the move,” Bauer notes that he has “seen really excellent people who made such a move and less great examples that a startup should try to avoid – in the end it really comes down to the individual.”

Is it Risky?

risk cartoon - biotech vs big pharma interview

Not according to Bauer: “Employees in big corporations used to think they had the job for a lifetime, and now they realize that this is not, or no longer, the case.” He thinks that the more people realize that these times are over, the more they might be willing to take their destiny into their own hands. He also points out that “it’s never 100 % in your own hands because you have to find financial resources and scientific or development expertise. You’ve never on your own. No one should have the illusion that you live in complete freedom and independence. You need to know what you can do yourself or with the team, and when you need help from others. I believe that the ability to build support networks beyond the internal core team is absolutely essential”

Kerr thinks biotech is riskier than big pharma, but comes with big rewards: “In early clinical stage biotech the outcome is often binary – it could all be over in 2 or 3 years, but that’s the nature of the game. We want to turn the cards properly and understand what sort of opportunity we have and whether or not it’s worthwhile pursuing in later stage development.

“Biotech is riskier, there isn’t the job security there is in pharma, and the core package may not be as good, but there are many upsides! The potential to turn an idea into a medicine for a patient is very exciting!

Do You Have Any Regrets?

Kerr misses nothing about big pharma 4 years later: “I didn’t want to move into another big pharma company, I felt like I’d been there, done that, and I would rather do something more interesting instead. It’s a refreshing, liberating, career change. There’s an excitement about biotech that you don’t get in big pharma.”

However, as Kerr point outs, “Some people who make the move realize very quickly that they are better suited to the formality, structure and security of big pharma, and you don’t get that with biotech. But for me, the difference is exactly what I was looking for!”.

Bauer is also happy with his move and regrets nothing even though he “had a great time and learned a lot in big pharma for which I am very grateful.”

Cellestia is developing a new class of small-molecule anti-cancer drugs, and Bauer finds this very rewarding: “It’s the feeling that we really do something with a purpose, we are developing a new drug for cancers for which no treatment exists. We have full ownership of the project, we are in charge and responsible for how it goes and how it doesn’t go and that’s really rewarding.”

Advice for Budding Biotech Entrepreneurs

Good business relationship cartoon - big pharma vs biotech

Kerr can’t emphasize enough the importance of managing relationships with investors, particularly as a CEO: “You need to make sure that the investors feel that their money is being wisely invested and that something positive can come out of the investment. Being able to manage that investor interface is very important and you don’t really have to do it in big pharma unless you are the CEO. I think one of the factors that lead people who come into biotech to leave again is that they don’t care to manage such relationships.”

She adds: “As well as the investor interface, biotech is more risky, less secure. Potentially shorter term, but the ride is very exciting and allows for a lot of accountability and independent decision-making with teams and the potential opportunity to turn something into a medicine. That’s the profile of someone who will enjoy it.

Bauer’s advice is somewhat similar: “If you are used to the elaborate process you have in big pharma and like it very much, you should perhaps carefully think about such a move, because you won’t have the infrastructure you are used to, the life and the style of operation and the style of interaction is different, but again that is down to an individual’s likings.”

To Stay or To Go?

At the end of the day, whether it’s best to stay in big pharma or move to biotech comes down to the individual, their ambitions and their mindset. For many of those who make the move, it seems to be a matter of good timing. However, no matter what drives someone to take the plunge into biotech, one shouldn’t go into it with their eyes closed. If you’re on the fence, perhaps Bauer’s parting words will help: “You have to want it, life is different, you’ve got much more direct responsibility and the freedom and obligation to make decisions. So if you don’t like making decisions and standing for them, then you better not make such a move.”


Karen O’Hanlon Cohrt is a Science Writer and Editor with a PhD in biotechnology from Maynooth University, Ireland. She can be found on Twitter @KarenOHCohrt and you can check out her other work on her portfolio.


Images – E.Resko & Shutterstock

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