Biotech Voic­es: Coro­n­avirus will change biotech re­search with re­mote col­lab­o­ra­tions

When a field that de­pends on sci­en­tif­ic bench­work sud­den­ly moves on­line, what hap­pens to col­lab­o­ra­tions and the in­no­va­tion sup­ply chain? We are see­ing the an­swer to this ques­tion play out in re­al time dur­ing the Covid-19 cri­sis. Across the Unit­ed States and abroad, mea­sures to safe­guard against this se­ri­ous dis­ease have cre­at­ed an un­planned, mas­sive test for re­mote work in biotech­nol­o­gy.

Sci­en­tif­ic com­pa­nies face a unique chal­lenge dur­ing the shut­down: con­tin­u­ing their re­search. Lab-based work re­quires in-per­son, hu­man at­ten­tion, as many ex­per­i­ments are com­plex and re­quire spe­cial­ized ex­per­tise. These projects are of­ten achieved through re­search col­lab­o­ra­tions be­tween or­ga­ni­za­tions, re­quir­ing meet­ings to share da­ta, shared work en­vi­ron­ments, and deep dis­cus­sions. And their re­sults are price­less — these col­lab­o­ra­tions have the po­ten­tial to gen­er­ate ther­a­pies that save or im­prove mil­lions of lives in the fu­ture. This is why biotech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies have been deemed an es­sen­tial in­dus­try and con­tin­ue to op­er­ate in some form dur­ing the shut­down.

Of course, the in­dus­try — like many oth­ers — has rapid­ly adapt­ed. With bans on trav­el and re­stric­tions on in-per­son work and meet­ings, many of the sci­en­tif­ic col­lab­o­ra­tions that gen­er­ate new ther­a­pies are now 100% vir­tu­al. This shift presents unique chal­lenges as well as op­por­tu­ni­ties.

It’s im­pos­si­ble to ful­ly re­place in-per­son work with Zoom video and con­fer­ence calls. Face-to-face com­mu­ni­ca­tion will con­tin­ue to be im­por­tant, even af­ter the acute coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic eas­es and some sem­blance of nor­mal op­er­a­tions recom­mences. That said, it’s cru­cial that com­pa­nies con­tin­ue to pro­tect em­ploy­ees and pri­or­i­tize their com­fort and safe­ty. The need for safe, low-risk busi­ness en­vi­ron­ments will con­tin­ue to be nec­es­sary, and we will all need to ad­just and adapt to col­lab­o­ra­tions with less — and some­times no — in-per­son in­ter­ac­tions.

As the need for re­mote work con­tin­ues, it will dri­ve big changes in how biotech com­pa­nies ap­proach re­search col­lab­o­ra­tions and part­ner­ing ac­tiv­i­ty.

Sci­ence will be “de-den­si­fied”

Across in­dus­tries, busi­ness­es are look­ing for ways to “de-den­si­fy” work en­vi­ron­ments to pro­tect em­ploy­ees. Biotech is no dif­fer­ent. Un­til we have re­li­able and wide­ly-avail­able tests for Covid-19 — both an­ti­body tests and serol­o­gy tests — to sup­port safer work­spaces, labs will need to adapt. Al­ready, biotech com­pa­nies are cre­at­ing new work struc­tures to en­sure that em­ploy­ee health is pro­tect­ed and sci­en­tists spend the least amount of time to­geth­er in the lab.

New struc­tures with more re­mote work mean that sci­en­tif­ic teams will be­come greater ex­perts at plan­ning and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. At my com­pa­ny, for ex­am­ple, we have im­ple­ment­ed a shift-based ap­proach, send­ing teams in­to the lab for two-week sprints, fol­lowed by two weeks of re­mote of­fice work. With this sys­tem, we al­ways have a core team in the lab for es­tab­lished process­es such as tis­sue cul­ture, bio­chem­istry, in-vi­vo, phar­ma­col­o­gy, and more. These shifts are ac­com­pa­nied by tem­per­a­ture checks and oth­er mea­sures to en­sure our team feels and is safe, and that our labs are at low­est pos­si­ble risk for spread­ing Covid-19. Feed­back from our teams re­flects chal­lenges — we can­not work at the same den­si­ty or ef­fi­cien­cy as be­fore — but we al­so see that teams have learned to work more in­ti­mate­ly to com­pen­sate. Fur­ther­more, our most in­no­v­a­tive sci­en­tists are ac­cel­er­at­ing our ef­forts in bioin­for­mat­ics and the use of AI in bi­o­log­i­cal imag­ing and drug de­sign, all of which can be ac­com­plished re­mote­ly af­ter key da­ta have been gen­er­at­ed in the labs.

Re­search col­lab­o­ra­tions will be­come more glob­al

Biotech clus­ters like Boston, New York, and San Fran­cis­co have many ben­e­fits, one of which is den­si­ty of col­lab­o­ra­tors and part­ners, such as uni­ver­si­ties and Big Phar­ma play­ers. Big name com­pa­nies spend huge amounts of cap­i­tal on R&D col­lab­o­ra­tion, and many drugs are born from part­ner­ships based on phys­i­cal prox­im­i­ty.

Re­mote col­lab­o­ra­tion was al­ways tech­no­log­i­cal­ly pos­si­ble, and has been a key strat­e­gy for biotech for years. How­ev­er, hav­ing an in­no­va­tion chain dom­i­nat­ed by re­mote col­lab­o­ra­tion in the ear­ly dis­cov­ery space is an untest­ed con­cept. Now, we’re see­ing that glob­al col­lab­o­ra­tion is more vi­able than per­haps an­tic­i­pat­ed. With the right tools and process­es, sci­en­tif­ic teams can work well across bound­aries.

More glob­al col­lab­o­ra­tions au­to­mat­i­cal­ly lead to more di­ver­si­ty, which of­ten im­proves ideas and ap­proach­es. With dis­trib­uted col­lab­o­ra­tions, the qual­i­ty of re­search and find­ings will al­so grow. Bet­ter ther­a­peu­tics are a net pos­i­tive for the health­care in­dus­try and pa­tients.

Pri­or­i­ties will be­come more reg­i­ment­ed

Sci­ence is a cre­ative process, with room for wan­der­ing, imag­i­na­tive it­er­a­tion. Suc­cess­ful in­no­va­tion, how­ev­er, has al­ways re­quired dis­ci­plined con­cen­tra­tion. With re­duced lab ca­pac­i­ty due to de-den­si­fied work en­vi­ron­ments, com­pa­nies will now need to hone their fo­cus like nev­er be­fore.

For com­pa­nies with a sin­gle as­set, this will mean a laser-fo­cused ap­proach to re­search, with less room for tan­gen­tial work. For plat­form com­pa­nies — like my own — whose bi­o­log­i­cal in­sights al­low the tar­get­ing of mul­ti­ple dis­eases, teams will need to quick­ly de­cide which paths to pur­sue alone and which would fit bet­ter in col­lab­o­ra­tion. No mat­ter what, the “nice to dos” will fall away in fa­vor of the “need to dos.” Fast for­ward to the fu­ture, and this nec­es­sary triage may re­sult in a bumper crop of valu­able ther­a­peu­tics.

Best prac­tices for man­ag­ing a re­mote col­lab­o­ra­tion

Over my ca­reer, like many oth­ers, I’ve man­aged suc­cess­ful re­mote col­lab­o­ra­tions. In more than one case, a team has col­lab­o­rat­ed re­mote­ly for years with­out ever meet­ing in per­son. It is thrilling to watch work­ers who do meet in per­son un­der cir­cum­stances where, af­ter work­ing in­ti­mate­ly “alone, to­geth­er” over long dis­tances, it feels like a re­union of long-lost friends. But it is al­so note­wor­thy that these teams were very pro­duc­tive, even with­out ini­tial face-to-face col­lab­o­ra­tion.

For com­pa­nies fac­ing re­mote col­lab­o­ra­tions due to Covid-19, part­ners on both sides of the equa­tion will be fac­ing chal­lenges. The fol­low­ing best prac­tices ap­ply to all col­lab­o­ra­tions, but they’re more crit­i­cal than ever to­day:

  • Es­tab­lish clear vi­sion and goals: Whether in-per­son or re­mote, all re­search col­lab­o­ra­tions should have a shared vi­sion and mea­sur­able, clear goals. When teams are col­lab­o­rat­ing across re­mote lo­ca­tions with lit­tle to no in-per­son in­ter­ac­tion, this be­comes even more im­por­tant. Hav­ing a vi­sion is in­spir­ing, and it re­minds us what we’re work­ing to­ward. En­sure every­one is on the same page from day one, and build the vi­sion and goals in­to meet­ings and oth­er col­lab­o­ra­tive check­points.
  • Se­lect key col­lab­o­ra­tors thought­ful­ly: In any in­dus­try, good work re­lies on hav­ing the right team in place. Peo­ple who are in­cred­i­bly en­thu­si­as­tic and pas­sion­ate about their work can con­vey that ex­cite­ment even through a cam­era and over the phone. They should al­so be true ex­perts in com­mand of the da­ta, too — that goes for any col­lab­o­ra­tion, of course.
  • Choose the right tools — but don’t re­ly on them too much: Re­mote work is en­abled by ad­vanced tools like Slack and Zoom. But tools don’t com­mu­ni­cate — peo­ple com­mu­ni­cate. Col­lab­o­ra­tive teams need to agree on the tools sup­port­ing their work­flow, and they need to un­der­stand when, where, and what to com­mu­ni­cate. Se­lect tools that sup­port your goals, and en­sure every­one has been tech­ni­cal­ly trained and cul­tur­al­ly prepped on how to use them.
  • Prep thor­ough­ly: Tech­nol­o­gy can have short­com­ings, such as split-sec­ond lags for in­ter­na­tion­al calls, patchy au­dio, or lack of vi­su­al cues in body lan­guage. As a re­sult, or­ga­ni­za­tion and prepa­ra­tion are even more im­por­tant to cre­at­ing a good meet­ing cul­ture. Be­ing de­lib­er­ate, re­hears­ing for meet­ings, and us­ing time wise­ly will work won­ders in fa­cil­i­tat­ing smooth col­lab­o­ra­tion.
  • Be com­pas­sion­ate: Liv­ing through a cri­sis is fright­en­ing. To­day, many peo­ple are con­cerned for their health and for their loved ones. They are con­tend­ing with vast­ly shift­ed home en­vi­ron­ments, lack of child­care, and oth­er chal­lenges. Em­pa­thy is cru­cial. Build flex­i­bil­i­ty in­to col­lab­o­ra­tions to al­low sci­en­tists room to man­age dur­ing this un­prece­dent­ed time.

In­no­vat­ing for a new fu­ture in health

Biotech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies have been de­clared es­sen­tial busi­ness­es for a rea­son — al­ready, mul­ti­ple com­pa­nies have mo­bi­lized to look for so­lu­tions to coro­n­avirus. From the im­me­di­ate cri­sis to dif­fi­cult dis­eases like Alzheimer’s and can­cer, our in­dus­try’s young com­pa­nies are the fu­ture of hu­man health. We are on track to find new ther­a­pies and cures for many dis­eases.

Col­lab­o­ra­tions are the lifeblood of our in­dus­try, and they will con­tin­ue. Our in­dus­try is in­ven­tive, and I am con­fi­dent that we will find new ways of work­ing that en­sure em­ploy­ee safe­ty and re­sult in more dis­trib­uted, more glob­al, and more fo­cused re­search. While these are un­cer­tain times, our in­dus­try-wide mis­sion to help pa­tients and save lives is as strong as ever. I en­cour­age com­pa­nies large and small to ap­proach re­mote col­lab­o­ra­tion not as an un­ten­able set­back, but rather as a new par­a­digm to con­tin­ue our cru­cial work in 2020 and be­yond.

Pearl Huang is the CEO of Cyg­nal Ther­a­peu­tics, an ear­ly-stage biotech­nol­o­gy com­pa­ny in Cam­bridge, MA.

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