Biotech Voic­es: Coro­n­avirus will change biotech re­search with re­mote col­lab­o­ra­tions

Biotech Voices is a collection of exclusive opinion editorials from some of the leading voices in biopharma on the biggest industry questions today. Think you have a voice that should be heard? Reach out to senior editors Kyle Blankenship and Amber Tong.

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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Audentes “contributed in a positive way by giving a painful but important example for others to look at and learn from,” Terry Flotte, dean of the UMass School of Medicine and editor of the journal Human Gene Therapy, told me. “I can’t see anything they did wrong.”

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