How we are stay­ing con­nect­ed when we’re apart

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.

I’ve al­ways been a peo­ple per­son and en­joy the en­er­gy of meet­ing face-to-face with oth­ers. So, when we shift­ed to work­ing in a vir­tu­al en­vi­ron­ment al­most a year ago, it was a hard ad­just­ment for me, and I know a dif­fi­cult tran­si­tion for many of my col­leagues as well.

When the world went in­to “lock­down,” I had been in my role at Take­da for less than a year, and in-per­son in­ter­ac­tions with col­leagues across the on­col­o­gy busi­ness had been a top pri­or­i­ty for me and my lead­er­ship team. Work­ing from home meant we could no longer take the pulse of the team by walk­ing the halls or read­ing phys­i­cal cues in a con­fer­ence room. Like oth­ers around the globe, we were com­pelled to find new ways to stay con­nect­ed and keep every­one en­gaged at the same lev­el as be­fore even though we re­mained apart.

While Covid-19 has brought chal­lenges un­like any we have faced be­fore, it has al­so pro­vid­ed us with op­por­tu­ni­ties and lead­er­ship lessons that will guide us as we nav­i­gate a new, hy­brid world of work­ing to­geth­er.

Equip lead­ers to ef­fec­tive­ly en­gage in a vir­tu­al world

Re­search shows that high­ly en­gaged teams de­liv­er sig­nif­i­cant­ly bet­ter re­sults, yet many lead­ers have strug­gled to con­nect vir­tu­al­ly with col­leagues. It’s hard to show warmth and per­son­al­i­ty in a dig­i­tal en­vi­ron­ment. Too of­ten, team in­ter­ac­tions be­come rote and im­per­son­al. To dri­ve en­gage­ment, vir­tu­al lead­ers must show their teams that they are ac­ces­si­ble and avail­able to sup­port them on both a per­son­al and a pro­fes­sion­al lev­el.

TIP: To help lead­ers be­come more ef­fec­tive in guid­ing vir­tu­al teams, stress the im­por­tance of more fre­quent touch­points — such as week­ly one-on-one meet­ings or in­for­mal of­fice hours — and lead by ex­am­ple. Pri­or­i­tize reg­u­lar check-ins with your lead­er­ship team mem­bers, just as you ex­pect them to do with those they man­age. It’s al­so im­por­tant to set goals and hold in­di­vid­u­als ac­count­able with clear dead­lines, which can help im­prove pri­or­i­ti­za­tion and or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Main­tain a gen­uine hu­man con­nec­tion

In a re­mote world, video or phone meet­ings are your on­ly op­por­tu­ni­ty to con­nect with col­leagues on a mean­ing­ful lev­el. Gone are the days of ask­ing peo­ple about their day or week­end over morn­ing cof­fee or when pass­ing each oth­er in the halls. I have al­ways be­lieved that tak­ing the time to ask per­son­al ques­tions and lis­ten to how peo­ple are do­ing emo­tion­al­ly is just as im­por­tant as check­ing off every item on a for­mal meet­ing’s agen­da. And this is even more im­por­tant to re­mem­ber in to­day’s en­vi­ron­ment. That’s why I’ve made a few im­por­tant tweaks to my day-to-day, build­ing more time in­to my cal­en­dar to catch up with peo­ple — of­ten de­vot­ing as much as half an hour to talk about our lives out­side of work — and spac­ing calls to avoid feel­ing rushed and to main­tain my en­er­gy.

TIP: Re­mem­ber, your en­er­gy im­pacts oth­ers — so make sure you’re giv­ing every con­ver­sa­tion the fo­cus it de­serves.

Use video when pos­si­ble, but nev­er shame oth­ers for turn­ing it off

When in­ter­act­ing with col­leagues in per­son, it’s easy to con­vey en­thu­si­asm through non-ver­bal cues and fa­cial ex­pres­sions. How­ev­er, in our cur­rent vir­tu­al world, it is up to each leader to find al­ter­na­tive ways to set the tone for the or­ga­ni­za­tion. I’ve per­son­al­ly found that the best way to demon­strate my en­er­gy and pas­sion is to be on cam­era as much as pos­si­ble, though I rec­og­nize that this ap­proach doesn’t work for every­one. At times video can be drain­ing in­stead of en­er­giz­ing, mak­ing it es­sen­tial to strike the right bal­ance.

TIP: Use video fre­quent­ly, but don’t make it a re­quire­ment. While there is ab­solute­ly no shame in tak­ing a break from video when need­ed, more of­ten than not, peo­ple will fol­low your lead, turn­ing cam­eras on and be­com­ing more en­gaged in con­ver­sa­tions as a re­sult.

Don’t take your­self too se­ri­ous­ly, take what you do se­ri­ous­ly

There is noth­ing light about the pan­dem­ic, or about fight­ing can­cer. But that doesn’t mean you can’t see the hu­mor in the every­day — whether it’s a dog bark­ing through your con­fer­ence call or your makeshift of­fice that used to be a clos­et. When you’re able to laugh at your­self and with your team, the en­er­gy can fill the vir­tu­al room and make peo­ple feel less iso­lat­ed. Re­search has al­so found laugh­ter is linked with high­er mo­ti­va­tion and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty.

TIP: Have fun! Send col­leagues a meal from a lo­cal restau­rant to share a vir­tu­al lunch. Hold an ug­ly sweater con­test. A lit­tle lev­i­ty and hu­mor can go a long way in build­ing a team and a hap­py, en­er­getic work en­vi­ron­ment, es­pe­cial­ly when work­ing re­mote­ly.

While this has been an emo­tion­al and chal­leng­ing year for all of us, it al­so pro­vides a great op­por­tu­ni­ty to change the way we con­duct and ap­proach work for the bet­ter. It’s up to each leader to chart the path to a new nor­mal, lever­ag­ing all that we’ve learned in a vir­tu­al en­vi­ron­ment to stay con­nect­ed, en­er­gized and en­gaged with col­leagues in a new, hy­brid world.

Qual­i­ty Con­trol in Cell and Gene Ther­a­py – What’s Re­al­ly at Stake?

In early 2021, Bluebird Bio was forced to suspend clinical trials of its gene therapy for sickle cell disease after two patients in the trial developed cancer. As company scientists rushed to assess whether there was any causal link between the therapy and the cancer cases, Bluebird’s stock value plummeted – as did those of multiple other biopharma companies developing similar therapies.

While investigations concluded that the gene therapy was unlikely to have caused cancer, investors and the public may be more skittish regarding the safety of gene and cell therapies after this episode. This recent example highlights how delicate the fields of cell and gene therapy remain today, even as they show great promise.

Law pro­fes­sors call for FDA to dis­close all safe­ty and ef­fi­ca­cy da­ta for drugs

Back in early 2018 when Scott Gottlieb led the FDA, there was a moment when the agency seemed poised to release redacted complete response letters and other previously undisclosed data. But that initiative never gained steam.

Now, a growing chorus of researchers are finding that a dearth of public data on clinical trials and pharmaceuticals means industry and the FDA cannot be held accountable, two law professors from Yale and New York University write in an article published Wednesday in the California Law Review.

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Novavax CEO Stanley Erck at the White House in 2020 (Andrew Harnik, AP Images)

As fears mount over J&J and As­traZeneca, No­vavax en­ters a shaky spot­light

As concerns rise around the J&J and AstraZeneca vaccines, global attention is increasingly turning to the little, 33-year-old, productless, bankruptcy-flirting biotech that could: Novavax.

In the now 16-month race to develop and deploy Covid-19 vaccines, Novavax has at times seemed like the pandemic’s most unsuspecting frontrunner and at times like an overhyped also-ran. Although they started the pandemic with only enough cash to last 6 months, they leveraged old connections and believers into $2 billion and emerged last summer with data experts said surpassed Pfizer and Moderna. They unveiled plans to quickly scale to 2 billion doses. Then they couldn’t even make enough material to run their US trial and watched four other companies beat them to the finish line.

FDA of­fers scathing re­view of Emer­gent plan­t's san­i­tary con­di­tions, em­ploy­ee train­ing af­ter halt­ing pro­duc­tion

The FDA wrapped up its inspection of Emergent’s troubled vaccine manufacturing plant in Baltimore on Tuesday, after halting production there on Monday. By Wednesday morning, the agency already released a series of scathing observations on the cross contamination, sanitary issues and lack of staff training that caused the contract manufacturer to dispose of millions of AstraZeneca and J&J vaccine doses.

Brad Bolzon (Versant)

Ver­sant pulls the wraps off of near­ly $1B in 3 new funds out to build the next fleet of biotech star­tups. And this new gen­er­a­tion is built for speed

Brad Bolzon has an apology to offer by way of introducing a set of 3 new funds that together pack a $950 million wallop in new biotech creation and growth.

“I want to apologize,” says the Versant chairman and managing partner, laughing a little in the intro, “that we don’t have anything fancy or flashy to tell you about our new fund. Same team, around the same amount of capital, same investment strategy. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But then there’s the flip side, where everything has changed. Or at least speeded into a relative blur. Here’s Bolzon:

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Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/Sipa via AP Images)

Sen­a­tors to NIH: Do more to pro­tect US bio­med­ical re­search from for­eign in­flu­ence

Although Thursday’s Senate health committee hearing was focused on how foreign countries and adversaries might be trying to steal or negatively influence biomedical research in the US, the only country mentioned by the senators and expert witnesses was China.

Committee chair Patty Murray (D-WA) made clear in her opening remarks that the US cannot “let the few instances of bad actors” overshadow the hard work of the many immigrant researchers in the US, many of which have won Nobel prizes for their work. But she also said, “There is more the NIH can be doing here.”

Jenny Rooke (Genoa Ventures)

Ear­ly Zymer­gen in­vestor Jen­ny Rooke re­flects on 'chimeras' in biotech, what it takes to spot a $500M gem

When Jenny Rooke first heard of Zymergen back in 2014, she knew she was looking at something different and exciting. The Emeryville, CA biotech held the promise of blending biology and technology to solve a huge unmet need for cost-effective chemicals — of all things — and a stellar founding team to boot.

But back then, West Coast venture capitalists didn’t see in Zymergen the one thing they were looking for in a winning biotech: therapeutic potential. Rooke, however, saw an opportunity and made her bets. Seven years later, that bet is paying off in a big way.

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Saurabh Saha at Endpoints News' #BIO19

On the heels of $250M launch, Centes­sa barges ahead with an IPO to fu­el its 10-in-1 Medicxi pipeline

Francesco De Rubertis made no secret of IPO plans for Centessa, his 10-in-1 legacy play. Barely two months later, the S-1 is in.

The hot-off-the-press filing depicts the same grand vision that the longtime VC touted when he did the rounds in February: Take the asset-centric mindset that he’s been preaching at Medicxi over the years, and roll up a bunch of biotech upstarts, with unrelated risk profiles, into 1 pharma company that can carry on the development at scale.

Emma Walmsley, GlaxoSmithKline CEO (Kevin Dietsch/Pool via CNP/Alamy)

Glax­o­SmithK­line hus­tles the 7th PD-1 past the fin­ish line with Jem­per­li. But how big will up­take be?

Everything came up sevens for GlaxoSmithKline on Thursday as the pharma notched the seventh PD-1 approval seven years after the first such drugs were OK’ed in Keytruda and Opdivo. But will it bring GSK good fortune?

The FDA granted accelerated approval to dostarlimab, to be branded Jemperli, to treat recurrent or advanced endometrial cancer in a specific subset of patients following platinum-based chemo. It’s a drug that came to GSK through its buyout of Tesaro, which it snapped up for $5.1 billion back in December 2018.