4 min read

Culture is an overlooked competitive advantage: lessons from top biotech execs

Creating a culture of transparency and accountability is important – not just for driving company outcomes, but also for motivating team members to do their best work (which, well, drives company outcomes!). In this Kaleidoscope post, we dive into key lessons that we've heard a number of biotech execs share. If anything here resonates, please reach out!

In a high-stakes, resource-constrained world of chasing inflection points, biotech leaders are eager to find ways to improve. New software, new forms of artificial intelligence and machine learning, new processes, new team members – whatever it takes to move through the drug discovery process faster. One thing many overlook when trying to propel their companies forward: company culture. 

People who join biotech companies are usually quite invested in the actual science and the impact it can have. They want to contribute in meaningful ways and to stay and see things through to fruition, but this is only possible if there is a culture of transparency and alignment around the goals that are being set and the progress being made.

Andrew Fraley is a multi-time biotech executive from his time as an EIR at Atlas Ventures. He was recently on the Building Biotechs podcast and made a similar point (at ~11 min). “What does everyone want? They want clarity.” No one joins a company for the pretty swag or the cool perks. Over the long-term, what gets people up in the morning is coming into an environment where they know where they stand; where they know what work they’re going to do, that their work has meaning and is appreciated by their team, and that there’s a clear career path for them to follow. 

As an employee, part of knowing where you stand is knowing where your company stands. And, when it comes to biotech, this means knowing where the data stands – knowing things like why you’re working on this particular platform, or that particular experiment, and how it fits into the bigger picture of what you’re all trying to achieve together. 

In many ways, biotech operates like a multiplayer sport with various different team roles –  bench scientists, data scientists, engineers, bioinformaticians, executive decision makers. It’s easy for each team to become siloed in their own work, disconnected from the rest. But, imagine a football play where the quarterback doesn’t know how the defense is arranged or the defense doesn't know what play is being run. It wouldn’t work. Now, think of how much smoother the play goes when there’s complete clarity on what move everyone on the field is going to make. Similarly in biotech, everyone on the team needs to understand what each other’s role is and why, in order to grasp the larger strategy and execute it well. 

As a founder, if your bench doesn’t understand what’s going on in the boardroom,  it’s up to you to connect those dots. A transparent culture is ingrained by leaders and is a conscious decision about how you’re going to run your company. If you’re doing it right, this decision should trickle down into the everyday things, like how you schedule meetings, how you think about review processes, how you bring people from different teams together around the same table. 

Isaac Stoner, CEO of Octagon Tx, recently spoke about how he builds culture in his company. He implemented an extremely flat culture at Octagon, where the team is deliberately small enough for everyone to be involved in every main decision. Transparency is at the core of this culture. Every team member knows what Octagon’s balance sheet looks like, what the next milestones are, what the budget is, and whether the agreed upon timelines to get to the next milestones are slipping away. This is only made possible by Isaac’s mindset. He sees his role as CEO to “empower his team” i.e. staying close enough to everyone in the company to get them on the same page and aligned on the next goal – and then giving them the right resources, people, money, and space to get there. 

Isaac’s approach is also a reminder that culture is maybe 20% what you say and 80% what you do. It’s not enough to just tell people you’re transparent. Transparency is created in the team’s daily lived experiences, and it takes a commitment to creating a shared understanding between your team, every single day. And while this concrete approach may not work for every company in every scenario, the idea that teams could accomplish significantly more through working in more open, collaborative, and streamlined ways is hard to argue against.

We actually crafted Kaleidoscope with this exact principle in mind. Our platform gives biotechs a way to chart out their roadmap and dynamically associate the data they generate with the goals at hand. Kaleidoscope dashboards are a way to promote transparency and accountability: who is doing what (and why), and how is the team performing against critical milestones. Whether it’s driving weekly review meetings or planning entire preclinical campaigns, the idea is the same – align your team on the big picture and then execute swiftly and precisely.  

Whatever methods you implement, the theory underpinning them is the same: teams need practical ways to get that ‘strategic download’ from you so they can understand the ‘why’ behind their work, rather than just going through the motions of executing the ‘what’. At its core, a shared understanding means that every team member is aligned in three critical ways: what the team is trying to achieve, why their chosen direction gives the best chance of success, and what each person’s role and responsibilities are on their mutual journey. 

Once you’ve instilled this transparency and alignment across your team, you have a powerful catalyst built-in to your company’s fabric.

If you want to chat more about anything we wrote, or you’re interested in finding a way to work together, let us know!