5 min read

Once upon a time in biotech

Many of us at Kaleidoscope have spent a lot of time working with, investing in, or employed by biotechs. Through this, we’ve observed the power of stories in influencing the outcomes of a company. But storytelling is hard to do well, especially in highly technical contexts. And, in Life Sciences, the difference between your vision resonating or not can be the difference between a patient receiving a new treatment or not. Some more thoughts on this below. As usual, if anything here resonates, please reach out.

Over the last several months, we’ve written about a variety of data-focused topics, like what investors look for when they diligence therapeutics companies, or what good data organization and hygiene look like in Life Sciences. You can think of data as the ‘what’ behind a biotech, but an area often overlooked by teams is the narrative behind the technology — the ‘why’.

From the moment we enter this world, we engage in storytelling. Nursery rhymes, movies, adverts, names. Storytelling is at the heart of all of these things – it’s how we understand what’s happening in the world around us. Cognitively, our minds are designed to pluck and assemble bits and pieces of information into personal, emotional narratives we can grasp and remember. Some of the greatest companies in the world have leveraged this to tell stories that persuade and inspire. At Pixar, every team down to software engineering has a story department. At Nike, stories, not products, “knit the whole organization together” –  a shift that resulted in the iconic AirMax ad that pulled the company out of its slump in the 80s.

Unfortunately, storytelling is often a common deficiency among biotech companies. The incredible visions these teams have for the future get lost in translation and lose their impact in front of customers and investors. Often, it’s not that bio founders can’t tell good stories. It’s that, as scientists, they are trained to tell stories in a certain way. The focus is on communicating facts for research, publication, and grants. These stories are typically aimed at peers, not at the general population, and suffer from the belief that everyone will – or should – understand what we do and why we do it.

This is a hard curse to avoid. Those in biotech will attest to usually being surrounded by other scientists. These scientists can connect the dots easily; they can look at data that has been presented and understand what that data means and what the implications are – much like speaking the same language. But for anyone outside the profession, it takes a herculean effort to understand the same story. As a biotech company, this can harm you in so many ways: investors can’t see your potential, new hires don’t resonate with your vision, existing hires don’t feel motivated by the bigger picture, the public don’t understand what you do and why it matters.

At the root of this is the mistake of not placing the target audience at the heart of your story. Instead, biotechs often over-index on the ‘what’ – i.e. the technology they use or data they generate – instead of the ‘why’. The problem is that this makes it harder to connect with a genuine sense of mission. Building a company is a team effort, and if you want people to join you in your quest, you need to make it clear why you exist, why people should listen, and why you’re making a meaningful difference.

Think back to the Nike’s and Pixar’s of the world. These companies don’t present facts and leave it to the audience to figure out why they should care. Nike doesn’t plaster  “we sell shoes” on a billboard and call it a day. Nor do they make the vast R&D they do and tech they develop the center of their story. Pixar doesn’t list out the intricate steps involved in computer animation when advertising a movie. Instead, these brands take it upon themselves to connect the dots for others – to paint a picture that customers, employees, and investors see themselves in and want to be a part of. For Nike, that picture is all about perseverance and achieving personal bests, and for Pixar that picture is about creating a universe of memorable stories and characters we’re drawn to. For biotech companies, the data is the foundation to painting this picture. This data is vast, and often unwieldy, but full of potential to be molded into a narrative that resonates more widely. In its most rudimentary form, this can be done in three steps.

The first step is identifying who your audience is. Are you preparing a pitch for therapeutics investors? Are you a prosthetics company selling directly to consumers? How technical you can get depends on the level of expertise your audience has.

Next, find common ground with them. This common ground should consist of tangible benefits. For a prosthetics company selling to customers, that benefit might be performing day-to-day activities with more mobility. The question to ask is: what is your vision for the future for this person? Asking this question can be especially helpful in crafting individualized narratives for different customer personas.

Finally, use your data to back the benefits up. This is where the science and technology can come into play. “Our bionic arm has 80% more retention with amputees compared to other upper limb prosthetics on the market because it has 10 grip modes, 30kgs of capacity and individually motorized fingers.” You can get more technical here, as long as it’s clear to the audience why you’re getting technical.

In this example, the purpose of the story is to move the audience and make them feel personally understood; the technology and data are sidekicks that transport that audience to your vision for the future. Admittedly, this is somewhat of an oversimplification and there are nuances this framework doesn’t quite capture, but repeating this exercise often is a great way to begin crafting a narrative that extends the conversation about cutting-edge advances beyond subject-matter experts, without watering down the science.

It’s imperative for biotech founders to continuously train this storytelling muscle; in this industry, the stakes are high and the problems being solved can quite literally save lives. The onus is on us to communicate how important this work is to non-technical, non-biotech audiences to attract more public or private funding, customers, and talent. To do this, you have to make your ideas rich and resonant for those beyond yourself. Although good storytelling is not a substitute for great, sound science – which takes priority – it is an art worth practicing and taking seriously. The saving grace is that, in biotech, founders have a leg up. Biology intrinsically has all the elements of a great story: heroes, villains, seemingly insurmountable challenges, the opportunity for profit, and the ability to change the world.

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