MIT Biotechnology Group

Biotech writer Luke Timmerman kicks off MIT Biotech Group lunch series

We recently hosted prolific biotech writer Luke Timmerman for a lunch discussion while he was in town to run the Boston Marathon (congrats on a great finishing time!). Luke Timmerman is an award-winning journalist who has been covering the biotech industry for more than ten years. He has written for Xconomy, Forbes, Bloomberg News, and has recently founded his own independent subscription journalism site, Timmerman Report. He has also been hard at work on his book, a biography of Lee Hood that will be published later this year.

As the first in a series of small-group lunch events, we invited Luke to tell us about his new publication, give advice on the interface between academia and the biotechnology industry, and speak about his thoughts on the industry at large. Going forward, the Biotech Group intends to use these lunch Q&A sessions to bring together thought leaders from venture capital, industry, startups, and academia. If you have any suggestions for subjects, speakers, or sponsorship, contact us at biotech@mit.edu!

Luke held a lively discussion,on the opportunities and exciting new career paths that are growing with the recent surge in biotech, as well as where he thinks the field is going and what we can do as trainees to keep up. We’ve distilled some of his thoughts and advice to students below. For his take on things, check out his recent post on the pipeline for training and development of biomedical scientists.

Take an active role in the biotech ecosystem

For trainees, the intense focus on research can easily create tunnel vision, but don’t forget to look outward! Luke recommends tools like Twitter, Xconomy, the Fierce Network, and of course, Timmerman Report, as sources for fresh developments in the biotech world. Taking the time to learn who the players are and what they’re up to can be extremely rewarding for relatively little effort.

Value the Boston community

The density at which everything is packed into Cambridge, Boston, and the surrounding communities produces great network effects, which Luke has touched on in a recent article. Take advantage of the potential for chance meetings with healthcare consultants in a coffee shop, or finding potential collaborators on the T.

Luke also brought up a potentially negative consequence of this dense ecosystem: in such a fast-paced and exciting environment, it can be tempting to just go with the crowd. In the biotech industry, you have to be in the hub because of the complexity, but you still need to guard your quiet time to really formulate your ideas. Preventing groupthink is important, particularly in a field where innovation is the lifeblood of any company.

Expect innovation to stay mostly at small companies

According to Luke, the growing reliance of established industry players on outsourcing innovation is a trend that’s here to stay. The drivers of growth will be lots of little companies that will never become household names. Pharmaceutical companies are realizing that their internal R&D operations have not performed adequately. Industry will certainly retain scientific expertise in-house, but this will be more in business development roles than in actual research. They will be evaluating the science and will understand it, but won’t be putting in time at the bench themselves. Luke forecasts that Pharma will continue downsizing R&D with more investments in late-stage development and marketing.

This further underscores the importance of building useful non-technical skills whenever possible. Layoffs in industry have forced a lot of very talented, experienced into the market, so competing as a younger individual without experience can be more difficult.

Look for growth in non-academic career paths in the life sciences

As the biotech industry grows, execution skills like manufacturing, sales, marketing, and communications will be increasingly important and, in a lot of ways, are currently undervalued. As mentioned, pharma will likely make more investments in late-stage development and marketing as they continue to in-license many drug candidates over developing them in house. It’s important to note these roles aren’t restricted to “business” people; understanding the science is still enormously valuable in these positions, and students should look to use their skills in these areas as well. Luke advocated a strategy similar to Google’s 20% time: take some time to learn about interesting jobs outside the lab – manufacturing, sales, law, communications will all continue to grow with biotech.

Thanks to Luke Timmerman for a successful and enlightening discussion and to the Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship for funding! Sign up for our mailing list for updates on future events. Also check out Luke’s new publication, Timmerman Report and, later this year, his biography of biotech legend Lee Hood!

Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship

Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship