Pharma Through the Startup Lens
Growing up in the progressive city of Austin, Texas, Trey
Benson is no stranger to the culture of Silicon Valley where he currently works. "Both
places have a more entrepreneurial, go-for-it mentality, which is a fresh break from the more
formal and tradition-bound environment of the East and Midwest," Benson remarked, mulling
over the history of his experiences in and around the pharmaceutical world.
Trey Benson, Executive Director Commercial
Benson's initial time in pharma began after his days as
a biology and chemistry student at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. After receiving
his BS, he initially focused on the laboratory side at AAIPharma, a small contract development
company based in the area. He soon returned to Austin to sharpen his entrepreneurial skills,
getting his MBA at The Red McCombs School of Business at University of Texas and continuing on
at Eli Lilly as a marketing associate. After four years at Lilly, much of it spent working on
Prozac, and two and a half years at Abbott, Benson switched to something more risky and fast
paced, joining XenoPort in 2005 as "essentially the first marketing hire they made."
Coming from such large companies, Benson had to quickly adapt
to the "all-hats" approach that a small company like XenoPort applies to operations,
strategy, and decision-making. "Most of my time here is entrepreneurial in nature," he
said. "I figure out how to do as many things as possible, which often requires a lot of
prioritization, because it is important that everyone pitch in to move things forward."
Benson knows that while his previous experience at larger companies gave him the skills and
expertise to help him do the work he does now at XenoPort, there is simply no room for the kind
of Big Pharma thinking, where, he says, employees are incentivized to take the position that
there are rules to be made and followed, with only one way to do things. This creates a
bureaucratic mindset and a lack of the dynamism needed to keep a company moving forward. With 15
years of experience in marketing for pharma behind him, he points to how the broader market
shift from one-size-fits-all to a more customer-centric approach has benefited those leaner,
more nimble companies like XenoPort: "When you have big products, you keep spending. If
they're not working, you just throw more money at it. With digital marketing, smaller
companies are at less of a disadvantage in terms of resources. Here, it's about using less
but finding more ways to be effective."
Nevertheless, Benson notes that resource constraints in a
smaller company create more risk, and that quick decision-making is critical to solving problems
before they expand to get out of hand. "If you aren't constantly moving and asking
questions, or if you don't ask the right questions and look for answers quickly,
you're just going to be waiting on failure as opposed to letting things fall and recover by
focusing on the right things first." This, he added, requires as timely a read of the
marketplace as possible, to where a company can time its response around the real needs of the
Furthermore, Benson believes that in order to propel an
organization to success, it must have a specific vision that translates well to an external
audience that is increasingly diverse and has high expectations. "Too often companies focus
on what they are doing and how they are doing it," he said. "There's never enough
emphasis on language designed to lead and inspire. I constantly try and understand the
'why' in order to work with other partners and business opportunities so I can explain
it to them." The model of pharma companies following business plans that plot a course for
five to seven years ahead, is outdated, at least in his eyes. Three years is the better norm,
and even that might be overly ambitious, given the turmoil in the customer base.
The same philosophy holds true for the most important
business process of all, which is moving a new drug from development to commercialization.
Benson is constantly scanning the market for partners, investors, and businesses looking to
share the risk of research. "When I started, the average development time was 17 years to
bring a product to market. With the first product I worked on at XenoPort, we cut that time in
half. I'm not sure if we can work with R&D teams and investors to shorten the time even
further, but it's something I work towards every day."
Benson is firm on one piece of wisdom he knows has sustained
him in his transition from Austin to the Midwest and to Silicon Valley: don't be afraid to
try and fail. "If you go for it and mess up, so be it. You can try again. If you're
close enough, give it a shot. You've only got one life to live."