COVID-19: Testing Biotech's Ingenuity in New Ways

May 7, 2020

Startup biotechs need to ensure that life-changing and potentially lifesaving treatments continue to be developed in in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ohana Biosciences' Amber Salzman outlines how her company is

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended work across sectors, and biotech companies are caught in make-or-break scenarios as we race to introduce critical health innovations against unique challenges. Startups are not big pharma. While pharma companies are able to continue generating revenue by selling in-demand medicines, we are still developing our pipeline and are not yet generating revenue. Luckily, by nature, biotech startups attract innovators. It’s this pioneering spirit that extends beyond our labs and into all aspects of our businesses.

Creative problem-solving is vital to young biotechs because we can’t afford to slow down-we’re working toward treatments to solve unmet medical needs for people in dire need of help. Ohana is a reproductive health company seeking to offer transformative treatments across fertility, contraception, and reducing disease. Our latest stage product is a treatment that could help people struggling with infertility conceive the baby they so deeply want, through improving success rates with Assisted Reproductive Technologies such as IVF. With this mission, we cannot take a break. 

For Ohana, COVID-19 struck at a pivotal time. We exited stealth mode in January and have been working at breakneck speed to staff up, conduct R&D and fundraise, while also enrolling patients in our first clinical trial. 

There is no doubt our experiences are being mirrored at biotechs across the U.S. and the globe. We knew we needed creative solutions that would allow us to fulfill our responsibility to our investors, our employees, and most of all, the people who are in need of better and more innovative treatment options. 

Continuing to drive R&D 

In many ways, we’re fortunate to be part of such a rich network for information sharing – through the local ecosystem led by organizations such as MassBio and Life Science Cares and also through being a part of Flagship Pioneering. We take part in regular meetings through these forums to share expertise and best practices to ensure that while we keep essential work going, we’re putting the best possible measures in place to keep employees, their families, and our communities safe. 

Enrollment for our first clinical trial, for a product called SPERTILITY™ that’s intended to help improve the success rate for people going through IVF, had to pause given most fertility clinics temporarily stopped new treatment. However, for these patients, time is crucial – a delay of even a few months could decrease the likelihood that they are able to conceive, so it’s our responsibility to make sure that we don’t take our foot off the proverbial gas pedal and remain ready to resume as soon as restrictions are lifted. We are actively working with these sites as they move to re-open and resume enrollment. In the meantime, we’ve also been doing what we can to support local advocacy groups such as RESOLVE New England to highlight the impact that COVID-19 has had on people in the midst of treatment. 

Overcoming challenges of working (and hiring) remotely

Biotechs grow quickly. This demands ongoing recruitment, hiring and focus on retaining the best talent. 

We’re accustomed to working face-to-face - but it’s amazing how quickly we’re learning that video technology can provide a personal connection. This is especially important for new hires who won’t have the luxury of meeting the team in person. We’ve added a number of key leaders and new expertise to our team over the past month but have had to address the unique challenge of integrating these new team members into our culture … without ever having stepped into our office. 

Each day brings new ideas for how to do this, but some things that have worked particularly well are virtual “coffee chats” where the company gathers for informal Q&As with new hires, increased frequency of all-company town halls and daily gathering via Zoom for team lunch. These important team-building experiences run the gamut, from light-hearted fun to engaging our employees in our company’s mission, and almost always include guest appearances by children and furry friends.

 It is also essential that we keep our teams connected to their mission to help patients. For example, our team wore orange at a recent virtual happy hour in support of RESOLVE’s infertility awareness campaign1 while sharing our personal connections to Ohana’s mission. We’ll also attend RESOLVE’s annual advocacy day,2 which they are holding virtually this year. 

Lastly, given the current environment, it is our responsibility to safeguard the pipeline by staying in sync digitally with our Ohana community of scientists, leaders, managers and beyond. By keeping regular touch bases on the calendar and moving forward with our annual board meeting in June, we are committed to staying on track to deliver the help families are seeking. 

Fundraising

Fundraising is essential for all startups. Biotech companies, especially those that do not yet have a product generating revenue, must continually raise millions of dollars to maintain business and R&D functions to get products to market.

Investment in healthcare remains robust despite the overall economy; however, the way it is facilitated has had to change with the current environment. Face-to-face meetings have been replaced by video meetings over Zoom. The boardroom setting has been replaced with live remotes from home offices and living rooms.

Regardless of the setting or medium, the desired outcome remains the same: to foster real connections and build engagement and confidence in the road ahead. 

Supporting our communities

Beyond supporting the patient community we serve through our advocacy connections, biotechs must also be part of the fabric of their own village, which needs us now more than ever. We’ve been proud to contribute to the local first responders’ networks. We donated PPE as part of MassBio’s Emergency SupplyHub,3 and we took part in fellow Flagship company Omega Therapeutics’ GoFundMe campaign to support those in the service industry.

The path forward

Tomorrow brings a new day, and we’re fortunate that others in the biotech community are working hard on potential treatments to address COVID-19 head-on. While the world faces a difficult time now, we will get through this. Every day I am extremely gratified to see the ceaseless dedication of the healthcare community, essential frontline workers, and selfless volunteers looking for ways small and large to contribute. 

For those of us in biotech, we need to ensure that the life-changing and potentially lifesaving treatments continue to be developed. You don’t land in biotech unless you have a deep sense of purpose and relentless drive to help others in need with scientific innovation that can offer hope and improved health that didn’t exist before. It’s important for all of us to translate the innovative, pioneering spirit that drives our labs and clinics and apply it to every aspect of our businesses. That’s mission critical today.

Amber Salzman, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of Ohana Biosciences.

Notes

1. infertilityawareness.org/get-involved/wearorange-campaign/

2. resolve.org/get-involved/events/advocacy-day/

3. www.massbio.org/initiatives/covid-19-supply-hub/