Seven Lessons I Learned Working at a Biotech Startup

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-04-01-2022, Volume 42, Issue 4

How early stage can help set you up for big stage.

In 2020, mid-lockdown during the pandemic, I decided to join Ochre Bio, a startup based in the heart of Oxford’s biotech innovation hub, as program manager of commercial operations. Co-founders Jack O’Meara and Quin Wills were developing RNA medicines for chronic liver diseases, a global killer. Fresh out of Y Combinator, the startup had closed a seed financing round and was hiring.

Intrigued by the concept of rejuvenating unhealthy livers and nursing them back to health for transplant, I wanted to learn more. Ochre had unearthed new biological pathways by leveraging “deep phenotyping” and evaluated its RNA medicines in human livers deemed unfit for transplant.

Here are seven lessons I learned working at the company.

1. Build a team with the right phenotype

Phenotype is of the utmost importance. A term generally used to describe clinical patient observations, we used it to attract the right talent, in terms of ambition, attitude, and culture. Hiring for the “right phenotype,” or cultural fit, ensures a team environment with a can-do, solutions-focused attitude—in Ochre’s case, creating meaningful medicines that improve patient outcomes. This keeps a team focused on a singular mission: helping patients.

2. Decide whether you are a product-based or platform-based biotech

A startup needs to decide whether to focus on products or platform. Ochre was clear from the start that the real value is novel therapies. The reasoning here? This wasn’t just another AI drug discovery startup focused on algorithms and tech, with no intention of developing actual medicines for patients. Decisiveness kept Ochre’s team focused on “patient first” and getting its first product into the clinic at lightning speed.

3. Partner for value, not hype

Partners should share your mission and vision. Even though large pharma is interested, if it’s not the right time and you have no intention of out-licensing any candidates, cut those discussions short. If you’re advancing your own pipeline, it’s best to be upfront from the start.

4. Keep communication concise

Clear, concise communications is paramount for success. Effective internal and external communication ensures a team is aligned on the same goals. This builds a solid foundation for a quickly growing team. Share an agenda before each meeting, and come prepared with well-structured, concise scientific and commercial points. Share crossfunctional updates and solve problems together.

5. Lean on experienced advisors

When it comes to major decisions, companies have to lean on good advisors—mentors who know what they’re talking about. A keen eye for whose advice to take and whose to ignore is a fundamental skill that all early stage founders and operators should learn, even if it is difficult to master. The team at Ochre has built a strong board and advisor network, which is invaluable when faced with challenging decisions.

6. Wearing many hats makes you valuable

Biotech is really, really hard. Some days you’ll have to wear many hats to keep the science moving (at the speed of biology). As Ochre’s program manager of commercial operations, I learned a variety of skills speaking with IP lawyers, scientists, investors, and others. Keep notes and distribute structured action points after meetings.

7. Prepare for worst-case scenario, and learn from (inevitable) mistakes

In biotech, Murphy’s Law is alive and well. Nothing ever goes to plan, but that’s part of the journey. Be open to change. Communicate. Evidence-based, actionable feedback is powerful for team improvement. Write down areas for improvement in a notebook and review regularly to keep track of your progress. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Remember to take time to relax and recharge.

Working for an early stage biotech was tremendously rewarding. It involved a steep learning curve and challenging work, but with a focus toward developing life-saving medicines for patients. After working at Ochre, supported by the amazing mentorship I received, I’m prepared and excited to build something of my own.

Vassilis Ragoussis, Former program manager of Ochre Bio