Building a European biotech business in a post-pandemic world

In a lively evening at the HealthTech Basel dinner hosted by GenSearch and PwC in October, guests heard from Dr. Sarah Holland, Chief Business Officer of VectivBio, and Orlando Oliveira, former SVP, Head of International at TESARO and Agios, about their experiences of building biotech businesses in Europe.

Both speakers have been closely involved with the creation of a number of new European biotech businesses. As a result, they were able to share the insights that they have gained about the challenges and opportunities created by building new international businesses, as well as their experience of operating successfully during the pandemic.

Operating through the pandemic

While the pandemic has created challenges, especially for trials and other critical events, overall the experience of remote working has offered some valuable lessons that will prove useful as restrictions are lifted. Conducting trials was more challenging, but by using remote monitoring and support it’s possible to minimise the amount of time that patients need to spend in a clinical setting. Proactively engaging with clinicians in trial centres is also crucial.

The last 18 months have shown that globally distributed teams working remotely can and do perform at a high level, but in the initial stages of building a new business, early face-to-face team interactions are important in order to create trust. Dr. Sarah Holland explained how even during the pandemic, her business has been able to both successfully conduct third-stage trials and IPO the business.

Make the most of ecosystems and networks

Dr. Sarah Holland identified other key success factors. One of these is location. Working in a centre like Basel, she said, offers a vibrant ecosystem of large pharma businesses, start-ups and an active venture capital community. This creates an ideal development ground for new biotech businesses to flourish. Using networks to tap into new opportunities can also play a crucial role. Likewise, finding assets which have not been successful and which can be turned around and converted into winners is also crucial. As Dr. Sarah Holland put it: 

You can take assets that maybe have great intrinsic properties but haven’t quite had the right team, the right investment or the right strategy, and put a really good team behind them and fire them off into the stratosphere.” Dr. Sarah Holland Chief Business Officer, VectivBio

Orlando OIiveira stressed the need for a clearly articulated strategy. It’s important, he said, to understand from the start why you’re establishing a new venture. For example, are you looking to be acquired or to build a global business? Having a clearly articulated vision and strategy from the outset is essential, as this will determine how the business develops and the goals it sets out to achieve. Orlando Oliveira also outlined why it’s important to ensure that a new business within a global company is seen from the outset as a venture that fits with the existing business: 

“A very big concern of CEOs in the US is how do they know that the founder of the European business is not going to go and build his own kingdom, maybe with a different set of values, different culture and different approach to the key stakeholders? They know Europe is complex, so it’s important to make sure that you create a European organisation that sees itself as an empowered business but also part of the overall global operation.” Orlando Oliveira Former SVP, Head of International at TESARO and Agios

Building the team

Assembling the right team was mentioned by both speakers as a critical success factor. It’s important to recognise different personas — e.g., action-oriented, creative, operational – and how they will contribute to the overall team performance. Dr. Sarah Holland outlined why the right team matters every bit as much as the molecule or treatment in development. She mentioned that VCs look at the team as much as the asset; a good asset with a bad team fails — a bad asset with a good team can often be rescued. The team is really, really crucial.

From pilot to scale
From left to right: Chris Isler (PwC), Orlando Oliveira (former SVP at TESARO and Agios), Dr. Sarah Holland (VectivBio), Heiko Bruhn (GenSearch)
From left to right: Chris Isler (PwC), Orlando Oliveira (former SVP at TESARO and Agios), Dr. Sarah Holland (VectivBio), Heiko Bruhn (GenSearch)

Both Dr. Sarah Holland and Orlando Oliveira have been successful in building biotech businesses that have successfully scaled up during the pandemic.