Lessons in Herding Cats: Business Development for Life Sciences Companies

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Business development challenges can make or break a company in any industry. For a life sciences company, overcoming the added hurdles inherent in the field makes success even more challenging. Dr. Lesley Stolz, head of JLABS Bay Area, is well versed in navigating the many pitfalls on the road to achieving business success. BioVox spoke to Stolz to get exclusive access to her advice.

By Amy LeBlanc

Lesley Stolz is a woman used to large-scale problem solving. As Head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation JLABS Bay Area, Stolz is in charge of both JLABS @ SSF and JLABS @ MBC Biolabs. She has been working in corporate and business development roles for over20 years, helping dozens of life sciences companies to achieve their business goals. Stolz will be presenting a workshop in Belgium next month called “Lessons in Herding Cats: Business Development for Life Science Companies”. The insights in this article are just the tip of the ice-berg; for full access to Stolz’s expertise and knowledge, come to the event supported by JLABS @ BE.

From research to business

Hailing from a background in chemistry and biochemistry, Lesley Stolz shifted from academia to industry when she realized that a research focus was too narrow for her interests. Stolz found herself inspired by new technologies and the process of translating scientific discoveries into practical products. No longer content with solving technical problems, Stolz wanted to tackle the broader challenges involved in business development.

Overcoming business challenges is all about finding people with the necessary knowledge and technology to address your particular questions and issues. It takes a village. – Lesley Stolz, JLABS

Stolz entered the challenging life sciences industry, where she proceeded to take on a string of business development roles in small companies. Focused on products and platform technologies, the seven different companies Stolz worked with faced their fair share of unique obstacles. A common question faced by start-up companies is to aim for an IPO or M&A; both routes require different strategies and a lot of companies struggle with which goal to pursue. Stolz describes one story in particular, that stood out in her time as a business developer:

“When you work for an emerging company, you often discover that while your technology might be transformative, there isn’t always a business solution to match. Sometimes, when that happens, the technology simply gets absorbed by another company. One instance where we managed to successfully avoid this scenario, was with Sutro Biopharma.

Sutro is a platform company that manufactures biologics using a cell-free system. The company did not want to become a simple manufacturing organization, so they created a strategy where their technology was used to make unique and differentiated therapeutics for oncology and other medical fields. The company’s technology was validated in 2008 and they went public just this year. Sutro’s products are now in the clinic and on their way to efficacy testing. It is a great story, where grit and science combined to create a real value for patients.”

Universal challenges, unique hurdles

Listen, ask questions and communicate your issues clearly and succinctly. And always depend on your team! – Lesley Stolz, JLABS

Close to five years ago, Stolz started working for Johnson & Johnson; she soon became the head of JLABS Bay Area, where she has put her expertise to work establishing collaborations between JLABS  and start-up companies in the life sciences. Stolz finds that the challenges faced by these fledging companies are often the same as those faced by any new business. There are however some challenges that are unique to businesses in the life sciences sector:

“Many of the issues in business development are the same for companies in life sciences as in other industries. In life science companies, however, the timelines for product development are often much longer. The adverse effects of this time-based challenge can be overcome by implementing creative and thoughtful milestones incremental rewards to the innovators. Because it can take 7-12 years to bring a product onto market, there has to be a way to provide value to the innovator as the product moves through the testing process.”

Stolz adds that two of the most common issues for life sciences companies are access to capital and quality experimental design. To design a good study, she says:

“Designing experiments, to demonstrate to the full range of stakeholders that your science is solid, is a huge challenge. You need to be able to show that the technology is relevant, that it is different from competitor technologies and that it will be highly valued by both patients and care-givers. You can only overcome these problems by answering the right scientific questions in an effective manner.”

Her single best piece of advice for a member of the life science community?

“Overcoming business challenges is all about finding people with the necessary knowledge and technology to address your particular questions and issues. It takes a village. Listen, ask questions and communicate your issues clearly and succinctly. And always depend on your team!”

Lesley Stolz will be running the workshop “Lessons in Herding Cats: Business Development for Life Science Companies”, hosted by JLABS @ BE, on November 8th in Gent, Belgium. For more information on life science events, keep an eye out for new posts on our BioVox events page.

JLABS @ BE will continue to benefit from 2.1 million euros of financial support granted by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the government agency Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship (VLAIO –Hermesfonds) until February 2019.