George Rothmann, PhD., Amgen's first CEO, was called the "Golden Throat" for his ability to woo investors. That wasn't always the case, though. As subsequent CEO Gordon Binder tells the story in the book, "Science Lessons," Dr. Rothmann, in his first meeting to raise capital from a group of potential investors, summed up the expectations of profit after five years in one word: "Zip!" The investors walked away.
Although Dr. Rothmann's projection was spot on, this chemist by training needed to polish the soft skills to break the news more gently. While perfecting those skills, he built Amgen into one of the top biotech companies in the world.
Most corporate trainers don't get the opportunity to turn a scientific founder into a "Golden Throat" like Dr. Rothmann, but they do have opportunities to coach technical personnel at their early and mid-career stages to help them add value to existing companies and improve their own career options. The goal is to help scientists and engineers better understand how the marketplace actually works and the business considerations that factor into decisions.
"Bench scientists and engineers...are trained to be linear thinkers," says James Bianco, M.D., CEO and president of Seattle-based Cell Therapeutics, Inc. "But business is not always an A to B to C proposition."
EPSE Does It
Encouraging these technical wizards to complete an executive MBA program, or the new MBA for life sciences executives San Diego State University plans to launch in 2010, would be a logical solution. However, "these people have all the degrees they want," says Gary De Spain, director of external development for the University of California - San Diego (UCSD). The university, therefore, developed programs to provide technical professionals with the business skills and information they need to run a company.
UCSD's approach is known as the Executive Perspective for Scientists and Engineers (EPSE) program, designed for professionals with 10 to 15 years of experience. The Leadership and Management Program (LAMP) is designed for scientists and engineers with three to five years of experience, to help them lead at a middle-management level.
In each of those courses, "soft skills are the first thing we have to work on," notes Bruce Dunn, associate dean, UCSD-Extension. "Most come from a world of right and wrong answers and fully rational solutions, where all variables can be dealt with by drilling further down to the root of the issue," he explains. In management, however, "humans are involved, so sometimes decisions are not entirely rational." Therefore, these professionals need to hone their abilities to deal with ambiguity and risk.
The nine-month EPSE program meets once each week and begins with a 360-degree assessment. An individual study plan is based upon the assessment results, to help students maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. The program is presented in three modules: leadership at the executive level, business skills, and strategic vision.
"A common criticism is scientists and engineers...are not good at letting go," De Spain says. They begin their careers as lone professionals, and eventually may have a lab staffed with people just like themselves, so they need to learn to delegate. Therefore, they are put into teams, and into situations for which there is no one best solution. Rather than focusing upon a product, the EPSE program focuses on business issues such as company valuation and earnings per share, using a real-time business simulation. The final module discusses the points the CEO needs to understand, such as mergers and acquisitions, and how to protect intellectual property.
"Another thing we hear," De Spain says, "is that technical professionals need to better understand the strategic vision of the company and translate that to their people. Otherwise, they may develop phenomenal products that no one wants to buy." APC, a provider of uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) for computers, is a case in point. One of APC's founders, Neil Rasmussen recalls spending 18 months developing an uninterruptible power supply in the early 1980s. "It outperformed everything in the market," he says, but only 30 were sold. It didn't address customers' problems. Soon afterward, Rasmussen and his co-founders developed a new, less sophisticated UPS in a few days. It became a big seller.
Ken Simone, chief technical officer for startup KDVS Innovative Concepts, LLC, addressed many of his business knowledge gaps in 2009. KDVS, which uses light-emitting diodes to augment the life of biofuel-producing algae, won second place in the University of Dayton's 2009 business plan competition. That competition includes a series of seminars to teach entrepreneurs how to develop a business plan and provides the business plan software. Finalists in the competition also received mentors from their own industries and a business plan coordinator for one-on-one discussions.
"The best thing about the competition was my realization of the value of market data and the difficulty of qualifying the market," Simone says. "I also learned how difficult it is to put together the numbers for a business plan," citing such plan components as the cost of building and testing prototypes, valuing the products, determining financial needs, and identifying potential sources of capital.
This competition, and approximately 170 others like it in the U.S., provides early seed money, as well as expertise. "Often, angel investors won't invest unless outside management is brought in," explains Dean B. McFarlin, Ph.D., chair, department of management and marketing, University of Dayton, which awarded $37,000 to competition winners in 2009. "That's difficult for technical people to understand, but the skill sets are completely different."
Training Resources for Technical Specialists
Many training sessions can be conducted in-house, but when it's time to look outside your own pool of expertise, here are some groups that may help.
- University extension programs
- MIT's open courseware program (ocw.mit.edu)
- Professional networking organizations, such as The Hatchery in New York City
- Trade associations, such as BioCom in San Diego for the biotech community
- Business incubators, such as MaRS in Toronto or Buffalo Biosciences
- Business plan competitions, such as the University of Dayton's
- The U.S. Small Business Administration