Canadian Biotech’s Approach to Growing C-Level Talent
The Canadian biotech industry has a problem. Despite a reputation for leading-edge research, its advancements haven’t translated into any research-based anchor companies like Johnson & Johnson in the U.S. or Novo Nordisk in Denmark. Instead, young companies often are acquired by non-Canadian entities or out-license their intellectual property to international companies, to be commercialized elsewhere.
Consequently, Canadian biotech executives often lack the skills and experience necessary to transform small to medium-sized companies into powerful national or international entities. “There’s a real need in Canada to identify a mechanism that helps companies scale up in a way that translates into sustained economic development,” notes Gordon C. McCauley, president and CEO of adMare BioInnovations. “How do we help someone who’s been in the industry for 10 or 15 years and wants to lead the industry in the future?”
That question is a hot topic within Canada’s biotech community, and came up in a conversation between McCauley and Pfizer Canada’s (now retired) president, John Helou. An idea emerged and, eventually, in 2018, Pfizer Canada provided a CA$1 million grant to form the adMare Executive Institute. Its purpose? To train Canadian biotech executives in the leadership skills necessary to scale their companies.
Demand as the Driver
Pfizer Canada sees the grant as an investment in Canadian biotech, explains Bob Dawson, director of Access and Government Relations for Pfizer Canada. He worked closely with McCauley to establish the program. “We have a lot of strategic partnerships, but in the Canadian context, we haven’t done anything like this before. It’s not tied to any commercial benefit, so this is a bold move.”
The driver, Dawson explains, was demand. “Executives throughout Canada’s biotech ecosystem are asking for this gap to be filled. They need investments in management skills. Finding and developing the capacity of their corner suite individuals to move to the next level is a big priority for them, and it’s hard to do by themselves.”
To put the challenge in context, many Canadian biotechs are on the verge of significant international expansion, he says, but their executive talent pool lacks the strength of their global competitors. For example, Cole Pinnow, Pfizer Canada’s new president, is American. As Dawson explains, “Pfizer develops our executive talent through our network, which is harder for small to medium-sized companies to do.”
The adMare Executive Institute
Twenty applicants were selected for adMare Executive Institute’s 10-month, September to May, course. They gather for five, three-day meetings, alternating among sites in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal.
Participants have a lot of preparatory work before the first meeting, coaching throughout the term, and assignments that carry over from session to session. “At the end of the 10 months, we have a wrap-up session where participants present their capstone projects and have a dialog,” McCauley says. That recipe continued with the second cohort, which began in September 2019.
The sessions all focus on leadership and how it manifests in various situations. “The Center for Creative Leadership (in North Carolina) conducted much of the training, starting with personality profiles and extensive questionnaires to help us understand our leadership styles,” explains participant Alexander Graves, president and CEO of Symvivo Corporation. “That was useful.
“Then we went into real-world simulations,” he continues, to practice communicating specific messages to different personality types. “In one of the exercises, participants were all part of a fictitious company, with hundreds of pages to read to prepare. We had a general meeting about how to effectively disseminate that information. It turned into a bit of a dogfight,” he admits.
The benefit came afterward, in the form of what he called “heartfelt feedback,” which was recorded. “Even after a year, I still play it back to myself,” he reveals. “Our self-perceptions aren’t always accurate.”
Leadership is about knowledge, too. That’s where the Canadian-specific content really comes to the fore. The Canadian biotech ecosystem is different from the American ecosystem. So, Graves elaborates, “we talked about Canadian funding sources, how other companies approach U.S. funding, ways to maintain Canadian ownership, and how colleagues have dealt with venture capital firms that may be willing to invest—but only if the company moves to San Francisco or Boston (the leading U.S. biotech clusters).”
Forging Deep Connections
Meeting everybody was one of the best parts of the program, Graves says. Each of the five sessions began with participants sharing their accomplishments or challenges since the last meeting. “Some had raised funding, some had funding dry up, some started clinical trials, some changed jobs,” Graves says. “It was refreshing and interesting to understand what was happening broadly.
“This was different from typical networking events in which people meet superficially and don’t see one another again for a year,” Graves continues. “Being part of a cohort, we began to understand one another and develop real relationships. We gained insights into other companies and organizations we wouldn’t otherwise get to know, to understand how the biotech ecosystem works in Canada.”
Sharing knowledge and contacts was another benefit to participants, who came from throughout Canada. “One of the people in my accountability group had run many clinical trials,” Graves recalls, “so I bounced ideas off him, and he shared ideas and contacts. Another was with a startup company. I shared my insights. Another was focused on commercialization. We had the entire drug development lifecycle represented in my group,” Graves says.
That breadth of experience is particularly important in biotech, which can become so focused on the next milestone that managers sometimes overlook the eventual needs of product scale-up, manufacturing, or commercialization.
After 10 months, Institute participants present their capstone projects. These short presentations focus on how the executives used the skills they learned within their organizations. Because his company began clinical trials during the term, Graves discussed the leadership challenges of transitioning Symvivo from a pre-clinical to a clinical company.
When the second term was announced in May 2019, the number of applications doubled. With that cohort set to complete in May 2020 (prior to the COVID-19 pandemic), it’s too early to gauge the success of either group. Yet, anecdotally, the Institute experience seems to be helping. “I have lost count of the number of Canadian CEOs who say this is exactly what we need,” McCauley says. Institute graduates are being promoted to senior roles in the industry, and many from the first cohort are mentoring and networking with each other and with the second cohort.
adMare made a point of balancing the classes to broadly reflect the diversity of Canada. “That freed a bunch of people to apply with greater confidence they would be positively received,” McCauley says.
To qualify, applicants need at least 10 years working in the biotech industry and, ideally, some exposure to the commercial side of the business. Each applicant’s CEO or board chairman also must support the application, and the company must post a CA$5,000 deposit, which is returned upon graduation. “There are no actual costs to participants,” McCauley emphasizes. Costs to the adMare Executive Institute, however, are approximately CA$25,000 per student. Prior to COVID-19, applications for the next cohort were to be accepted in May and June 2020.
What happens to the adMare Executive Institute beyond then is unknown. “We haven’t looked at the long-term funding,” Dawson explains. Ideally, he says, “I’d like to work with other partners and the Canadian government.”
adMare Executive Institute Admissions
- Applicants need at least 10 years working in the biotech industry and, ideally, some exposure to the commercial side of the business.
- Each applicant’s CEO or board chairman also must support the application.
- The applicant’s company must post a CA$5,000 deposit, which is returned upon graduation; costs to the adMare Executive Institute are approximately CA$25,000 per student.
- Cohorts gather for five, three-day meetings, alternating among sites in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal.
- Prior to COVID-19, applications for the next cohort were to be accepted in May and June 2020, with acceptance notifications in August.