Takeaways from an NC-centered conference week

Last week was a North Carolina-centered conference binge. First was the NC Biotech Life Sciences Forum, which featured a panel discussion on venture philanthropy. The next two days were filled with a mix of biotech companies, investors, and a Nobel laureate at the CED Life Science Conference. And perhaps the best part of all–this was all right in my backyard (strange going to a conference and not living out of a suitcase!). Here are a few of my takeaways from the week:

  • Venture Philanthropy is not charity; it’s charity with milestones
    This was a point emphasized by all three panelists at the Life Sciences Forum. The key is that milestones keep donors engaged and the organization focused. Sure, “finding a cure for [insert disease here]” is a noble cause, but it’s also abstract–like someone saying their goal is to run a marathon. It’s a great goal, and one that’s potentially achievable, but you’re much more inclined to believe someone once they’ve run a mile. And then two miles. And then three. At this point you see that not only are they getting closer to their end goal, but they’ve given you confidence that they can plan, execute, achieve, and persist–which gives you increasing confidence in their ability to hit miles 4, 5,6…all the way through to 26.2. All of which ties into my next takeaway:
  • To run a successful rare disease nonprofit, focus on demonstrable success, not raising awareness
    As described above, people engage with a cause when it’s working towards a goal, and work towards a goal is best shown–and maintained–through incremental milestones. Rather than devoting the bulk of their energy towards a soft goal like “raising awareness for [rare disease X]”, rare disease nonprofits should focus on an actionable goal (e.g., developing a treatment for [rare disease X]) and the small, discrete steps needed to achieve it (e.g., raising a specific amount of funding for a specific research lab or project; building a patient registry; populating the registry; initiating a natural history study; and so on).

    The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation has been the gold standard for this approach and was well-represented by Bob Beall at the Life Sciences Forum. What I was most excited to see, though, was evidence of this model’s continuing success–in this case in the form of the Chordoma Foundation, which has been making great strides (CF pun intended) in generating the patient-derived cell lines needed for chordoma efficacy research, and which is now poised to move several projects into clinical trials in the near future. Awareness is a necessary goal for any rare disease nonprofit, but demonstrable success is the mechanism by which engagement is sustained.

  • North Carolina early stage funding is improving
    Several early stage funding initiatives were announced at the CED conference: formation of the Triangle Venture Alliance “super angel” network, Hatteras Ventures’ management of and contribution to UNC’s Carolina Research Ventures investment fund, and NC State launching their Acceleration Fund.

    As anyone who has worked in the Triangle knows, the biotech scene is under representative of the intellectual capital in the region. A multitude of factors contribute to this, and lack of early stage funding is certainly one. While the funding from these new initiatives will be an obvious boost, perhaps more important is the direction of progress that they represent–one that focuses on seeding RTP’s early stage entrepreneurial ecosystem with both capital and startup expertise.

  • Twitter is actually a useful networking tool in real life
    I’m being flippant, of course. I’ve had plenty of useful Twitter interactions at conferences in the past–connecting with other conference attendees over Twitter to arrange in-person meetings, engaging with presenters and sponsor organizations through live tweeting, and so on. But at these two conferences I had my first experiences of having ongoing Twitter-only relationships unexpectedly spill into the “real world” and facilitate my in-person conference networking.

    Although it’s growing in popularity, Twitter use among individuals in the biotech industry still lags far behind other industries. This is a benefit to those of us that do use Twitter in that it carries a bit of that underground camaraderie normally found among CrossFit members and people who drive vintage cars. “I follow you on Twitter!” is not a phrase you typically hear at life science events, so it’s an easy way to immediately distinguish yourself and simultaneously compliment the other person (provided it’s used during conversation and not an isolated, abrupt exclamation).

    I was able to use this icebreaker with a couple of people I had only interacted with over Twitter previously; people that I may not have recognized–and who certainly would not have recognized me–were it not for a few exchanged retweets, likes, and 140-character tidbits over the preceding months. I also had the serendipitous experience of randomly picking a lunch seat next to someone I had been following on Twitter who had just started following me the day before (which led to a nice “awkwardly long eye contact as we try to figure out why we recognize each other” moment–and subsequent great conversation). Good returns all around for a low-cost, low time-investment online networking activity.

Up next is the BioCentury Future Leaders in the Biotech Industry Conference this Friday in New York City, so it’s back to the suitcase! Check back next week for my takeaways from the conference.

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