Biotech Voices: Coronavirus will change biotech research with remote collaborations

When a field that depends on scientific benchwork suddenly moves online, what happens to collaborations and the innovation supply chain? We are seeing the answer to this question play out in real time during the Covid-19 crisis. Across the United States and abroad, measures to safeguard against this serious disease have created an unplanned, massive test for remote work in biotechnology.

Scientific companies face a unique challenge during the shutdown: continuing their research. Lab-based work requires in-person, human attention, as many experiments are complex and require specialized expertise. These projects are often achieved through research collaborations between organizations, requiring meetings to share data, shared work environments, and deep discussions. And their results are priceless — these collaborations have the potential to generate therapies that save or improve millions of lives in the future. This is why biotechnology companies have been deemed an essential industry and continue to operate in some form during the shutdown.

Of course, the industry — like many others — has rapidly adapted. With bans on travel and restrictions on in-person work and meetings, many of the scientific collaborations that generate new therapies are now 100% virtual. This shift presents unique challenges as well as opportunities.

It’s impossible to fully replace in-person work with Zoom video and conference calls. Face-to-face communication will continue to be important, even after the acute coronavirus pandemic eases and some semblance of normal operations recommences. That said, it’s crucial that companies continue to protect employees and prioritize their comfort and safety. The need for safe, low-risk business environments will continue to be necessary, and we will all need to adjust and adapt to collaborations with less — and sometimes no — in-person interactions.

As the need for remote work continues, it will drive big changes in how biotech companies approach research collaborations and partnering activity.

Science will be “de-densified”

Across industries, businesses are looking for ways to “de-densify” work environments to protect employees. Biotech is no different. Until we have reliable and widely-available tests for Covid-19 — both antibody tests and serology tests — to support safer workspaces, labs will need to adapt. Already, biotech companies are creating new work structures to ensure that employee health is protected and scientists spend the least amount of time together in the lab.

New structures with more remote work mean that scientific teams will become greater experts at planning and communication. At my company, for example, we have implemented a shift-based approach, sending teams into the lab for two-week sprints, followed by two weeks of remote office work. With this system, we always have a core team in the lab for established processes such as tissue culture, biochemistry, in-vivo, pharmacology, and more. These shifts are accompanied by temperature checks and other measures to ensure our team feels and is safe, and that our labs are at lowest possible risk for spreading Covid-19. Feedback from our teams reflects challenges — we cannot work at the same density or efficiency as before — but we also see that teams have learned to work more intimately to compensate. Furthermore, our most innovative scientists are accelerating our efforts in bioinformatics and the use of AI in biological imaging and drug design, all of which can be accomplished remotely after key data have been generated in the labs.

Research collaborations will become more global

Biotech clusters like Boston, New York, and San Francisco have many benefits, one of which is density of collaborators and partners, such as universities and Big Pharma players. Big name companies spend huge amounts of capital on R&D collaboration, and many drugs are born from partnerships based on physical proximity.

Remote collaboration was always technologically possible, and has been a key strategy for biotech for years. However, having an innovation chain dominated by remote collaboration in the early discovery space is an untested concept. Now, we’re seeing that global collaboration is more viable than perhaps anticipated. With the right tools and processes, scientific teams can work well across boundaries.

More global collaborations automatically lead to more diversity, which often improves ideas and approaches. With distributed collaborations, the quality of research and findings will also grow. Better therapeutics are a net positive for the healthcare industry and patients.

Priorities will become more regimented

Science is a creative process, with room for wandering, imaginative iteration. Successful innovation, however, has always required disciplined concentration. With reduced lab capacity due to de-densified work environments, companies will now need to hone their focus like never before.

For companies with a single asset, this will mean a laser-focused approach to research, with less room for tangential work. For platform companies — like my own — whose biological insights allow the targeting of multiple diseases, teams will need to quickly decide which paths to pursue alone and which would fit better in collaboration. No matter what, the “nice to dos” will fall away in favor of the “need to dos.” Fast forward to the future, and this necessary triage may result in a bumper crop of valuable therapeutics.

Best practices for managing a remote collaboration

Over my career, like many others, I’ve managed successful remote collaborations. In more than one case, a team has collaborated remotely for years without ever meeting in person. It is thrilling to watch workers who do meet in person under circumstances where, after working intimately “alone, together” over long distances, it feels like a reunion of long-lost friends. But it is also noteworthy that these teams were very productive, even without initial face-to-face collaboration.

For companies facing remote collaborations due to Covid-19, partners on both sides of the equation will be facing challenges. The following best practices apply to all collaborations, but they’re more critical than ever today:

  • Establish clear vision and goals: Whether in-person or remote, all research collaborations should have a shared vision and measurable, clear goals. When teams are collaborating across remote locations with little to no in-person interaction, this becomes even more important. Having a vision is inspiring, and it reminds us what we’re working toward. Ensure everyone is on the same page from day one, and build the vision and goals into meetings and other collaborative checkpoints.
  • Select key collaborators thoughtfully: In any industry, good work relies on having the right team in place. People who are incredibly enthusiastic and passionate about their work can convey that excitement even through a camera and over the phone. They should also be true experts in command of the data, too — that goes for any collaboration, of course.
  • Choose the right tools — but don’t rely on them too much: Remote work is enabled by advanced tools like Slack and Zoom. But tools don’t communicate — people communicate. Collaborative teams need to agree on the tools supporting their workflow, and they need to understand when, where, and what to communicate. Select tools that support your goals, and ensure everyone has been technically trained and culturally prepped on how to use them.
  • Prep thoroughly: Technology can have shortcomings, such as split-second lags for international calls, patchy audio, or lack of visual cues in body language. As a result, organization and preparation are even more important to creating a good meeting culture. Being deliberate, rehearsing for meetings, and using time wisely will work wonders in facilitating smooth collaboration.
  • Be compassionate: Living through a crisis is frightening. Today, many people are concerned for their health and for their loved ones. They are contending with vastly shifted home environments, lack of childcare, and other challenges. Empathy is crucial. Build flexibility into collaborations to allow scientists room to manage during this unprecedented time.

Innovating for a new future in health

Biotechnology companies have been declared essential businesses for a reason — already, multiple companies have mobilized to look for solutions to coronavirus. From the immediate crisis to difficult diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer, our industry’s young companies are the future of human health. We are on track to find new therapies and cures for many diseases.

Collaborations are the lifeblood of our industry, and they will continue. Our industry is inventive, and I am confident that we will find new ways of working that ensure employee safety and result in more distributed, more global, and more focused research. While these are uncertain times, our industry-wide mission to help patients and save lives is as strong as ever. I encourage companies large and small to approach remote collaboration not as an untenable setback, but rather as a new paradigm to continue our crucial work in 2020 and beyond.

Pearl Huang is the CEO of Cygnal Therapeutics, an early-stage biotechnology company in Cambridge, MA.

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