Andrew Bruce didn’t start out with any medical background, but that hasn’t stopped him from taking up leadership roles in major pharmaceutical companies and bioscience startups. He shares his prescription for what it takes to be CEO of a biotech startup in the first edition of our CEO Firestarter Series.
The biotechnology industry’s exponential growth has led to an emergence of promising biotech startups, as well as fierce competition for experienced CEOs to lead them. A recent report from LEK Consulting and SGInnovate has found that hiring C-suite talent to helm mid-sized firms – let alone startups in biotech – can be challenging.
What the industry needs most are CEOs who can enable and empower their teams to excel, said Andrew, who has close to 40 years of corporate experience at Big Pharma firms like GSK and Chiron and startups like Medisix Therapeutics.
Andrew started out in a sales and marketing role at a medical firm and garnered significant managerial, strategy and leadership expertise in the pharmaceutical, biotech and medical consulting industries. He also founded a global specialist medical consulting firm.
In 2021, he joined immune engineering company MediSix Therapeutics as CEO, leading the charge to further develop the work of renowned professor Dario Campana, who specialises in T-cell engineering. The team designs novel ways to improve cancer and autoimmune disease treatment by generating targeted immune cells.
Here are five highlights from the CEO Firestarter Series discussion:
1. How do you find the right talent to build your team?
I look for talent through many channels, be it LinkedIn or talking to investors who know the environment much better and can make referrals.
At MediSix, I spent two months interviewing every member of our team to understand their values and collated these into corporate values that were a reflection of everyone in the company. I want everything we do to be motivated by our company values, which resonate with them. Values like integrity, trust and empowerment guide us in how we recruit and reward our employees.
My mindset is: it’s better to get good people in and craft the right role for them. We try to find people who have the right chemistry, personal and professional connection for the company, and who are aligned on what we are trying to achieve together.
SGInnovate CEO Dr Lim Jui (left) who led the discussion with CEO of MediSix Therapeutics, Mr Andrew Bruce (right).
2. What are some attributes of a good CEO?
A good CEO bridges the chief scientists’ vision with investors’ goals. I spend a good portion of the discussion with investors showcasing my scientists’ vision and showing how my team are really good at what they do. This builds investors’ confidence in our team.
You also need to have self-awareness about what skillsets you bring and when you are no longer adding value to the company.
A charismatic leader is one who is authentic and likeable, who makes you feel like you’re the only person he is focused on when he’s talking to you. He or she also has a real vision of what needs to be achieved.
3. Without a scientific or medical background, are you still able to perform well as a CEO of a biotech startup?
As a CEO of a startup, my job is to enable people to deploy their skills and to be successful.
I do not have a medical background. I started out in sales for a medical company, before moving on to other areas such as logistics, supply chain management, and strategy.
It doesn’t really matter whether you have a commercial or scientific background – you could be a scientist, a salesman, or even a car mechanic. What matters more is how you communicate and influence people, and whether you have the confidence and authenticity to lead.
I sometimes ask “stupid” questions, and these can occasionally spark us in the right direction or help the team avoid going down a commercially unnecessary path. It is important for the CEO to listen very carefully and figure out the right direction.
A snapshot of the CEO Firestarter Series setup at SGInnovate’s premises.
4. As a CEO, how do you deal with failure?
My role is to motivate and help my team feel confident in the way the organisation is progressing.
Sometimes a project may not work out and you need to pivot to something else. Failure is not just something to accept, but to celebrate. We want them to feel happy that we discovered that we were on the wrong track before we wasted any more time, money, or resources.
Show them that you are there to help them and you have something for them to do next so that they can keep going. You need to get a sense of what is a right approach for helping different individuals. For some, it may be a quiet chat at the coffee machine.
How you manage that process is more important than anything, because you don't want people to feel that they failed. It's a judgement call about the right time to pivot: you don’t want to regret that you got out too early, but also don’t want to get out too late.
5. How do you reconcile differing opinions among team members?
Time is our enemy. So, while it is good to debate and to have some healthy tension in the team, we need to focus on the fundamental point of how to improve the speed of our progress and get to clinical trials quicker.
A Scientific Advisory Board can provide different points of view and help us to reach a consensus. At some point, you have to make a decision and then cross your fingers. There’s probably never a black or white answer.
As Singapore builds up a broad ecosystem of stakeholders to support biomedical innovation, there are critical talent gaps that need to be addressed. Discover more about how different players in the ecosystem can work together to close knowledge gaps and nurture talent: https://sginnovate.com/blog/bridging-talent-gaps-singapore-biotech-sector
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