ANALYSIS: Corporate Case Study - Signature staying healthy byshedding start-up image

Signature BioSciences is relying on PR to position itself as a drug-discovery firm. It's a hard sell, but the media and investors are buying Signature's focus on products over technology. Julia Hood reports.

Signature BioSciences is relying on PR to position itself as a drug-discovery firm. It's a hard sell, but the media and investors are buying Signature's focus on products over technology. Julia Hood reports.

Signature BioScience, a biotechnology company that has been around since 1998, knows the media is cynical about start-ups - even the non-internet variety.

"The media is always skeptical of the next hot thing, especially after being burned in the tech bubble, says Jesse Ciccone, Signature's director of corporate communications. "Companies are constantly doing what sounds like novel and innovative things. It's a matter of showing that that is the case."

This company also understands the importance of PR, especially in a market where media and investor interest runs the gamut between irrational exuberance and gloomy cynicism. Ciccone reports directly to the company's CEO, Mark McDade, the man who created his position in the first place. McDade himself joined the company 18 months ago, and recognized that the company needed someone to handle PR in-house.

"My function was brought into the company more quickly than you would currently see in the biotechnology industry, because the CEO values corporate communications function so much, says Ciccone, who started his job nine months ago. "It is integrated from a corporate strategy point of view."

Ciccone works solo on PR, but he is not alone in supporting the company.

McDade also decided to install FitzGerald Communications as agency of record. He became familiar with the agency while in his previous incarnation as EVP and COO of biotech company Corixa, and brought in the firm early in his tenure. Ciccone himself is a former FitzGerald staffer who worked on the Signature account.

John Berard, EVP and GM of FitzGerald's West Coast operations, says the firm's mandate from the beginning was based on a solid understanding of the value PR could bring to Signature's ambitions. "McDade saw some of the needs were to more clearly define the position of the company in a crowded and fuzzy marketplace, Berard says. "We also needed to create a vision around which employees could rally and direct their efforts."

After McDade's appointment, the company began making its transition from a company that was focused exclusively on developing biotechnology tools, to a drug-discovery company. FitzGerald was deeply involved from the beginning of that process, and began by holding a series of all-day sessions with executives to hammer out the company's vision statement. That statement remains on the website today: "Innovating medicine by understanding life's structure."

CEO: Mark McDade
Director of corporate communications: Jesse Ciccone
PR Agency: FitzGerald Communications
Living up to its words

According to Berard, this vision is more than just a catchy tagline. "It flows through everything that they do, he says. Signature is not the only biotechnology company that has tried to reposition itself in drug discovery, and the company has been keen to differentiate its story to investors and the media.

"If you went to any biotechnology conference today, you would find with rare exceptions that every company presenting is a drug-discovery company, Berard asserts. Such companies, in order to survive, have to convince potential pharmaceutical partners and investors that products are a part of their future.

"We recently had a meeting with a woman from one of the top three pharmaceutical companies on the planet, who is in charge of the search and evaluation of potential biotech partners, Berard says. "She said if a company tells her they have a unique technology, she turns off. If they say they have products, she turns on."

The acquisitions of two companies - PrimeCyte, a Seattle drug-discovery company, and Cambridge Discovery Chemistry, as well as Protein Design Labs' Small Molecule Group (SMG) - has helped Signature advance its positioning in the drug-discovery stakes. For example, the PrimeCyte acquisition has brought with it a product in the pipeline that is currently in Phase II clinical trials. That kind of news bolsters the company's long-term prospects.

Being financially viable also resonates with its multiple audiences. Virtually every press report about the company mentions that Signature has secured some $64 million in funding. Last August, the company signed a partnership deal with MDX Sciex to develop instrumentation. "We took full advantage of that partnership to certify two things, Berard says.

"That what they had to offer was certified valuable because there was real money in this deal. We also wanted to show that Signature has a multi-revenue-stream business model."

Paradigm for potential

The strategy appears to be working, as media reports look to Signature as an example of great potential in the biotechnology market. "Who says the start-up is dead? asks Business 2.0 in an April 2002 article. The piece led its analysis on the viability of young companies with a look at the way Signature's strategic model had changed, and how Signature made tough business choices to secure funding. "Signature enjoyed this rare coda, the article stated. "It was still valued more highly than at its previous round of funding."

Of course, even the most well-planned PR programs will gain unexpected attention over the seemingly mundane events. When Signature decided last October to move its headquarters from Hayward, CA to San Francisco, the company found itself in the headlines. Many column inches had already been dedicated to the flight of the dot-coms, and the plethora of empty rental space in the city, so when Signature agreed to move into a building that formerly housed the internet marketing company NetCentives in the South of Market area - at one time dot-com central - local and national media took notice.

"It has gotten a ton of interest and, to be honest, it took me totally by surprise, Ciccone says. "It's an office move - if you tried to send out a press release about it, you'd get laughed at."

But Signature took advantage of the unexpected attention, as the move also coincided with San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown's pledge to attract biotechnology companies to the city. The company signed the lease papers in the mayor's office, and invited The Wall Street Journal to cover the event exclusively.

Going forward, Ciccone wants to continue to build the company's reputation, which includes an emphasis on targeting Signature's growing internal audience.

Through the acquisitions and other hiring, the company has grown from about 40 people, 18 months ago, to 140 today. "I would like to do a little more work on internal communications, to make sure the vision is being bought into, getting people from the different companies on the same page, Ciccone says.

He has no illusions about how tough it is for companies to succeed in this market, even with funding and a drug pipeline. "I would just like to see us negotiate as best we can the turbulent waters that are out there, he says.

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