Want to know the difference between biotech and pharmaceutical
communications? Talk to Ben Rudolph, 22, director of PR for DNA
engineering specialist Aptagen. Rudolph's pre-IPO company is currently
looking for investors and corporate partners. 'I want pictures of
smiling lab people doing lab things,' says Rudolph. 'I want to make my
Nearly 1,300 companies strong in the US, biotech is to healthcare what
the Internet is to the New York Public Library. Its fortunes may be seen
as precarious at best when compared to those of the more established
pharmaceutical sector, but its potential is virtually unlimited.
In fact it is biotech's link to healthcare that has led to its
The general public is more interested than ever in the science of
healthcare, as stories about the Human Genome Project, cloning and stem
cell research - all topics with biotech components - pop up with
regularity in mainstream publications and on morning talk shows.
All of which explains why partnerships between newcomer biotech and the
more established pharmaceutical and academic sectors have pushed the
limits of development, forcing the old guard to change PR and IR
And while financially beneficial for all parties, the alliances called
for some new communications practices.
Investor relations focus
With the exception of industry giants such as Genentech and Amgen,
biotechs tend to be entrepreneurial companies with only a few products
Theirs is a constant battle for funding from long-view investors willing
to wait years before products are ready to market, which means PR and IR
are inextricably linked. In short, a biotech's survival can hinge on its
PR and IR success.
According to a recent Ernst & Young report on the biotech industry, more
people are choosing to buy biotech stocks, which are regarded as a
healthy investment when compared to those of the struggling tech sector.
But this demand for stocks translates into a demand for information, and
biotech firms are keen to publicize every step in the development
A biotech company may only have one or two products in development, so
'every time they sneeze it is important,' says Joan Spivak, EVP and
general manager at Edelman. 'There is a sense of urgency in getting the
news out, and in deciding what the news is.'
Large pharmaceutical companies, on the other hand, have many products in
development simultaneously. So if a single product fails to do well in
clinical trials, it is not generally considered an event that must be
reported to shareholders.
But as pharmaceuticals look to biotechs for their technological
expertise and forge partnerships, they are learning that it is in their
interest to release detailed information on the progress of new drugs.
And many are adjusting their PR strategies to keep up with their
For example, Eli Lilly has been developing a sepsis drug, Zovant, with
biotech firm Lonza Biologics. News about the positive clinical results
has been released by Lilly, culminating in March with the news FDA would
speed through the approval process.
But for pharmaceuticals, talking about drugs in development is not
without risks. 'Big pharma live in fear of the FDA,' says Laura Silver,
SVP of Ogilvy PR.
Pharmaceuticals are prohibited from promoting products prior to FDA
approval, although this is a somewhat gray area. 'That doesn't preclude
talking to analysts or making representations at scientific meetings,'
says Michael Durand, EVP of Porter Novelli's healthcare practice. 'But
if a company is too aggressive they can get into hot water with the
Reg FD - legislation requiring companies to adopt a universal approach
to communicating price-sensitive information - only complicates the
If early stage trials are going well, biotechs feel pressure not to
incite the SEC and often want to get the news out to shareholders or VC
Therefore, the partnering companies must agree on which elements of
research are important and safe to release, and which audiences must be
Now that pharmaceutical companies and biotech firms are becoming more
closely linked, pharma is beginning to understand biotech's emphasis on
keeping investors and the SEC happy. Meanwhile, biotechs report that
some pharmaceuticals are loosening up about releasing information. 'In
the past, pharmaceuticals had a stronger arm,' says Theresa McCurry, VP
of life sciences for Hill & Knowlton. 'But now the relationship is more
equal in terms of power, and you are starting to see a lot more
Partnerships between biotechs and academia have also required
The Bayl-Dole Act, which took effect in 1980, forever changed the
relationship between biotech and academia by giving federally funded
universities control over scientific discoveries. This allowed academic
institutions to engage in technology transfer, or the turning over of
discoveries to the commercial sector.
Now the burgeoning biotech industry has forced scientists out of the lab
and in front of the camera. As a result, academic communications teams
have had to cultivate a new business acumen and work with media beyond
the standard scientific journals.
A biotech's relationship with a big pharmaceutical player can be good
PR. 'When a biotech has a strong alliance with a pharmaceutical, it
serves as a seal of approval,' says Susan Noonan, president and COO of
Noonan Russo. Investors and analysts know that big pharmaceuticals
thoroughly investigate biotech companies before aligning with them,
which instills confidence.
But biotechs are not the only ones that benefit from the
Pharmaceutical companies' images are often improved as a result. 'It
gives them a cachet,' says Noonan. 'And the products they license from
the biotech industry are sometimes much more exciting than the things
Investors also appreciate the relationship, viewing it as a
cost-effective way for the pharmaceutical to add to its pipeline without
having to build an entire division. 'The nice arrangement for
pharmaceuticals is that they don't have to invest in infrastructure,'
And drug companies often rely on biotechs to increase their R&D
'Biotechs by nature are incubators for ideas, whereas pharmaceuticals
work more slowly,' says Donna Ramer, managing director of health
sciences at Makovsky. 'In some cases (pharma) have lost the ability to
foster creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit, which is at the heart
Noonan says that because pharmaceuticals are under increasing pressure
from biotech partners to talk publicly about their early-stage programs,
it serves to boost their profile and makes them an enticing partner for
As for academia, initial fears about commercial interests tainting
research have been replaced by confidence. 'Some of the discomfort
between academia and business has disappeared,' says Seema Kumar,
director of public affairs for the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical
Research, which is affiliated with MIT and was involved in the Human
Genome Project. 'It has allowed us to say proudly that we have many
But it remains a tricky relationship, chiefly because of the PR
challenge in keeping the two sectors distinct, as science is ultimately
not a brand.
'The relationship is a collaboration, not a collusion,' says Kumar. 'We
would never want our scientists to endorse a product being tested in a
clinical trial. But they could say something positive about the
Heightened public interest in science has made academic PR tougher as
well. Kumar says analogies are her most effective tool when explaining
complex subjects to the media. During the news cycle for the Human
Genome Project, she compared the map of the human genome to a parts list
for the Boeing 747. She recalls saying, 'This does not mean we know how
it fits together or how the plane flies, but it gives us a way to find
the problems and fix them.'
Difference of opinion
Jeff Richardson, director of global PR for biotech giant Amgen, says
that in the early days, the smaller biotech firms had fewer resources
and had to resort to guerrilla PR to get attention. He thinks that in
the partnering process, pharmaceuticals may have taken notice. 'It
probably led to some downsizing at pharma because they saw how biotech
got visibility for much less money.'
But not everyone says biotech/pharma alliances have led to
communications changes. 'I don't think biotech presents any new
difficulties,' says Kate Robins, Pfizer spokesperson. 'It has always
been important for people to understand the drug discovery and
development process.' Even so, she says public interest in drug
development has increased because of biotech.
One thing for sure, biotech's youth and energy is in demand by
pharmaceuticals as well as the media. 'I have been approached by pharmas
pleading with me to come work for them because they need someone who
understands biotech,' Rudolph says. 'I check ProfNet religiously - every
hour - because people out there are looking for us.'
PRODUCTS MARKETED THROUGH BIOTECH AND PHARMACEUTICAL PARTNERSHIPS
Amgen/Johnson & Johnson - 1989
Treats anemia related to kidney failure
Centocor/Eli Lilly - 1994
Reduces acute blood-clotting complications for angioplasty patients
Enzon/Rhone-Poulenc Rorer - 1994
Treats acute lymphoblastic leukemia
COR Therapeutics/Schering-Plough - 1998
Treats acute coronary syndrome
Novartis/Ligand Pharmaceuticals - 1998
Prevents rejection of kidney transplants
Hoffman-La Roche/Gilead Sciences - 1999
Treats common strains of influenza
Sources: Biotechnology Industry Organization