BREAK INTO BIOTECH: Similarities between hi-tech and biotech are presenting PR agencies with cross-over opportunities. Greg Goth reports

Some PR agencies still reeling from having spent the past several years in the wild and crazy mosh pit of hi-tech mania now are trying their hands at biotech.

Some PR agencies still reeling from having spent the past several years in the wild and crazy mosh pit of hi-tech mania now are trying their hands at biotech.

Some PR agencies still reeling from having spent the past several years in the wild and crazy mosh pit of hi-tech mania now are trying their hands at biotech.

But despite having the word 'technology' in common, some senior biotech practitioners claim the differences between the two fields are about as subtle as the differences between a slam dance and a stylized minuet performed at the Court at Versailles.

The most glaring disparity is that biotech is subject to stringent government regulations. The process for getting new drugs and medical devices approved can take 10 years or more and demands a marathoner's persistence.

Hi-tech, on the other hand, is difficult to encapsulate; it was and is still so unlike any previous market sector that the government has had to think long and hard before imposing regulations. As a result, the field has grown, unchecked, in remarkable ways.

All of which is why the hi-tech industry enjoys an 'ain't-it-cool' ethos, while healthcare copes with a traditional, hierarchical structure.

Yet from the perspective of PR agencies, the line between hi-tech and biotech is becoming more blurred every day. One Internet start-up,, which combines chemical compounds for pharmaceutical researchers, often has to conduct exhaustive searches to get the raw materials it needs.

The Gable Group, a San Diego-based agency that changed its concentration from biotech to hi-tech several years ago, landed the account.

'They came to us,' says CEO Tom Gable. 'They hired a consultant out of San Francisco to conduct the search and we came up very high in intelligence, strategic planning and experience in both biotech and the Internet. I see more convergence in the future.'

Worlds collide

Other agencies are forming multidisciplinary teams of account executives to meet clients' changing needs. Porter Novelli, for instance, is forming a healthcare convergence practice with experts in both hi-tech and biotech in its Chicago and Boston offices, and is building a staff in Washington, D.C. 'It started last fall,' says EVP Michael Durand, 'and is evolving.'

Ketchum also uses a multi-team approach. Recent signings include Genentech, a leading biotech research company, and SYNAVANT, a pharmaceutical relationship management software firm. 'The business structures of the industry are becoming more similar,' says Paul McKeon, director of Ketchum's global technology practice. 'Horizontal practitioners could certainly work well across both areas.'

Biotech is a large, complicated industry. Some agencies categorize it as companies in the pre-product, research-and-development (R&D) stage.

Others include mature marketers of pharmaceuticals, while others still include makers of medical devices. The one clear element of these market segments is the strict regulation companies face in proving products safe and effective.

The regulation process includes three phases of FDA clinical trials, plus investigations by various advisory panels and publication of research results. At each step, minor setbacks can mean huge losses for a company needing cash in order to continue the research process. On the other hand, clear clinical superiority in trials can mean heightened expectations that the end product will be a blockbuster. PR practitioners must communicate the reality of each situation, while maintaining a belief that the end result will ultimately benefit society.

Complexity is the link

'In both industries, a good practitioner has to be someone who is comfortable with complex issues,' says Nancy Rueth, president of PResence Euro RSCG.

'They need to be able to take initiative. An added element in healthcare is that there are clear values and benefits as well as features. There are some public relations people in technology who have focused exclusively on features.

'In biotech, they will be communicating something that has been proven. From a PR standpoint, it's something they should welcome.'

David Sassoon, SVP at Rowland Communications Worldwide, says the investor community for both hi-tech and biotech accounts is a fickle audience, but biotech companies have a distinct advantage over their hi-tech compatriots if there is empirical evidence that their chemical combination is excelling in clinical trials.

'Two years ago, we had several clients who were emerging and not yet to market,' he says. 'We decided that we needed to help them sell their science. We called it 'Science First.' We trademarked it. It really gave them leverage in the investor community. Now, those biotechs are at the stage where they have to take their product to market, and then it becomes like launching a pharmaceutical.'

John Smith, EVP of Brodeur Worldwide, echoes Sassoon's sentiments. 'We consider biotechs to be companies that are still in the R&D phase,' he says. 'All the information surrounding a biotech has to do with communicating the milestones of the development process.

'The big pharmaceutical companies do not promote this, whereas the biotechs are in many ways like boutique hi-tech companies. They make hay out of every little thing that happens. Once they come to market, they're really mini-pharmaceutical companies.'

And once a product is launched, says Rueth, there is no difference between communicating its virtues and those of any hi-tech product. 'Once the product has been launched, the sense of urgency is exactly the same,' she says.

Hi-tech meets healthcare

During the early 1990s, healthcare was a complacent industry. However, as medical costs soared higher and insurers felt consumer pressure to cut costs, the genteel culture of healthcare, in which a doctor's orders were taken as gospel, was shaken to the core. This cataclysm continues in the form of Internet connections that give patients and physicians the latest clinical data, direct-to-consumer advertising based on the catch phrase 'ask your doctors about ...' and the countervailing market force of managed-care-inspired cost-cutting. The shakeout affects every facet of healthcare, from pharmaceutical research to the adoption of information technology that allows physicians to remotely monitor implanted devices in real-time.

Though the landscape has changed from the days when doctors read research and patients passively followed their advice, physicians are still the ultimate audience for any biotech pitch, whether it's for a new drug or a software application that monitors a patient.

And while many older physicians have remained resistant to non-clinical technology, the next generation wants to embrace it, as long as it does what its backers claim.

'The provisions of the (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), privacy concerns and concerns over medical errors are propelling the industry into the technological age, and it can't go back,' says Smith.

'I think you'll see significant combinations of the life sciences and technology in the next three to five years.'

In trying to sell new information technology, the physician is by far the most important factor, says Smith. 'If you can grab the docs, it's a huge advantage. They, and the nurses, are the gatekeepers. PR practitioners have to understand the world of the doctor, the nitty-gritty of his time constraints. Technology has to improve that time pressure, or he is not going to be interested.'

Senior PR executives are split as to how best to understand the world of physicians and scientists, however. While some believe a grounding in the sciences is imperative, others say a good liberal arts background coupled with a lively curiosity about the world in general is sufficient.

'What we look for at Porter Novelli are people with a basic curiosity about the world,' Durand says. 'It's a commitment - you can't go from personal digital assistants to single nucleotide polymorphisms overnight.

If you don't know what you're talking about, journalists will cut you off at the knees. Unless you have some experience and know what makes sense, you can get snookered. You can be bowled over by a physician or researcher using words that are 27 syllables long.'

Gable says having a scientific background isn't a prerequisite to being a good biotech communicator, but the ability to grasp the underlying concepts quickly is. 'You need to like science if you're going to choose biotech,' he says. 'In that way, I think it's similar to hi-tech. There has to be the ability to analyze things and learn how things work. We don't need Ph.D.s in engineering. Our clients have those. What we need is people who are quick on the uptake.'

Sassoon says that there is a certain gravity with healthcare and biotech PR that must be taken into consideration. 'Healthcare PR in general is intellectually demanding,' he says. 'It requires a certain amount of rigor because it's regulated. Biotech raises a lot of difficult issues, such as cloning. It's very difficult terrain, and you have to be sensitive to how people will react. You have to have both the philosopher and the marketer in you.'

Agricultural biotech has proven to be extremely problematic. While proponents say the advances in genetic engineering of seed can lead to higher crop yields and ultimately healthier, better-fed populations, the massive anti-Frankenfood campaign waged by activists has taken its toll on communications execs. One former agricultural biotech executive made the switch from that field to hi-tech.

'From my experience, the key difference between ag biotech PR and PR for emerging technology companies is the level of controversy,' says the executive, who wishes to remain anonymous. 'There's relatively none with hi-tech PR.'

Even stress stemming from the current hi-tech industry shakeout doesn't rival the trials of biotech PR, the executive continues.

'I was in ag biotech PR when public attitudes in Europe took a negative turn and biotech companies' motives and ethics began to be questioned by activist groups. Consequently, it always seemed as though the industry was on the defensive. Because of the tension involved, every issue, even the most innocuous, seemed like an exercise in crisis PR. Messaging was crucial, and every media inquiry was scrutinized and weighed for risk and benefit.

PR for hi-tech companies, particularly start-ups, is more of an offensive exercise. It involves constantly courting the media and requires relatively fewer defensive tactics than in biotech PR. 'There's some negativity to dot-com collapse stories, but it's comparatively easy to deal with,' says the executive.

Sabrina Horn, principal of the Horn Group, which handles accounts such as b-to-b software leader CommerceOne, says she has considered taking on biotech accounts, but would probably steer clear of ag biotech. 'I've definitely thought about it,'she says. 'Anything that makes good business sense is worth taking a look at.'

She adds that a logical first step for the agency may be into medical diagnostics and devices, which are becoming increasingly tied in to the larger IT infrastructure.

Cross-over proponents

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health's Human Genome Project, champions a closer relationship between biotech and hi-tech in the near future. At a recent press conference with Dr. Craig Venter, CEO of Celera Genomics, the private research firm competing with the NIH genomics program, Collins included his views on the importance of technology in cutting-edge research.

Just a few days prior to Collins' public endorsement of the marriage of biotech and hi-tech, IBM announced it would supply MDS Proteomics, a Toronto-based biotech firm, with hardware to build a supercomputer to help it explore how proteins move and interact in particular parts of the human cell. IBM competitor Compaq already supplies Celera with supercomputers.

The technology helped Celera take the lead in the genomics race with the NIH program.

PR executives say supercomputers will make the drug discovery process faster and could save clients millions of dollars. 'The genomics project finished 12 to 18 months ahead of schedule due to supercomputers,' Porter Novelli's Durand says. 'That kind of advance will save a company a lot on the front end of the research process, but the back end still has to be done the old-fashioned way. You can't rush through Phase II and Phase III clinical trials.'

Steve Jursa, a senior partner in PN's convergence group, came from a pure hi-tech background and finds the new team approach stimulating. 'Effective biotech work requires expertise in certain hardware technology and certain software applications - and you have to know the regulatory system,' Jursa says. 'Every industry is being affected by technology, and healthcare is pushing the envelope the hardest.'

Jursa is not alone in predicting an unprecedented infusion of resources into the melding of health and technology. Research costs for new drugs have exploded and are now estimated at dollars 500 million per new drug, according to Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. Brodeur's Smith says he has seen estimates that bio-informatics, the discipline of using hi-tech to lower costs of biotech research, will grow from a dollars 300 million-a-year industry to one worth between dollars 2 billion and dollars 4 billion annually within a few years.

Successful integration of technology into the labor- and capital-intensive biotech industry means new drugs and new devices will get to market quicker.

The melding of technologies will demand that biotech PR practitioners be comfortable, not only with the Information Age, which has barely begun, but also with what Ketchum's McKeon calls the 'Biological Age.' This new era has announced its imminent arrival with momentous discoveries aided by the most powerful biological technology available - the human cell.


Bio-informatics: The use of cutting-edge computer technology and methodology to study physical/chemical properties of biological molecules, and to organize that data on a large scale

Clinical trial: Controlled study of a chemical compound being developed into a drug to test its safety and effectiveness. Trials use human subjects and are broken into three phases:

Phase I determines side effects, best method of administration and safety and is usually performed on healthy volunteers

Phase II is conducted with a small number of patients who have the disease for which the drug is being developed

Phase III is done when Phase I and II results are sufficient enough to continue development. Study is performed on large numbers of patients and administered as it would be post-marketing to test for effectiveness

Compound: A combination of chemical elements, proteins or antibodies with presumed therapeutic benefits under development

Genome: The total hereditary material of a cell. Genomics is the study of genomes through gene-mapping and sequencing, most easily done with supercomputers

Medical device: A therapeutic or diagnostic aid that does not rely on chemical interaction to perform its task. Examples include pacemakers, diagnostic test kits and electrodes.

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