BayBio illustrates biotech's real-life benefits

Comms team's shift in focus aids group's efforts to keep biotech industry thriving in the Bay Area

Comms team's shift in focus aids group's efforts to keep biotech industry thriving in the Bay Area

Science isn't most people's favorite subject. In fact, it tends to remind many folks of their school days, when they crammed for that chemistry exam just to pass the class. So it isn't particularly surprising to learn that when BayBio, the life science association for Northern California, set out to explain to the public what it is the biotech industry does, it got less than stellar results.

So the organization decided to change course. When Matthew Gardner came on board as the group's president in 2003, the team adjusted its communications strategy. Instead of trying to educate people on the science behind the industry, the team decided it would be more effective to quantify the products that have come from the industry that have actually saved lives.

"People didn't know what was going on within the communities; communicating about the science was not getting through," Gardner recalls. "So, what we instead set out to do was communicate how many patients' lives are being touched by our treatments and cures."

That move, it turns out, was a master stroke. The primary vehicle for the change in strategy became the first IMPACT report, released in 2005, which set out to give a comprehensive roundup of not only every approved product, but also products in the midst of Phase III clinical trials. This focus on actual products the industry had produced and how they were helping real people began to immediately see results.

Northern California is, of course, the birthplace of biotechnology. Cetus, the world's first biotech company, was founded in Emeryville in 1971. Five years later, Genentech opened its doors. And while the Bay Area continues to be both the spiritual home for the industry and the largest hub of biotech activity, that doesn't mean its companies don't worry about losing their competitive advantage.

In recent years, areas outside the state have begun to compete by offering tax breaks and other incentives for companies to move their operations there. With the competition from Florida, Massachusetts, and others already providing enough of a challenge, Europe and India also have budding biotech industries.

BayBio's initial goal was simply to engage the communities within the Bay Area, a difficult task considering the disjointed geography: nine counties, three major cities, and more than 7 million people.

"The best way, we decided, to tackle that and try to reach out to those communities was actually to de-emphasize distance by making things local and making things electronic as much as possible," Gardner explains. The organization also realized there wasn't any event to celebrate the industry, so it began the Pantheon Awards, which Gardner says have been a great way to bring the community together to celebrate the industry.

While the undertaking of the first IMPACT report was massive and the response decent, media coverage was limited, and BayBio felt it could improve upon the results. In
October 2006, the organization brought on Manning Selvage & Lee to assist with the second version of the report.

"We recommended that they leverage the report to better build their leadership," notes Kelly McKenna, co-director and VP of West Coast global health at MS&L, "leadership of the organization and leadership of Northern California as the leading biotech hub."

The meat of the report was effective: 393 approved products were listed, with another 400 in Phase II or III.

"The goal was to stop talking about the potential of biotech and start talking about the reality of what the industry has produced," McKenna says.

The team hoped it could use the report to leverage support for the local industry in Sacramento, CA, and Washington, DC. Meetings in both capitals made it clear to officials that they had to back the industry to keep the talent in the Bay Area.

Meanwhile, MS&L helped generate a huge jump in media coverage for the second version of the report. While the first edition had about 3 million media impressions, the 2007 edition has already reached 18 million and counting. In addition, National Public Radio ran a two-week "Biotech Nation" series.

While the results have helped move Gardner and BayBio toward their goal of pushing legislation that is friendly to the Bay Area's biotech industry, their work isn't done yet. Preparation for the third report is under way, and it is a huge undertaking.

"Two years in, we're still working toward trying to quantify how many patients we're talking about, but we've gotten a long way [by] talking about how many treatments and cures have been approved or are in Phase III," Gardner says. "The numbers are even bigger than we thought."

At a glance:

Organization: BayBio

President: Matthew Gardner

Headquarters: South San Francisco

Key Trade Titles: BioCentury, BioWorld Today 

PR Budget: Undisclosed 

MARCOMMS Team: Matthew Gardner, president
Geoffrey Lin, marketing coordinator
Jed Godsey, manager, marketing and communications 

Marketing Services Agencies: MS&L

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