Virtues of a virtual company: Hightable with Kent Pryor
- Tuesday, 5th March 2013
- 0 Comments
Kent Pryor is Chief Operating Officer (COO) at the virtual company ZZ Biotech LLC. He is also a member of the advisory board for Assay Depot. Kent has previously held business and bench science positions as COO at SynthRx Inc, Associate Director of Drug Development at Kemia Inc, and Group Leader at Corvas International. Kent has an MBA from the Rady School of Management and PhD in organic chemistry from MIT. I recently sat down with Kent to find out how a virtual company operates.
WHAT IS A VIRTUAL COMPANY?
A virtual company wants to accomplish everything a big company needs to do, but with a minimum of internal employees. My company has a part time CEO and two full time employees: myself as COO; and a clinical trial manager. The rest of the work is done by a variety of contractors and consultants whose services are used on as ‘as needed’ basis. So we don’t have the overhead associated with internal employees. My job is to coordinate the different outsourced activities.
WHAT ARE THE MAJOR ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF A VIRTUAL VERSUS A STANDARD MODEL COMPANY?
The main advantage of a virtual company is really clear – cut down on overhead. We don’t even have office space. The clinical trial manager and I both work out of home offices. We only pay for external expertise when we need it. One disadvantage is that paying on an ‘as needed’ basis costs more than an internal employee doing the same thing, but at least we don’t have to pay full time wages. The other biggest disadvantage is coordination. We have contractors and consultants in different time zones, not in same building where we can just wander down the hall and say ‘Hey what do you think about this?’ Coordination takes more effort on my part than it normally would if we were all in one big building.
HOW DO YOU MAKE SURE COMMUNICATION STAYS OPEN AND PEOPLE ARE KEPT IN THE LOOP?
Part of it is technology – we use teleconference lines and web conference lines. The other thing is making sure that everyone involved in the project knows who they have to contact. Make it clear up front who people should reach out to.
HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED IN ZZ BIOTECH?
The company started a few years ago, and was run part time by two academics who used consultants to do the work. The scientific advisory board (SAB) advised they bring in a project manager. I was put in touch with the SAB members through our overlapping networks and talked them into creating the position I now have. I told them I have the experience to do project management, but I also have an MBA and can be a decision maker and be in charge of operations. Many different people making decisions can be a logistical mess, so ZZ Biotech decided to consolidate the decision making in one internal person.
WHAT IS YOUR GENERAL WORKING DAY?
I don’t have a typical day. Last week I was mainly working on a venture capital (VC) application. Monday I was in LA meeting with representatives from Russia about partnering with a Russian Institute or some Russian pharmaceutical companies. The week before that I was at a big partnering conference in the Bay Area meeting with VC firms. Otherwise I am in charge of the technical aspects of the company. I had a conference call this morning with my clinical trial manager and our quality assurance person to talk about moving our drug supply from one location to another, and drug labelling. It really varies day to day depending on what needs doing. Sometimes I am working on financial issues and dealing with current or potential future investors, sometimes it’s dealing with the MDs and the CROs or the companies testing the drug. All of these things are rolling along (simultaneously) as we are gearing up to do the next clinical trial.
THE VARIETY MUST BE ONE OF THE BEST PARTS OF THE JOB?
It is fun. Even at Corvas, very early on I started taking on additional roles and putting on different hats; for instance, I became the main scientific recruiter for the company. I took over doing the chemical database. Things kept coming up and I was doing more and more things outside of the role of chemist and that continued at my next job. If you get identified as someone who is good at doing things, then you get the opportunity to do more things. I basically got hired into this job because it requires doing lots of different things and they needed someone ready, willing and able to do that. For people finishing up school, try not to have blinders on as you go out into the workforce. Yes, you are being hired to do a particular job, but think about different ways that you can be helpful to the enterprise. It is easier to take on different roles in smaller places than larger places. Being known as someone who is good at doing things can lead you in directions that you otherwise may not have expected.
HOW DO YOU CHOOSE WHO TO OUTSOURCE TO?
Part of it is using consultants with particular contacts or experience. Look around and see who runs these things; for example, there are only a handful of places that run certain kinds of animal studies. Knowing who does what comes from being familiar with the literature and with the areas that you are working in. The scientists we work with know other scientists, etc.
HAVE YOU COME UP AGAINST THE PROBLEM OF HAVING CONSULTANTS OR CONTRACTORS NOT DOING AS GOOD A JOB AS YOU WOULD HAVE DONE IN HOUSE?
No. A contract research organisation (CRO) that doesn’t perform is not going to be in business for very long. By and large I have had pretty good luck with the CROs with which I have been working so far.
HOW DO YOU SET UP CLINICAL TRIALS WITH HUMAN PATIENTS IF YOU ARE NOT A PHYSICIAN?
By working with physicians. ZZ Biotech has physicians on the SAB and two physicians on retainer. The principal investigator for our clinical studies is the chairman of the Department of Neurology at Cedars-Sinai. We also contract with CROs to set up clinical trials. We have completed a Phase I clinical trial and are gearing up to start Phase II. I have been involved in several clinical trials so I know what the issues are.
DO YOU ALSO OUTSOURCE ALL THE TECHNICAL AND REGULATORY WRITING?
Yes, regulatory affairs is outsourced. I am heavily involved in pulling things together, getting things in place, and final compilation. However, an external person makes sure all the necessary pieces are in there.
DID YOU LEARN ABOUT REGULATORY AFFAIRS AND DRUG DEVELOPMENT AT BUSINESS SCHOOL?
No, I learned that on the job. I had already been involved in all the aspects of drug development including regulatory affairs while at Kemia before I enrolled at Rady.
DO YOU HAVE ANY OTHER ADVICE FOR YOUNG SCIENTISTS, PARTICULARLY THOSE LOOKING TO TRANSITION FROM ACADEMIA TO INDUSTRY?
I don’t think everyone needs to go and get an MBA, but I do think everyone needs to have a basic understanding about what is going on. If you are working at a CRO, find out how billing works, how does the hourly rate impact the bottom line of the company. Get an idea of the business that you are in. It helps you make better decisions if you know that what you are doing is aligned with the best interests of the company. Be open to wearing other hats. Talk to people outside of your field within the company. Find out what their jobs are, what are they doing and how it all fits together.
THANKS SO MUCH FOR YOUR INSIGHTS.
ConsultingInnovative Business Consulting
OBR-Consulting is a unique platform to meet the growing need for consultancy at the intersection of science, business and entrepreneurship.Learn more