The Art of Solving Complex Problems: Conversation with Life Sciences Strategist Barbara Nelsen
By Stephen Dupont, APR
Imagine a day when you go to your local doctor and she injects a shot into your body that begins the process of cleaning out all of the plaque from your clogged veins and arteries, thus dramatically reducing your susceptibility to heart disease.
No more popping a pill every morning.
No need for a pacemaker.
Boom – done — a customized treatment for you, based on your unique genetic make-up, that gives you an extra ten or 15 years of life (granted that you stop living your wicked ways of no exercise, eating poorly, smoking, etc.).
In my recent conversation with my friend Barbara Nelsen, founder and principal of Nelsen Biomedical, a life sciences market research and strategic consulting firm with offices in Minneapolis and Boston, we talk about where the life sciences industry is going, and about the creativity that’s needed to generate breakthrough ideas.
In addition to running her consulting firm, Nelsen currently serves on the Board of Directors for Discovery Capital, the University of Minnesota’s venture fund and also on the Board of Directors for B-MoGen Biotechnologies. She also is the co-founder of Emerge Bioscience, which provides career training and development programs for scientists.
Nelsen has seen all sides of the life sciences industry. She has been an investor (Sofia Fund), and a scientific investigator (Brandeis University, The Whitehead Institute). And, Nelsen has worked in research (Director, Cancer Therapeutics and Diagnostics for the Austin Institute, which is now part of Burnett in Victoria, Australia) as well as in business development (MGI Pharma).
In this Q&A are lessons for anyone pursuing just about any career. In talking with Barbara, ultimately, it boils down to asking lots of questions and connecting with the right people who can help you learn and stay curious. Enjoy.
Stephen Dupont: How did you decide to pursue a career in biotechnology? When did the idea hit you that you wanted to pursue a career in molecular biology?
Barbara Nelsen: Well, actually, when I entered college at Saint Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., I really wanted to be a veterinarian, so I studied biology. But then I worked with a vet for a year while attending college, and I realized that I wasn’t cut out for working with animals in pain.
Stephen Dupont: What did you do next?
Barbara Nelsen: I packed my bags and headed to Boston. I didn’t have a job waiting for me either. When I got there, I started looking for jobs in a research lab. I came across this opportunity to work in the lab of David Baltimore, at the Whitehead Institute at MIT. He had received a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1975 for the discovery of reverse transcriptase. He was the youngest scientist to ever to receive a Nobel Prize.
It was during my two years working in his lab that I fell in love with biology. It was a place with great minds doing incredible science. It was very intoxicating, actually. Having the ability to ask questions about things we didn’t know, things we wondered about, and then to exploring those questions more deeply through experimental design
Stephen Dupont: Did you have any mentors in your career that helped guide you to where you’re at today?
Barbara Nelsen: While working in Dr. Baltimore’s lab, I worked specifically with Karla Kirkegaard, who was a post-doctoral fellow at MIT at the time. Today, Karla is a tenured professor at Stanford University.
Karla could have hired many who were more qualified for the technician’s position for which I applied. It was very competitive. There were many others who had significantly more lab experience in brand-name Boston labs. Karla told me years later what stood out in my resume. She noticed that I had been working since I was 14 years old at all the prime jobs starting with Dairy Queen and including Kmart, Perkins, the college cafeteria and other low-pay long-hour jobs to put myself through college. Karla was looking for someone with a strong work ethic, not just smarts. So for any students reading this article – those jobs working at the Dairy Queen or McDonald’s as a teenager really do matter.
Karla gave me my own project to work on (it was on polio virus), and she trained me to ask questions and to develop hypotheses that I could actually test. She’s the first person who treated me like a serious scientist. David (Baltimore) did the same, having me present at group meetings. He was as tough on me as he was with others.
Stephen Dupont: Have you had other mentors throughout your career?
Barbara Nelsen: Yes, many, for which I am eternally grateful for.
There’s Ranjan Sen, Ph.D., now at the NIH under whom I studied to obtain my Ph.D. in molecular biology and immunology. I know that if I ever have a question, I can call him and if he doesn’t know the answer he will connect me with the right people.
Vin Miles at Abingworth Capital has been a cheerleader for my business and me since I opened the Boston office. He has shared his insights, experience and networks.
Michael Gilman, who was a post-doc in David Baltimore’s lab when I was there, is a serial entrepreneur who has founded several biotech companies. He’s a true inspiration – a scientist turned business leader who understands how to turn an idea into a solution for patients.
George Daley, a physician-scientist who is now the dean of faculty medicine at Harvard Medical School (whom I also met in the Baltimore Lab). George has been very gracious in connecting me to the right people in the industry when I was trying to build relationships in Boston, and, of course, to scientific experts throughout the world.
Michael Wilens is one of the smartest people I know. He has run many companies, big and small and so he always has useful advice for me when I need it. He is that person who tells me like it is – straight up. He knows me well enough to not baby me when I need the hard truth.
And of course my husband, Scott Kinney, one of the other smartest people I know and a great businessman who also has terrific PowerPoint slide-making skills!
Stephen Dupont: That’s an incredible group of mentors. Did you intentionally seek them out to serve as your mentors?
Barbara Nelsen: My experience in the Baltimore Lab was very influential. I was surrounded by an incredible group of people, who — to this day — keep inspiring me. These are people who I really enjoy talking through an idea with. And because of our shared early experiences and relationships, they’ve been very generous in giving me access to other people in their professional networks that can help me understand new areas of science or a business issue.
Stephen Dupont: You’ve worked as both a research scientist and as a business consultant (what you’re presently doing today). What have you enjoyed about both aspects of your career?
Barbara Nelsen: The thing I’ve enjoyed the most is the creative thinking. That’s what I found fun about the science and it is the same on the business side. There is data of course, and analysis, but the fun comes in thinking about complex problems and potential approaches to solutions. I also just love biology. It’s what I’m passionate about.
Stephen Dupont: You earned your Ph.D. in molecular biology at Brandeis University. For any students reading this, what schools would you recommend studying molecular biology?
Barbara Nelsen: It depends on what you are interested in researching. Follow the best minds and work wherever they are.
Stephen Dupont: Not every person who earns a Ph.D. can become a university professor and researcher. You told me once: only 7 percent in biology actually do achieve that. You obtained an MBA, too, which helped you understand how business works. What would you recommend for the 93% of biology Ph.D.’s on how to prepare for a career in the private sector?
Barbara Nelsen: Get some real experience that turns into bullet points on your resume. You can do this through internships, or just taking a leadership role in an organization of interest. There are a lot of business activities that take place at your research institution. Donate your time to some of these in an area of interest, from technology transfer to regulatory work.
Stephen Dupont: What exactly do you love about biology?
Barbara Nelsen: It’s simply amazing. There’s always a surprise. There’s always something new to learn. And when a technology emerges like PCR or machine learning it provides new tools to ask questions and delve deeper than we could previously.
Look at Novartis for example. It just received the first ever FDA approval for a CAR-T cell therapy (Kymriah™). It has an 83% remission rate for those suffering from certain types of blood cancer. It’s a long-term remission, with the first patient now cancer free for more than five years. To me, it’s like Earl Bakken’s invention of the pacemaker, which gave years of life to those suffering from heart disease. We’re just starting to hit those kinds of solutions in biotechnology. A one-and-done solution.
Stephen Dupont: So when did you start Nelsen Biomedical, and what types of clients do you work with?
Barbara Nelsen: I started my consulting firm in 2011. We work with a range of clients, from companies and investors to research institutions. What they have in common is a need to really understand their technology and its value-proposition in the market. Our sweet spot is working with life sciences companies that have innovative platform technology and need support on the strategy and execution to leverage it across many market segments. We support investors on due diligence, and institutions on spinouts.
Stephen Dupont: What’s the thinking behind Nelsen Biomedical? What value do you provide to your clients?
Barbara Nelsen: I decided to expand the business from our base in Minneapolis because Minnesota’s biotech industry is still in the early stages of its development. We opened an office in Boston in 2013, which is where the majority of the industry is located. This is good not just for us, but for our clients here in the Midwest. We work on creating connections to the resources from Boston, as well as Silicon Valley for folks here in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.
Stephen Dupont: What are some of the biggest challenges that your clients face?
Barbara Nelsen: I work with clients that have innovative technology and big ideas. These are ideas that have a lot of potential in solving problems. But often times, these same organizations lack the internal resources to move their ideas from the drawing board into the market. That’s where we come in. We start by honing on the value-prop and prioritization of market segments, then work on internal development or external partnership plans.
Stephen Dupont: In an interview published by Big3Bio, you mentioned that the cost of cell therapy manufacturing could turn a promising new therapy into a commercial failure. What’s the reason for this, and how can it be overcome?
Barbara Nelsen: Here’s the problem. Historically, drugs or therapies were created as a single, uniform product to treat a large population. Let’s take those with diabetes for example. A drug company can produce large batches of insulin to treat those with diabetes. One size fits all.
But with cell therapy and regenerative medicine we are creating customized therapies. Imagine instead of insulin multiple times a day we give a person suffering from diabetes a new pancreas, which starts to produce insulin naturally. But we need to make this new pancreas just for them. It’s a manufacturing run for one person versus a million people. And it costs about the same as a production run for a million treatments. How do we solve this dilemma
Many are excited to ask the big questions and to work on the science. How can we generate a pancreas from a person’s cells? Can we take a skin cell, and reprogram it to turn into a pancreas cell? That’s the fun part for many people and where much of the NIH dollars go. But without solving the manufacturing issue companies trying to bring these solutions to people will go bankrupt in the process. That’s where the fun is for me now. Solving these types of business challenges.
Stephen Dupont: You do a lot of work with venture capitalists and private investors that are seeking investments in biotech companies. What’s your advice for entrepreneurs and start-ups looking to attract funding?
Barbara Nelsen: There’s been a lot written and said about the do’s and don’ts of working with investors. Here are two quick thoughts:
- Really do your homework about what an angel investor, a VC, a family office or a foundation invests in, and tailor your pitch to them. Do your research. Develop a targeted lead list of investors and tailor your pitch to them. Go online and look at what companies a VC is investing in. It’s usually right there on their website.
- Make sure they are the ‘right’ kind of money. I have seen too many companies fail because their initial investors are too controlling, and the founders do not have the ability to shift the company or attract new investment dollars when needed.
Stephen Dupont: What do you think about the trend of crowd sourcing to fund life sciences start-ups?
Barbara Nelsen: I remain skeptical of crowdsourcing for life sciences companies. The reality is, it takes a lot of capital to move a new therapy, diagnostic, or tool from the drawing board to a meaningful milestone and ultimately to the market. Taking small amounts of money from lots of people, who often are not well informed about the science, does not benefit anyone. If you truly have a great idea, the best sources are those who already invest in the industry, and who are willing to connect you with other investors in their network. That’s the type of capital you’ll need to get to an exit in this industry.
Stephen Dupont: You’ve maintained a strong interest in gene and cell therapy and regenerative medicine. What potential do you see in those areas?
Barbara Nelsen: What excites me the most about this particular area is the potential to develop a therapy or a treatment that will ‘cure’ people, giving them five, ten or 20 years of additional life – with just one treatment. Imagine ending the years and costs of chronic disease management.
Stephen Dupont: What other areas of the biotech world interest you?
Barbara Nelsen: One area that I’m watching closely is the human microbiome. For example, understanding how bacteria in your gut or on your skin can be modulated to treat diseases ranging from Crohn’s disease to depression.
Stephen Dupont: What major trends do you foresee in the world of life sciences and healthcare?
Barbara Nelsen: Two trends that I’m watching include:
- Big Data/Machine Learning. These are enabling us to sort through incredible volumes of medical data coupled to genetic profiles – its transforming research and diagnostics now, and therapeutics in the future.
- Diagnostics. We are moving to point-of-patient with diagnostics, not just point of the clinic. This doesn’t sound like a big deal but it is. Particularly with epidemics and chronic disease management.
Stephen Dupont: You have offices in Minneapolis and Boston. How would you characterize the life sciences industries in those markets?
Barbara Nelsen: Here’s how I see it. Minnesota is the capital of the medical device industry. Boston leads in biotech/pharma (though they think they lead in all!). San Francisco/Silicon Valley in IT. Sometimes the real breakthroughs come in the intersections of these areas, when there is collaboration between people in each of these areas of expertise. I learn the most, and think most creatively when talking to those outside my area of expertise
Stephen Dupont: What do you think Minnesota needs to do to compete better in the world of life sciences beyond devices
Barbara Nelsen: We need to be bolder with our investments in these other areas, and we need to be bolder in talking about our successes beyond Medtronic, St. Jude and all the other device companies started here. Geography should not be a barrier anymore. It is important to spend time in other hubs, both for partnerships and for visibility
Stephen Dupont: There are bright spots in the community in the Upper Midwest, right? What are five companies in the Midwest that you think people within the industry should keep an eye on
Barbara Nelsen: I would keep my eye on the following organizations
- Wilson Wolf (John Wilson) – This company is working hard on solving COGS in cell therapy.
- Bio-Techne — Though they are a large established reagents company, they have some really innovative core new discoveries that can establish them as a player in the therapeutics arena.
- B-MoGen – Started out of the University of Minnesota, they have built a terrific core business of gene editing services and tools, but with game changing things to come.
- Calyxt — Coupling two areas we are great at in Minnesota, agricultural crops and gene editing.
- Pairnomix — A very different way to identify the right therapeutic options for people today.
Stephen Dupont: Are there any other bright spots for Minnesota’s life sciences industry?
Barbara Nelsen: Yes. Because we are the leader in healthcare providers (UnitedHealthcare, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, the Mayo Clinic, Fairview, etc.) as well as medtech (medical devices), I truly believe the next big shift in individualized patient diagnostics, management, care and even novel insurance and payer approaches will come from Minnesota
The combination of these areas – and where they overlap — will develop into some new area that we perhaps cannot imagine today. It just won’t be “biotech.” And that’s okay. Just as we have morphed from an IT powerhouse (Control Data and others) and foods (General Mills, etc.) to a medical device powerhouse (Medtronic and others) and consumer goods (Best Buy, Target) — we will move to a new normal.
Stephen Dupont: What changes would you like to see in the life sciences world?
Barbara Nelsen: Of course, we need to see more diversity in the C-suite within this industry. This has been a long-standing issue.
A more recent development is funding or, actually, the lack of funding. When the Great Recession hit in 2008, funding for start-ups fell off a cliff. VCs only wanted to invest in more established companies, and for good reason. They wanted to limit their risks. The problem is that funding for start-ups really hasn’t recovered. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of half-baked ideas were getting money. The problem is that now even great young start-ups have trouble getting funding. May traditional VCs have shifted from funding others ideas and companies to actually starting their own. They believe it reduces their risk. Maybe. But I’d argue it also reduces the reward, both to them and to the industry as a whole.
Stephen Dupont: You published a report, Manufacturing Matters in Cell Therapy, last year. Do you have any new research reports on the horizon?
Barbara Nelsen: Yes, we’re planning to update that original report in 2018. What I believe separates our reports versus reports from other consulting firms is that we offer actionable insights. That’s our trademark.
Stephen Dupont: Who within the life science industry should we be watching?
Barbara Nelsen: Here are three people that I am personally watching, and why:
- To keep your pulse on emerging trends, I watch Bruce Booth, a partner with Atlas Ventures, located in Cambridge, Mass
- What gets funded at research institutions can tell you where the industry is going for the next five to ten years. That’s why I’m watching Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., the director of the National Institute of Health.
- I think a truly innovative thinker is George M. Church, Ph.D., a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School.
Stephen Dupont: What books would you recommend reading for anyone who wants to better understand the life sciences industry better?
Barbara Nelsen: Here’s what I would recommend to your blog’s readers
- The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkin
- How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (helpful for scientific introverts
- The Innovators Dilemma by Clayton M. Christense
- Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
And while this is not a book, I’d also suggest performing Improv. It will train you to listen, and to always respond with “Yes, and…” which opens and continues the discussion.
Stephen Dupont: Final question Barbara. Knowing what you know now, what would you tell your 18-year-old self — that young woman who is a senior in high school or just entering their first year of college?
Barbara Nelsen: Don’t worry about failure. It is a given that something will fail. The most successful people in the world have failed many times. Open up to as many opportunities that come your way as you can.
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Stephen Dupont, APR, is VP of Public Relations and Branded Content for Pocket Hercules (www.pockethercules.com), a brand marketing firm based in Minneapolis. Contact Stephen Dupont at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my LinkedIn page at: www.linkedin.com/in/stephendupont.