Mission North Launches 'The Pipeline' – a New Life Sciences and Health Podcast

Welcome to the first episode of 'The Pipeline' – the life sciences and health podcast from Mission North.

While the biotech sector begins to show the green shoots of recovery after several years of economic instability, communicators are playing an increasingly important role in guiding their clients through a turbulent year.

In today's episode, Lauren Cohen and Nick Maschari, Senior Vice Presidents at Mission North, share what communicators and thought leaders need to know about the increasingly resurgent biotech industry.

(You can also find a full transcript of the episode, below.)

Episode 1:

Lauren Cohen: After a difficult few years, is the biotech and biopharma market finally seeing the green shoots of recovery? Recent news from both the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times suggest so.

The JPMorgan Healthcare Conference period in January saw a flurry of biotech IPOs that analysts say point to a brighter biotech outlook for 2024. Additionally, biotech companies in the U.S. are experiencing a significant increase in equity market fundraising. Investment reached $6.2 billion in January of this year, the highest since February 2021. As of February of this year, $3.2 billion has been invested in biotechs – $200 million more than the same period last year. On top of all of this, investors are increasingly pointing once again to FOMO, or the fear of missing out, as a key driver of investment in certain therapeutic areas. One VC has even said that things are “getting a little bit bubble-licious”.

The early signs for 2024 are positive, but we have a long way to go as the industry rebounds from two years of turmoil marked by missed corporate milestones, bankruptcies, and layoffs.

So what does this mean for biotech communicators? I'm Lauren Cohen, Senior Vice President at Mission North and head of our Life Sciences and Health Practice, where we help leading biotech pharmaceutical and healthcare companies across the world with their communication strategies, from media relations to thought leadership to digital media and beyond.

Joining me to discuss the outlook for 2024 today is Nick Maschari, Senior Vice President and Corporate Communications Lead at Mission North.

Nick, with the biotech market returning to reasonable health, what strategic communications objectives should life sciences storytellers have for the rest of this year?

Nick Maschari: It’s a great question. I'd be happy to do a little scene setting as we attack that question with a perspective from our side. So Bain & Company just came out with its 2024 outlook on private equity and actually also used another $3.2 trillion figure – the amount of unexited assets sitting in PE portfolios right now. Now, that’s obviously not all life sciences companies – but the owners of those assets are going to start looking for exits, looking for liquidity, whether that's through M&A or listings and IPOs. At some point, we're going to see buyers and sellers finding some form of equilibrium that up to this point has been a little bit more elusive – it certainly was elusive in 2023 and to an extent even in 2022 where capital markets were a little more iced up. As they find that equilibrium, there's a lot of money that's looking to fund innovation or create liquidity opportunities for investors.

We talk a lot about driving this notion of a performance narrative. If you're a public company, you do that almost on a quarterly basis in your quarterly earnings. You're talking about growth and profitability and things that the business is doing to perform. But for companies that aren't already public, who might be thinking about positioning themselves as a strategic acquisition, or looking to make an exit of some kind, we think about driving this notion of a performance narrative across three sorts of key categories.

The first is growth: making it really clear that the near-term growth drivers that you have as a business are firing. You're demonstrating sustained momentum. You're providing that through data and proof points. You're drawing a clear linkage between the actions you're taking as a company and the results that they're generating. You really want to make that an unmissable part of your story.

The second is around profitability. We've been seeing a lot of investor interest around profitable companies versus companies that are growing at all costs, including quite unprofitably. If you are an unprofitable company, you've got to continue to demonstrate a path that you're on to profitability, evidence that you have runway and you're achieving it through operational discipline and financial performance that improves quarter by quarter. Again, linking actions here to really positive results, focusing on a value capture story and a value creation story.

The last category is demonstrating to investors that you're built to last – not just weathering the last 24 months, but you're stronger potentially because of that – the increased amount of discipline you have as a business, and ideally traction in the marketplace. The ultimate test of longevity for companies is, in many cases, being a publicly traded company and going into the public markets – and being able to point to examples of resilience and make it clear to investors that their best days are ahead.

Technology companies are particularly good at demonstrating the scale and size of the market available to them – they talk about total addressable market, or TAM. Biotech and life sciences companies are a little more shy about addressing that – they don't want to talk about the size of markets necessarily because it can sound like they're off mission and they're thinking mostly about money versus patients, cures, therapies and treatments. I think there's a way for this sector to dial that up a little bit and to point to investors in particular about the size of the unmet need and the value capture opportunity.

LC: Those are all great points, Nick, and I would strongly +1 all of them. A company that is doing particularly well at everything you just laid out is Viking Therapeutics. While Viking is a later stage company – publicly traded – they are facing many of the same communications challenges that you just described, and they've done an excellent job of communicating around those and positioning themselves against the big pharma competitor set in their field. They've emerged as what CNBC is calling a “strong weight loss drug player… or takeover target”, thanks to the results of a mid-stage trial that sent their shares soaring by 120%. Viking's CEO is wisely not playing up the hype. It is so easy for GLP-1 manufacturers and other players in this space to talk a lot about the hype surrounding those drugs and those products. He's not really leaning into that too much. He's quoted as moving the conversation onto the next stage of the trial and what the company needs to do next to ensure patients can ultimately benefit from their approach. He's walking that line between building excitement, but not over-hyping.

NM: Balancing hype and reality is important. That's certainly one of the key jobs of a CEO and an executive team – these companies go through so many different stages of trials, it's important to sort of always maintain level headedness and not get too far ahead, not get too overhyped and also not to be overly pessimistic when things are hard – these companies are doing really tough things and it takes time. What are the things that communicators need to be doing? When these CEOs talk about what's happening in the business and they're sitting down at the leadership table with their Chief Comms Officer, what are some of the things that they need to be thinking about to balance heightened expectations, and make sure that they're not falling either forward or backward into a hype-cycle trap?

LC: There's three pillars that I would look at here.

The first goes back to: “how do we balance the hype with the reality?” What it comes down to is moving away from language around promise and potential. We saw a lot of talk around promise and potential during the biotech boom heydays of 2020 and 2021 – but now, stakeholders, investors, customers, and media want to be able to see results, data and outcomes. Biotech, pharma and health leaders need to be visionary while also being real, and being transparent about the challenges and timelines. Science is hard, science takes time, so finding the right balance is important.

Point two is nailing your story, narrative and positioning. What are you solving and why you? This is an area in which a lot of communicators and companies struggle – the difficulties they have around clearly defining the problem in layperson terms that they are solving and what are their unique differentiators that best position them to be the leaders in the field.

Lastly, it's important to build up your audience, build up your army of advocates, and build up your validators. You can't just tell your story – you need to show it, and you do that by putting the real people you're helping at the center of that story. That can be patient groups, academia, or government entities – you have to be able to identify your champions and validators and let them help tell your story on your behalf and bring that story to life. We're seeing a lot of companies, I've already mentioned Viking, who are also doing this right, particularly in the GLP-1 space. I would particularly call out Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly – they're doing an excellent job of owning and driving their narratives. Lilly in particular is having a moment, so to speak, on concerns around critical access to their diabetes and obesity drugs. They've used a number of channels to communicate around the importance of not just using their drugs for vanity weight loss. See the ad campaign that launched at the Oscars this year – it took a shot at Hollywood's role in using and promoting Mounjaro for vanity weight loss and preventing it from getting in the hands of people who need these drugs for their life saving potential.

NM: What's happening with GLP-1s is an unfortunately rare moment – I wish it wasn't so rare – for these bigger pharma companies to get credit for innovation and helping to propel meaningful improvements in health, and for humanity, through innovation. Bigger pharma companies in particular tend to get embroiled or embattled in policy debates, issues of drug pricing, access, etc., so it's been great to see companies step up and step forward, demonstrate what they are for, not simply advocate for what they're against. I think it's a big part of why these are the stories that are starting to get more amplified.

An unfortunate part of COVID was Big Pharma not getting credit for breakthroughs with vaccines – so hopefully this is another opportunity for the industry to have a moment of renewal on what it stands for and what unique value it provides society.

LC: To bring it back to Eli Lilly – they have made it really clear that what they stand for is the patients and the people that they're helping. They recently launched one of the more compelling marketing initiatives that we've seen from pharma in recent years – that's because it's focused on the patients and the role Lilly plays as a medicine company. That is currently how they are positioning themselves: focusing on the role they play in helping people live better and healthier lives. It's emotionally resonant and again, it's all about putting patients at the center.

The need to communicate around impact and patient outcomes is where life science communicators are putting their time and attention right now. They’re leaning into their value versus valuation, which is becoming more and more important from an audience education perspective.

This is something we're seeing a lot in the women's health space, which remains an under-researched and underfunded area – one of my favorite stats to just see people's heads explode is when I tell them that women were not included in clinical trials until 1993. While we've made great progress since then, and there have been positive signals in the market, leaders and communicators at these women's health companies still have an uphill battle to climb in terms of educating investors, partners, customers, and media on the conditions and treatment areas that they're working on.

Fertility and reproductive health has typically seen the most attention and investment over the last several years. There are a wide range of women's health issues – everything from menopausal health to endometriosis to pelvic floor health, even the mental health issues that are specifically unique to women – those haven't been talked about enough. There are serious unmet needs – Nick, you referenced TAM: a lot of these conditions and treatment areas affect a huge percentage of the worldwide population. There truly is an unmet need and a market opportunity to help them. Leaders and communicators at these companies are tasked with educating their core audiences on all of this – we find that the ones who are most successful are those that elevate their CEO's passion as an innovator and leader in this space, and what personally connects them to the issues that they are solving for.

We also see these companies turbocharging their patient advocacy and bringing to life the “why?” behind the “what” of their work that they're doing. And the real life impact: forgetting the numbers and just showing the lives that these companies are helping to change. I'll call out one example of a company that I think is particularly getting this right now: Elektra Health, a digital health platform that empowers women navigating the menopause journey. They're striving to reach consumers who are preparing for going through menopause, and employers as well, who have taken a bigger stance on women's health issues and creating environments that are conducive for working women and working mothers. Elektra is trying to drive forward and break down taboos – they literally say we're smashing the taboo together, breaking down taboos around menopause and educating why this topic is worthy of investment, understanding and support.

NM: I'm struck by sometimes just how humanity-centric the mission of all these companies is and how sometimes the science builds a wall between the company and the impact, because the human connection piece gets a little bit lost or jumbled. The companies that are doing pretty well are figuring out ways to communicate more directly to and with their patients in ways that meet them where they are.

LC: As our corporate communications lead here at Mission North, you sit across all of our practices at the agency. In your view, what makes biotech and its communications challenges unique?

NM: I love all the work I get to do across all of our practice areas, but this is a unique industry. It's unlike others. So much of what the biotech and biopharma industry does is a matter of life and death. They have an outsized impact on the way people live their lives, helping them to live longer, live healthier, and improve their quality of life. We can sometimes get caught up in technical discussions around performance, financial indicators and interest rates and all those things that do impact the operating environment – but these are important companies to society in terms of what they do to cure patients, find breakthroughs for rare diseases, design better vaccines and treatments with fewer side effects, and beyond. My brother's a childhood leukemia survivor – I saw firsthand how important these life-saving treatments and therapies are and how they work in concert with medical and healthcare professionals, patient advocacy groups like the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society – I've been up close to it. It's an exciting sector and I love getting the chance to work on it with you and the team.

LC: Right back at you, Nick – and again, in hearty agreement with you on all of that. I believe that it is our job as communicators to look beyond the immediate financial noise and tell the stories that leave a lasting impact on our audience, whether that's investors, strategic partners, or patients. And while the market isn't in the clear yet, 2024 for biotech is already looking much healthier. As communicators, we play a crucial role in helping clients navigate the turbulence and to stay at the forefront of their audience's minds. We at Mission North see firsthand the incredible work the sector is doing, and advancements across AI, gene therapy, personalized medicine and more will only continue to drive this momentum throughout the rest of the year. So thank you, Nick, and thank you everyone for listening. Please stay tuned for future discussions on the dynamics shaping the intersection of healthcare and technology. Until next time, this has been Mission North.

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