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How to succeed in biotech: A serial entrepreneur’s tips for surviving tough times

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Biotech booms come and go. A quick glance at the Nasdaq Biotechnology Index shows that peaks in 2015 and 2021 were relatively short-lived, giving way to a quick fall and slow recovery.

The truth, as some have said, is that the sheer number of startups rose to an unsustainable level in the early 2020s, and those with clear, significant evidence of scientific success shined through as others faded away.

Despite cutthroat competition, some leaders have found victory more than once and in multiple areas of the biotech realm. Serial entrepreneurs like John Mulligan, an honoree in this year’s PharmaVoice 100, have brought biotechs from the seed of an idea to lucrative pharma deals.

How do they accomplish a consistent track record that defies market softness? Here, Mulligan, now founder and CEO of Bonum Therapeutics, shares his philosophical approach to doing important science and running a successful biotech business in the face of less-than-ideal market conditions.

Lead with curiosity

Each of Mulligan’s ventures began with an original idea. For the first company he founded, Blue Heron Biotech, the idea was that “there would be a demand for gene synthesis that could change how people worked in the lab.”

After launching in 1999, that goal of developing synthetic DNA sequences for research purposes grew into a business that was eventually acquired by the lab testing services company EuroFins.

“If you look across the course of my career, it’s perhaps because of an excess level of perseverance that it worked out.”

John Mulligan

CEO, founder, Bonum Therapeutics

And in all his ventures, Mulligan said curiosity helped overcome any gaps in specific knowledge about the company’s work.

“Amazingly enough, when I was raising money for gene synthesis, no one asked if I’d ever done it — the answer was no, even though I had ideas, but we still invented the technology in the course of building the company,” Mulligan said. “I find it super interesting to learn something completely new, and it’s a challenge as a business but a real education as a business owner.”

Follow the science (creatively)

When it comes to the old adage of “following the science,” there’s also room for a biotech leader to follow their instinct. For Mulligan, these moments aren’t quite as distinguishable from one another as they might appear.

Another of Mulligan’s companies, Glycostasis, focused on engineering a human protein that releases or binds insulin when blood glucose rises and falls in patients with diabetes. Pharma giant Eli Lilly bought Glycostasis in 2016. The idea started conceptually for Mulligan and grew from an instinctual curiosity to tangible science.

“There are a lot of the same impulses that go into creativity that are required to do science at the cutting edge,” Mulligan said. “A lot of the hard part of doing science is defining the problem — what you’re doing when you’re exploring something new is you’re groping around trying to define the problem and solve it at the same time.”

As would be expected with this approach, “there’s a lot of muck we have to work through” to arrive at the solution, Mulligan said.

Most of all, matching the business to the product is important to spend time on initially, he said.

“The hardest part is making that connection between the business model and the technology,” Mulligan said. “That may be the easiest to miss when you’re getting going.”

Trust those around you

Biotech entrepreneurship wasn’t always a walk in the park for Mulligan despite his success. He raised money for Blue Heron as the bubble was bursting and sold another company during the latest downturn.

“That was a hard sell,” Mulligan said. “If you look across the course of my career, it’s perhaps because of an excess level of perseverance that it worked out.”

By transforming connections he made from the days before Blue Heron into a network of investors and board members, Mulligan said he created an infrastructure that allowed his companies to survive tough times. Mulligan’s Good Therapeutics — the predecessor to Bonum that sold to Roche for $250 million last year — “was informed by watching and thinking about how the scientific culture worked and what had gone wrong at other companies.”

Being selective about investors was key, Mulligan said.

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