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Founding a global biotechnology summit — while pursuing a PhD – Nature.com

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CAREER COLUMN

Ipshita Mandal-Johnson teamed up with other graduate students to set up an annual forum to develop tomorrow’s biotechnology leaders. This is what she learnt.
Ipshita Mandal-Johnson is an entrepreneur and technology strategist based between Boston, Massachusetts, and Saint Lucia.

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GapSummit team

In 2011, after completing a biotechnology undergraduate degree at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, I moved to the United Kingdom to pursue a PhD at the University of Cambridge. I discovered Cambridge’s vibrant biotech ecosystem by going to evening lectures attended by international scholars, entrepreneurs and industry leaders. At these events, we discussed global challenges in health care, energy, food, agriculture and climate change.

I noticed a lack of preparation among my generation to meet these grand challenges, and how biotechnology could provide solutions to them. The idea of an ‘international young biotech leaders forum’ emerged.

I needed a co-founder, so I talked to my laboratory mate Christian Guyader, who had organized large events and understood the Cambridge ecosystem — and he agreed to help me get the project off the ground.

We developed a strategy by brainstorming why we needed a forum and how we would structure it. We identified potential partners and growth plans. Our venture became Global Biotech Revolution (GBR), a non-profit organization, and the GapSummit, a three-day event that brings present and future biotech leaders together.

How the GBR developed

We discussed our GBR plans with academics and representatives from both global and regional biotech firms, student societies, media organizations and pharmaceutical companies.

Then, we approached current biotech leaders at symposiums and industry events. These included the BIO International Convention, The Pharma Summit (run by The Economist Intelligence Unit), the Royal Society of Engineering Global Grand Challenges Summit and the annual St Gallen Symposium, which hosts intergenerational debates about economic, social and political developments.

Over the two years we spent gathering research and knowledge, we developed a network of advisers, speakers, sponsors and marketing collaborators.

We also defined the GBR’s mission: to identify and challenge the next generation of biotech leaders, and to help solve the biggest gaps in the global ‘bio-economy’ by expanding knowledge and perspectives among early career researchers, young professionals and entrepreneurs, and connecting like-minded people around the world.

In 2013, we created a community interest company. These were set up by the UK government in 2004 and were aimed at social enterprises that would use profits and assets for the public good. The GapSummit is the GBR’s flagship platform, a three-day intercultural and intergenerational summit at which we select 100 Leaders of Tomorrow (LoT) to come and challenge each other and current leaders across the biotech ecosystem (including academia, industry and policy). Potential LoTs submit their CVs and essays on the future of biotech, and then go through a follow-up interview. The summit is focused on discussing key gaps or challenges that the next generation will spend their careers trying to solve. There is also a bio-entrepreneurship Voices of Tomorrow competition, in which student teams of between five and seven members define a specific need in the biotech industry and propose a solution after working with an industry mentor over three months. The finalists are invited to pitch to judges on the last day of the GapSummit.

Christian and I also built up the organizing team. We needed students who were open to developing business and soft skills outside their lab work. We started with another PhD student, Frieder Haenisch, who became chief operating officer around summer 2013. The founding team consisted of eight students and early-career professionals with different personality types and skill sets ranging from financial modelling to marketing design. They were all good at problem solving, and committed to working without a salary for a non-profit venture with a heavy time investment. Together, we developed the three-day programme, found corporate sponsorship, chose speakers through networking opportunities and cold-call e-mails, created an application process for the 100 LoTs, developed the Voices of Tomorrow competition and organized logistics.

Momentum

The first GapSummit, held in March and April 2014, had a tremendous energy, with debates on topics ranging from research and innovation to public perception and education gaps. The LoTs came from 35 countries across 5 continents. The 40 Leaders of Today included Roche Group chief executive Severin Schwan, then-chair of the Wellcome Trust William Castell and Kate Bingham, managing partner of SV Health Investors.

Once the first GapSummit was successfully behind us, we wanted to maintain the momentum — but also realized that the same team could not organize a second one, because of the significant time commitment. We were in the early years of our PhD programmes, and needed to contribute more time to our studies. We reorganized the GBR to ensure the sustainability and quality of the GapSummits, and recruited a new team to run the second GapSummit in 2016.

Some global LoTs wanted to host regional events, so we collaborated with them and held two smaller regional forums, in Washington DC and Singapore, which took place in March 2015 and October 2016, respectively. The US regional event led to the first GapSummit in the country, which was held at Georgetown University in Washington DC in June 2017.

Stepping back

After overseeing three GapSummits in six years and the US expansion, I decided to step back from the president role in May 2017. It took me many months to make this hard decision, after consultations with both the GBR team and personal mentors.

I felt fresh leadership would help the organization to pursue projects such as marketing expansion and alumni engagement. Also, I needed to move onto the next stage of my career. Anna Gould, who was part of the 2014 LoT cohort and who joined the organizing team for GapSummit 2016, succeeded me as president. Ensuring continuity was important, so Christian and Carthur Wan from the founding team continued as members of the leadership team.

Stepping back from something I had built from scratch, and that had taken a significant amount of personal time for years, was both a relief and emotionally taxing. The relief came from a sense of satisfaction at having brought GBR through the crucial years when its foundation and sustainability were established, and from handing responsibilities over to a competent team. It also freed up huge chunks of my weekday evenings, weekends and holidays — I could travel without checking the online collaboration tool Slack every few hours, and could move between countries and jobs. At first, I had to exercise discipline to keep from getting too involved in team meetings, and to let the new team lead future GapSummits. Looking back, this transition phase could definitely have been smoother with a longer handover period and clear advisory and effective communication channels for the new leadership team.

But this experience of founding an organization and later exiting it was a great learning experience for me. It taught me to always focus on an organizational strategy and business plan at the outset, to carefully select and designate roles throughout the early-growth and leadership-transition stages and to openly discuss risks and challenges at an organizational and individual level.

Next steps

The GBR experience helped me to build a non-academic career, and to not be afraid of taking career risks. After completing my PhD programme, I joined the fledgling biotech company Bactevo (now called Nanna Therapeutics) in Cambridge, UK, where I used my partnership and project-management skills to lead pharma research and development collaborations. Three years later, I joined management consultancy McKinsey & Company and worked on projects in India and the United States to get experience in a large-scale organization in high-growth markets.

The skills I learnt while growing the GBR helped me to build relationships with senior executive clients and manage consulting teams. One project involved working with multiple ministries across the Government of India, alongside top technology firms, on the Digital India 2.0 strategy, which aims to create up to $1 trillion of economic value from the digital economy in 2025. As part of this endeavour, I presented the national digital agriculture strategy to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

This year, I returned to attend the GapSummit at the Broad Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, as a mentor to one of the entrepreneurship teams. I observed the impact GapSummit had in the global biotech sector, and watched the values and mission we set out with seven years ago live on. The GBR network now has more than 500 alumni from 53 countries, many of whom have gone on to create start-ups or take leadership positions in industry and academia. This brings me a huge sense of pride. The organization began as an idea to bring together people in biotech, and now GBR alumni are slowly transforming the field globally.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03486-4

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturecareerseditor@nature.com.

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