Virtual workforces can be a vital and often necessary way for fledgling biopharmaceutical and medical device companies to hire the right talent, stay flexible and conserve resources. But having employees and contractors work remotely can have drawbacks.
In 2021, Ashton Tweed interviewed three CEOs for its CEO Leadership Series who touched on the benefits and challenges of managing remote employees and contractors before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ashton Tweed followed up with Seneca Therapeutics Inc. CEO James M. Hussey, Osmol Therapeutics Inc. CEO Bob Linke, and Jeff Riley, who was previously CEO of Blinktbi Inc. and is currently Executive Chairman of Blinkcns Inc. and CEO of CaraVan Biologix, to talk about when virtual workforces make sense and when they may not.
Ashton Tweed: First of all, what are the biggest benefits of a virtual workforce?
Bob Linke: It’s a great model for development-stage biopharma companies to advance a product through the development and regulatory process in a very capital-efficient way. Employing a virtual workforce stretches our investors’ dollars as far as we can. It helps us avoid making big, capital-intensive investments that can be better spent investing in a virtual organization and our partners to advance our product to the next value-generating milestone.
At Osmol, as the need for a full-time role occurs, I bring on a full-time person to fill that role. Otherwise, when we’re done with the work, that person’s time with the company declines until more work is available. Right now, I don’t need a full-time position for any of the functions in the company.
AT: What are the biggest challenges in managing a virtual workforce?
Jeff Riley: Getting people to work as a team is probably the toughest part. You can do Zoom calls—it’s a great tool and everybody uses it—but studies show that the majority of all communication is non-verbal. So, you can see somebody on Zoom and it’s better than being on the phone but it’s still not as good as being in person.
Another big challenge is getting people to sit down and innovate—our industry is all about innovation—and it’s really not easy to do by phone or even on Zoom. You really need to get people together in person. Literally every single day, at least in the science world on the R&D side, we’re doing something that no one else has done before to some extent.
AT: What have you learned about managing remote workers?
BL: Communication, communication, communication. To keep the team functioning and productive, I require that everyone participate in weekly management meetings even if they are not engaged in the project at that particular time to stay up to date on what’s going on in the company. In addition, I have a one-on-one conversation every week with everyone on my management team so they understand the plan, what the current issues are, and what they need to do to address them. I also treat our consultants like employees. They know everything about Osmol just as a C-level person who reports directly to me. This is reinforced by the fact that they can ask me any question knowing they will get a straight and honest answer from me.
James Hussey: I communicate with my team through one-on-one phone calls or one-on-one Zoom [meetings]. If something hasn’t gone well I want them to know I have zero interest in blame. If something’s gone wrong, I always ask the question “What’s the plan?” I free people to do what they need to do to fix their own problems.
There are only two or three things that would get you fired from my group. Doing something stupid from a character standpoint, like sexual harassment, or not consistently performing over a period of a year. If I see no improvement, you’re just mismatched for the job.
JR: I have lots of Zooms calls during the week, lots of conversations. Zoom is fantastic for managing projects that have a whole slew of milestones. But, as far as earlier-stage brainstorming, problem-solving on Zoom is not as efficient in my opinion.
AT: How do you assess whether a job candidate will do well working in a virtual environment?
BL: One thing I look at is how much experience the person has had working remotely. I generally wouldn’t hire people that haven’t had some experience working remotely. I’d like to see some track record of their ability to work outside of an office. The pandemic, unfortunately, has trained a significant virtual workforce, making these resources much easier to identify.
JR: I usually only hire people in the beginning who are folks that I know and that have experience working in a virtual environment.
JH: I think virtual workforces are most effective when you have an incredibly experienced team so mentoring is much less important. It’s hard to mentor someone remotely because it involves talking around the water cooler, riding the elevator, dropping in the office, and chatting over lunch, where the experienced, older generation can inculcate culture and character into the younger generation. I’m not going to need to mentor someone who’s been in the industry for 30 years.
Seneca Therapeutics in Blue Bell, Pa., is developing a cancer immunotherapeutic that selectively targets cancer cells and leaves healthy cells alone. Seneca has started clinical trials and Series B fundraising.
Osmol Therapeutics, based in New Haven, Conn., is developing a treatment for chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN), a potentially permanent, debilitating side effect of chemotherapy in breast cancer patients. Osmol is planning to file an Investigational New Drug Application (IND) in early 2023 and begin Phase 1 clinical trials.
Blinkcns in Charleston, S.C., is developing EyeStat, an FDA-cleared technology that measures and assesses the blink reflex to detect and manage neurological diseases through a rapid, noninvasive collection of data from the eyes. The company has entered into an exclusive licensing agreement with a technology accelerator, the Zucker Institute for Innovation Commercialization, to advance EyeStat.
CaraVan Biologix is a Princeton, N.J.-based company focused on addressing the limitations of whole-cell chimeric receptor therapeutics through the development of novel technology platforms.