Up Close and Personal with Uncertainty in the Life Sciences

Business man looking out conference room window

Jim RudmanBusiness man looking out conference room windowBy Jim Rudman, CEO, Ashton Tweed

See this article on LinkedIn.


Life science leaders and entrepreneurs are familiar with the feeling of uncertainty and have to be comfortable enough to push through, it’s simply a staple of the industry. Being able to handle uncertainty is a key characteristic in order to take on a leadership role at a life sciences company.

Why? Between research and development, funding, clinical trials, FDA approval, and market competition, nothing is guaranteed… But one has to go all in just to give one product a shot. That means time, energy, money, and a whole lot of risk. As the CEO of an executive search firm in the industry, I have major insights into these challenges through my clients. So how should one handle such a turbulent career environment? See these 5 tips from real-life leaders in the industry:


1. Gauge your tolerance for uncertainty. Do you have what it takes?

David Owens, CEO of BiologicsMD, knew that this environment was for him, but it’s definitely not for everyone. Be honest with yourself and gauge your tolerance for uncertainty before taking on a role of this nature.

“I realized earlier in my career that I’m more of a builder than a maintainer. I’m the kind of guy who likes to start something new, take risks and identify ways of building new value in companies,” he says.

“After 30 years in my career, instead of looking for a conventional leadership role at another company I decided to go back to a start-up,” explains Mr. Owens. “I assumed more risk but also gained more opportunities and expanded my skill set. For me, that was the right path to take and it’s been very rewarding.”


2. Be creative in finding ways to mitigate risk.

Sometimes you may find yourself stuck between a rock and a hard place, just like Dr. Christopher Schaber, President and CEO of Soligenix, found himself. The ability to find ways to mitigate risk is a necessary skill in the industry and is one that will help ease the burden of uncertainty.

“When I first joined Soligenix we essentially had one program in the pipeline, and that program was a Phase III program that ultimately failed. Phase III is that registration study where you submit for FDA approval, so obviously a failed Phase III study is not good. We adapted our approach so that in the future we would try to get more than one program in the pipeline in order to have multiple shots on goal, thereby mitigating risk. We’re mitigating risk to the shareholders while we’re advancing multiple programs to build value.”

When asked how he prepares for the possibility that a risk won’t pay off, he simply says, “You prepare for the worst and you hope for the best.” Speaking of preparation…


3. Prepare for all outcomes… especially failure.

Preparation is key! This is a saying that leaders like Christopher Cashman, Executive Chairman of Marinus Pharmaceuticals, are very familiar with. It’s common sense to have a strong Plan A, but it’s wise to also have a solid Plan B and even Plan C.

“You must anticipate setbacks and have contingency plans in place – especially in drug development where failure is the norm. You have to be realistic, realize that many things won’t work, and raise enough money so you can fail, regroup, and try again.” Because drug discovery are low probability ventures, he advises, you have to give yourself the time and money to work through failure.


4. Don’t go at it alone, gather the right team.

It takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to bring a life sciences product to market. No leader should be taking on the uncertainty alone! Kathleen DeLawrence, COO of Ability Prosthetics & Orthotics, recognizes the importance of a good team with which to share the responsibility.

“Developing products – stuff happens that you have no control over, yet you learn to manage through the risk. Most importantly, and the most significant learning – the art of collaboration, trust and respect amongst a management team is crucial for success.”


5. Use anxious energy to work hard.

Uncertainty tends to create stress and therefore an excess of anxious energy. However, there is no reason to let that energy go to waste, regardless of its source! Dr. Donna Tempel, President and CEO of Drais Pharmaceuticals, knows how that energy can be converted into hard work.

When asked about her secrets to success in the pharmaceutical industry, Dr. Tempel replies, “There are no secrets. It takes a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work. And you have to really love what you do.” The entrepreneurial environment is not for everybody, she admits. “It can be very intense, and there’s a lot of risk involved.”


In the life sciences industry, failure and adaptation may as well be part of the job description, so don’t get too attached to a specific product, position, or company. Instead, get attached to your big picture goal – never lose sight of why you are doing what you do and how your actions are improving patient health. Through all of the ups and downs that I see my clients and candidates withstand, I know that if you believe in your work, everything else will seem manageable.


Looking for professionals comfortable with uncertainty to add to your management team? Contact me today.

Share your insights! Contact jamesrudman@ashtontweed.com to contribute your life sciences article as a guest writer.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *