Life Science CRM in the First-Person (7 of 7)

At last the final installment of The Report I’ve been expelling for weeks. This one’s about my exerience meeting figues from the life science industry. It’s also about CRM because I think it’s the way to go to engage the industry (We committed to becoming a constituent-focused organization, right?), and I think we need to engage the industry to stay a player in the cancer control world.

I am extremely grateful to Pat Felts and Mike Mitchell for the opportunity to explore the new science of cancer and the life science industry that is turning new developments into clinical and consumer products. This has added a new dimension and new excitement to my career in cancer control.

I have had the opportunity to meet many people in life science in the last couple of years, and, because it is consistent with the CRM orientation of the Division, to consider those incipient relationships as constituent relationship encounters. I have learned a few things as a result of interaction that I hope provide a starting point for further development of relationships with figures in the industry.

There are many opportunities to have the “first touch point” with a variety of people in life science. We have a common interest in the puzzle of cancer and the challenge of finding ways to impact the course of the disease. Conferences abound about molecular biology, biotechnology, developments in biology-based therapeutics, and the business of establishing a viable enterprise around life science. The people at conferences are approachable and respect the name American Cancer Society. When I say to people I am interested in learning more about what they or their company is doing related to cancer research or therapeutics, they are almost always willing to meet with me and share information. I have built a substantial list of contacts names in Siebel and have done interviews and e-mail communications with scientists, executives, attorneys and others in the life science industry. We can establish a preliminary relationship based on a common affinity. A plus is that the Society is not perceived as a competitor.

Most times I am absolutely fascinated with the work that individuals and companies are doing that will have a benefit to cancer research or therapeutics. I am also amazed that such interesting things are happening in companies in communities all over California, in our backyards, so to speak. In my enthusiasm I almost always ask if they would be willing to share what they’ve told me with the volunteers and staff of the ACS, and the answer is almost always, yes. I also think this is an opportunity in many communities across the country.

It needs to be kept in mind that people involved with business projects are flattered by the interest, but the opportunity to engage with the ACS is also a marketing and a PR opportunity for them. While there seems to be an aversion in the Society to getting into any form of “deal” with for-profits, it’s as natural for them to think in terms of their benefits as it is for us to look for a fund raising opportunity in every encounter. We tend to keep for-profits at arm’s length, evidently for fear some of our brand magic may be appropriated by them.

There is the opportunity to have a second CRM “touch” by inviting people from the life science industry to meet with us, and a natural exchange is hearing what they do. For instance, the CEO of Gene Network Sciences, Colin Hill, has offered to present about in silico biology to ACS, and the head of IBM’s Life Sciences Division, Caroline Kovaks, has offered twice, when I asked, to talk about how IBM and other information system companies are playing a growing role in supporting life science informatics and the great train of information that will be coupled, eventually, from the research lab, to the development environment, to the clinic, to the payer. I’ve not had anyone decline that request. There are people available to expand our awareness and understanding; we only have to ask.

Another benefit of engaging biotechnology players is that it raises the visibility of the ACS in their community. Most American-born scientists and executives know the name American Cancer Society, but they do not perceive the Society as a scientific organization. We are seen as an “advocacy group.” (The many foreign-born scientists in the field usually haven’t a clue about what the ACS is.) In their eyes we have the role of speaking for the cancer patient, and that may be a point of benefit. They show interest in hearing more of that perspective. But, as I have represented the Society in biotechnology settings, my impression is that it improves the perception of the Society by showing that we are interested in and savvy about cutting-edge science. That’s definitely beneficial.

The scale of access can be considerable. In early June, thanks to Mike, I will be attending BIO 2004 in San Francisco, the biggest meeting of biotechnology people in the world. Indeed, it encompasses the whole world. There will be 20,000 participants in the conference from all over the globe. At least 150 countries will be represented. I’ll bet at least half the states in the US will have delegation and biotech promotion associations present. Many governors will be there, no doubt including our own “Arnold.” So that’s 19,999 people involved in biotech…and me, the ACS rep.

I have found it worthwhile to devote considerable time to schooling myself about a wide variety of scientific topics by reading textbooks, journals, and attending lectures and conferences of highly specialized information. In building relations with science-oriented types, it is important to be sufficiently fluent in their vernacular to express proper respect for what they are talking about.

The problem for me has been that I have no position or authority to create opportunities to take the next step in the Society. Other than Mike Mitchell, I have not found among the NHO staff interest in engaging biotechnology figures. And there is not yet a forum in the California Division for further engagement to take place. I have learned to speak for myself when I say there is interest in hearing further from them.

I believe that the California Division has a unique opportunity—to my mind, almost an obligation—to pioneer in this area. We are the leading state in life sciences; we can hardly afford not to engage it. I can’t specify at this time exactly what the payoff would be—and it would have to be mutual, as CRM would suggest—but I believe there is every opportunity to initiate engagement that will open that up.

I believe strongly that, if we were to initiate more relationships based on common interest in cancer, it would be possible to explore other opportunities for a mutually beneficial relationship with individuals or companies. Often these people are well-connected with influentials in industries of many kinds.

I also believe that exploring the role of the Society in an increasingly market-driven life science world is a growth opportunity for the Society. When I first came to work for the Society in the early ‘70s political advocacy was an unthinkable strategy; now it’s one of our most powerful tools, one we proclaim proudly. It was a long evolution to this position. Now I think it is important for the Society to find an influential role vis-a-vis the for-profit environment, especially in the parallel universe of life science. I think we can do it, but we have to get started.