Partner at BioAdvance Frederick “Rick” Jones visited the MHV Hub at 30th and Market to share his advice to young professionals looking to make a career change, what he loves about Philly, and why our city doesn’t need to be another Boston or San Francisco.
You’ve recently moved back to Philadelphia after a stretch working in Boston. What drew you back to Philly?
I’m thrilled to be back. My history with Philadelphia goes way, way back, actually to when I was born. My grandparents lived here in West Philly. My grandfather was a professor at Penn, so from early days we’d come into town to visit them. I always liked the city, enjoyed coming in, even though I grew up in a rural part of Central PA. So when it came time to go to college, I wanted to come down into the city. Ever since then I have considered Philadelphia kind of my hometown and it has never changed. Philly has always been in my blood. The quality of life is great, the walkability of the city, its centrality to ocean and countryside, to New York and Washington, and an easy flight across the pond. It’s hard to beat.
You started your career as a physician. What made you transition into biopharma and what advice would you give to young doctors thinking of making a similar jump?
Well there are a bunch of them because I get called 3-4 times a year with the same question. The way I describe it is getting back into the learning curve. I got through med school, I was out in practice for about 10-12 years, and I could pretty much see what I’d be doing the next 20-30 years. I did some things to add a little spice to my daily life, like some administrative activities, and I was in a teaching institution so there was also that side. But the bulk of my time was clinical.
I was restless, even as a Penn undergrad. At that time you could take what they call clusters. You didn’t even have to have a major or minor. I had these clusters in natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences. I describe it as intro to everything. And so, when I went into medicine, being narrowly focused, even as a general internist, which may be the widest next to family medicine, I still felt it was too narrow a path.
I wanted to get back to that, I wanted to learn. I grew up in a physician family, so I really knew nothing about business. But my wife was a business person, and I got to see through her eyes all these really cool things that she was doing and all these different kinds of people and businesses and situations she was interacting with.
So I talked to a bunch of different folks while I was still in practice, including insurance companies, hospital services providers, biotech, VCs, and consulting groups. It became clear to me that there was a lot of what I consider “creative alternatives” out there for somebody with a medical background. It was a matter of finding a place of where I could add value as soon as I stepped in the door. A lot of these places, they gave me cred for being a physician at Penn, but how could I help them on day one? My first industry position was a medical affairs doctor at Wyeth. I was pretty much a physician advisor to commercial brand teams and I could add value from day one just by basically being a physician in a different environment. But my goal was always to be a business person who happened to have a physician background as opposed to being a physician who happened to be in business. Once I got my MBA I moved over to more business type roles in business development at Wyeth and then sort of evolved after that. And to all those people who are asking what it’s like, I’d say, look I’ve worked with people, I’ve done things, I’ve been places, and I’ve had experiences I never would have had if stayed as a practicing physician. For me it’s been a fantastic career. And every few years, I change roles, change responsibilities and I’ve stayed on that learning curve which is exactly what I’ve wanted to do.
Having both built and invested in companies, what differentiates the ones that have thrived and those that have floundered?
I think a major difference is whether the people in those companies look at their job as purely technical or if they can, think beyond that and consider their work in a wider context. Coming out of an academic background, sometimes technical qualification alone is the natural fall back. All of us who succeeded in an academic environment have basically done it because we worked hard to jump through the hoops, we checked off the boxes, we got the positions with the right mentors and right institutions, and we were in the right place at the right time. And there is sort of the sense that if you just do the right things on paper and check those boxes, success should follow. When you apply for a job they of course want to make sure you aren’t a complete psychopath (laughs), but beyond that if your resume looked good, that‘s 90% of the battle.
Where as in business, to succeed you’ve really got to go beyond the technical aspects. You’ve got to have a sense, not just of what you will do because it’s interesting to advance the science, but you’ve got to have a sense of what other people will want and what the market will need. You’re solving somebody else’s problem, you’re not solving a scientific problem, though that might be a part of getting to where you want to go. And I think that’s not intuitive to a lot of people coming out of academics. I’ve seen many small businesses, particularly when they are founded by scientific founders, where the attitude might be, “I was really good at being a world expert cell biologist so I should be able to be really good at being CEO of a small company.” That’s not the recipe for success.
The other big piece for individuals transitioning out of academia is proving value. Again, instead of the academic career path where it’s a lot about having checked off the box, jumped through the hoops, etc. it’s not just what you’ve done, it’s what can you do to make yourself valuable for the people that you are joining. So there’s a little bit of, I don’t want to say selling yourself, but you’ve got to look at it from their point of view. You’ve got to be able to show how you can bridge the gap between a very specific set of experiences and some more general tasks that they may need you to do and which you’ve probably never done before.
I know people very close to me, who just don’t like that sense of going beyond their resume and trying to sell themselves or to see themselves as something beyond what they’ve earned piece by piece over the years. And I think that’s a big part of it.
The Life Science industry in Philadelphia is still outshone by Boston and San Francisco. What do you see as the big difference between the cities and what can Philly do to compete at their level?
I can remember way back in the day when I was first getting out into industry, there was always the sense that Philadelphia wanted to be more and was a little bit jealous of other places. I would say, first of all, we don’t have to be Boston or San Francisco, we just have to be the best that we can be. Those places, especially Boston, are highly evolved. That was an extremely long development cycle that led them to be where they are today. And even if it doesn’t take quite as long, it’s still going to take quite a bit of time. It was also organic in a sense that it wasn’t top down. It wasn’t something where the state decided, “we’re going to be a big biotech leader” and they were able to put in place a development program which all of a sudden resulted in Kendall Square springing up out of nothing.
It was organic in the sense that you had companies like Biogen, Genzyme, Genetics Institute, get started, be successful. Biogen is still independent. The others eventually were bought out. But those companies spun out all kind of ancillaries, daughter companies that were led by alumni of those companies. Plus, Boston had the good fortune of early on having a class of investors that were willing to put money into that kind of industry. Then of course, because of that environment that was springing up, you had big companies looking to come in and just be in the middle of that. Novartis came first and after that, they came piling in. It’s a self-perpetuating and self-building sort of thing and that just takes a long, long time.
I would say too, that Philadelphia had the misfortune where some of its early key biotech companies, not only were swallowed up relatively early, and of course with some of the leaders passing away at young ages, but for some reason, we did not have homegrown capital that was willing to invest.
So, a lot of people are really focused on big picture, top down solutions to all this. And I think that we’re going to be better served if everybody picks a particular focus and gets very good at whatever it is that they do instead of everyone trying to cover a lot of different bases and not focusing on a kind of core mission. I think if we get a really good incubator, a really good real estate play, a really good seed fund, a really good tech transfer office, and a few really good companies, the geographic proximity makes a difference so that people can mingle and sort of feel like there is a buzz going on. And that is beginning to happen. If we all stick to our knitting and be the best that we can be, the growth can follow.
The one big piece to me where I’d love to see a little bit of the top down approach is to try and entice and develop a deep pocketed venture creation type fund that is focused on, not necessarily exclusively, but which has its roots in Philadelphia or the region. To be able to, 2-3 times a year, roll out one of these $15-20 million Series A’s and get these really firmly well-funded solid companies started in the area. I think that’s going to have to be homegrown, I hope it comes out of this next generation of really successful companies where you have these entrepreneurs who make their pile coming out of those companies and then decide that’s going to be their next job, to create more of that. And because they’ve been successful they should be able to attract capital because capital tends to follow success. I’d love to see people really go hard after getting something like that started.
Do you think we are going on the right trajectory?
I think we’re going in the right trajectory. I was away for a long time. I wasn’t aware of everything that was happening. And I’ve actually been favorably impressed with the number of new companies. When you start enumerating all of them, companies like Context, Harmony, T-munity, there is a big pool of talent still here. So, I think we have the pool of talent, we obviously have the sources of innovation, we have the support services, plenty of consultants, legal services. Again, I do think that we need that critical mass of capital, I think it’s a matter of putting down these markers. It’s one thing for Spark to get started and grow itself and make the kind of success it has but, it would be great, every year, if there were 2-3 other sizable companies that got started up and who could get a Series A in place, staff 20, 30, 40 people. Not all will obviously go on and make it, but enough hopefully will so that you get your 100, 200, 300 person companies.
Speaking of which, that‘s a good segue into your work at BioAdvance
This new job fits well with my focus on being the best at what you can be, given what your mission is. BioAdvance has been critical for the region as a seed investor for biotech companies. The fund has supported dozens of companies in its history, which goes back over 15 years, and has almost tripled in size. I know that Barbara Schilberg and the BioAdvance team are continually refining their approach in order to support an ecosystem of truly innovative companies. In my last position we were very focused on breakthrough technologies, so I am looking forward to a similar role here.
What is a current project at BioAdvance that you are most excited about?
I am brand new but there are a couple things that I’ve seen that I really like.
I’m not a big digital health guy, I have a hard time getting my arms around the model of some of these things, but there is one digital health company that I like called Ride (Health). Essentially they are building an app that would be layered on top of Uber and Lyft to allow health systems to arrange rides for their patients. So, a big part of patient compliance is getting to the hospital. This allows the system to get the patients hooked up with these kinds of services, get to the hospital, get their services, and of course, hospitals benefit from better revenue streams and patients benefit from better care. Another company that raised a big round is Venato (Rx). They have been able to go out and raise a really significant follow on financing. Those are two things we have. The stuff I’ve seen in our pipeline is really interesting. But that’s where I hope that my experience in Boston with Broadview comes in. It also had a relatively small bite size, about a million dollars, and that was always a big part of our triaging. Is our million really going to matter to this company? Is it going to buy some value of some kind? I think both Broadview and BioAdvance have shown that this type of early stage investment can, in fact, lead to enormous value for patients and companies.
Now if you could go back in time, what is the best piece of advice you would give to your 22-year-old self?
I would urge myself to be more honest about where my passions and interests really were. As a 22-year-old, that was about the time I was getting my undergrad degree. I mentioned I grew up in a physician family and even though my parents honestly never put pressure on me to follow a medical career, still it was very hard to even imagine jobs outside of medicine. I had some idea of what doctors, lawyers, academics did. I had no idea of what business people did, but I had a very broad interest that was difficult to narrow down and confine. And so in some ways for me going into medicine was almost like a default position.
And I would’ve been much better off if I said, look I don’t know what I want to do, I’m just going to go out and do something that seems fun and interesting and not commit myself at this point.
This is what I tell our kids, don’t worry about what you’re going to be doing 20 years from now but worry about what you’re going to do next year. Is it something that seems interesting? Sounds like it’ll be fun? If so, then go out and evolve.
There is a huge amount of pressure to pick your passion, to go for it, and succeed. It’s tough.
What is your favorite aspect of Philly?
The walkability. The sense of human scale. I’m not a really gregarious person, I don’t have a thousand friends, but I just love the sense of getting out there and being with people who are all my fellow Philadelphians. I just love walking out my front door and the community.
I come down to Philly and walk around and instantly feel at home.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was the week of the Super Bowl. We planned to finish by asking Rick if he was an Eagles or Patriots fan. He showed up in an Eagles jersey. We asked him anyway.]
Never stopped rooting for Eagles. Or Philadelphia teams in general. Of course, in Boston, that’s tough because they are always winning up there. I grew to greatly admire the Boston franchises; they are all so well run. But in terms of my sentiment and emotion, it has always been Philly.