Several weeks ago, I was having coffee with the founder of a medical device start-up. We were chatting about networking, and he mentioned that I was particularly relentless in terms of meeting people and getting involved with various initiatives (NB: I became involved with BiotechStart simply by sending an e-mail to James Taylor after finding him on Twitter). I explained that my rationale was pretty straightforward. There are so many dimensions to a life science venture that it is impossible to be proficient in every area. No one person can be an expert in science, intellectual property law, the regulatory process, reimbursement, business development, finance, etc. Early on in my life sciences career, I concluded that, although worthwhile to learn as much as possible, it is much easier to know everyone than know everything!
I have to admit that most of what I learned about networking has come from a good friend of mine who works in public affairs (i.e. lobbying and local government). Politics is about people, and successful politicians and political advisors understand how to engage people. In the spirit of cross-pollination, many of the principles that apply to politics also apply to life sciences:
(i) Networking is about building a network – Networking goes beyond attending events, mingling with people, and exchanging business cards. It is not measured by the number of people you have met or know of, but rather, the relationships you have cultivated and the building of repoire and trust. Strong social and professional bonds take a great deal of time and effort to form, however, the upfront cost is marginal relative to the ability to access the intellect and connections of others.
(ii) Reciprocity – Whenever I meet someone in this space, I consciously make an effort to try and help them. This might be by connecting them to a particular person, resource or organization that they would find of use. I do this because I genuinely enjoying helping other. However, reciprocity is a strong social force, and people are motivated to help others that help them. I believe that the willingness to help others is a characteristic of great networkers.
(iii) Cold calling – I attend as many industry events and participate in as many initiatives as possible in order to meet people. However, I have no issue in terms of cold calling or cold e-mailing someone to facilitate an introduction. Although the success rate is well below 100%, I find that people in life sciences are very accommodating and respectful. Personally, I would much rather be rejected than not try.
(iv) Connect-the-dots – Often, I meet people with no understanding of how we will be of benefit to each other. I do so in the belief that this might change in the future. Steve Jobs once made a comment that, it is only in hindsight that we can connect-the-dots, and it follows that you cannot have connections without any dots to connect.
(v) Clusters – As most of you know, life sciences tends to be clustered in only a handful of cities. For example, I live in Toronto which has a vibrant biotech, pharma and medtech community. Outside of Toronto, there are only two other cities in Canada with a strong life sciences footprint, namely Vancouver and Montreal. So, for networking purposes, it greatly helps to live in a cluster.
(vi) Multiplier effect – Whenever I meet someone new, one of the last questions I ask them is “Is there anyone else that you suggest I should meet with?” This commonly has a multiplier effect in terms of opening up new opportunities. It is particularly helpful when that person is willing to act as a referral and facilitate the introduction.
As much as you may find these tips to be helpful, it is also important to note that networking can be extremely fun. Personally, I would much rather spend a day talking to others than sitting in front of my computer. I understand that others may have more difficulty is social situations and become nervous, but once that initial anxiety is breached, the task becomes much easier and enjoyable. Besides, someone you feel uncomfortable speaking with for a long time is probably not someone that you would want in your network.