In an effort to continually explore the interface between science and business, Tufts Biomedical Business Club recently caught up with Dr. Zach Scheiner, an Associate at RA Capital Management, for a discussion about his experience in the healthcare investment industry.
RA Capital Management is a crossover fund manager dedicated to evidence-based investing in public and private healthcare and life science companies. Prior to his current role at RA Capital, Zach worked as a Science Officer at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, where he managed a portfolio of research programs concentrated in translational neuroscience. He holds a BS in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry from Yale University, and a PhD in Neurobiology and Behavior from the University of Washington.
As an Associate for RA Capital, Zach’s efforts are realized through the team’s core research division, TechAtlas. This division is a scientifically trained team that maps out competitive landscapes in a continual effort to survey the landscape and identify emerging therapeutics and technologies that will reshape how physicians treat disease. The interview is edited for brevity and clarity.
Tell me about the career path that led you to your job. How did you become involved with RA Capital Management?
My interest in biomedical science and research began as an undergrad, when I had several summer research internships and was exposed to a few different fields of research. At the same time I had my first opportunity to teach science classes at a local high school and quickly realized that I also had a passion for teaching. After graduating, I decided to teach middle school science and math for a year (which turned into three) before returning to research and going to grad school.
I attended the Neurobiology & Behavior graduate program at The University of Washington in Seattle. My thesis work focused on the molecular basis of memory and drug addiction. Though I enjoyed my time as a graduate student, by my fourth year I began to realize that the academic career path and spending more years at the lab bench were not for me. I really enjoyed reading primary literature, planning experiments, and reviewing/analyzing data, so as I finished up graduate school I began looking at alternatives where I might be able to incorporate these interests as well as leverage my scientific background in a non-research capacity.
I found a great opportunity at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) in San Francisco. CIRM funds stem cell research at institutions throughout California with the goal of advancing promising stem cell based therapies into clinical trials and ultimately to patients. I began as a science writer and quickly moved to a position managing a portfolio of translational research programs. In this position, I worked closely with funded scientists to help set milestones and success criteria, assess progress, and, however possible, facilitate success. In my six years at CIRM I learned a tremendous amount about the drug development process, gained experience reviewing and analyzing data, and developed management skills, all of which have been invaluable in my current role at RA Capital.
My move to RA Capital was the result of my wife being offered an assistant professorship at Brown University. In preparation for the move from one coast to the other I reached out to everyone in my network, including an old lab-mate I had stayed in touch with from graduate school who was now an Associate for RA Capital. I had a long-time interest in biotech investing, nurtured by my dad, and had been learning about this part of the industry in my spare time. Luckily, RA was hiring and the rest is history. For me, RA Capital was a perfect fit. I can put my communication and analytical skills from teaching, grad school and CIRM to good use and I love staying immersed in cutting-edge science while learning more about the investment side of the biotech industry.
What are the duties/functions/responsibilities of your job?
As an Associate with RA Capital, my primary role involves creating dendrograms (mind-maps) of specific diseases or capabilities within the healthcare industry. These comprehensive landscape maps take all the available drugs, both on the market and still in development, and put them into the context of current standard of care and unmet needs. They help our team fully appreciate and contextualize the market potential of assets and companies before making investments. Mapping out a disease landscape is a research-intensive process that involves surveying the literature, meeting with companies with assets in the space, speaking directly to physicians, attending scientific conferences, and analyzing data. The process can take several months to complete but the maps are never truly finished. Therapeutic landscapes are constantly evolving, new data are released and new licensing and acquisition deals are made. Our maps are equally dynamic and a lot of my time is spent staying up to date with the latest news and data coming out in the areas I cover.
In addition to mapping, Associates also join the investment team in diligence projects on specific investment opportunities. Our maps are a great way of contextualizing drugs and their competitors and can help our team identify potential new opportunities but it’s always critical to dig deeper before making an investment. One of the most rewarding parts of my job is seeing all the work I’ve put in researching and understanding a therapeutic space pay off with insights that are potentially investable, or that directly benefit a diligence project.
On a day-to-day basis I also survey industry news and the scientific literature not only to keep up with the science but to search for new investment opportunities that could be licensable for an RA Capital portfolio company or even form the basis for a new company. I also enjoy being involved in the recruiting process at RA and playing a small role in shaping the future of the company.
What is the most rewarding part about your job?
Personally, the most rewarding part of my work is knowing that we are investing in companies that are developing therapies for patients that really need them! These companies often have no marketed drugs and need capital to advance their assets through clinical trials and into the hands of patients. When I think about the work that I do, I know I am helping to identify great science, underappreciated drugs, and promising new opportunities. And I hope that by influencing where RA Capital’s dollars are invested, I’m impacting the whole healthcare ecosystem in a positive way.
What experiences best prepared you for your job?
I think all of my previous work experiences helped prepare me for RA Capital, the first of which was teaching. Communication is such an essential skill and getting an opportunity to develop this early in my career has been a huge benefit. Having controlled a classroom every day for three years definitely makes communicating with colleagues, companies and scientific experts a little easier. Effective communication is a vital part of this job.
The second experience is my time spent as a graduate student. In graduate school I learned how to rigorously analyze data, both my own and from the literature. I developed my critical thinking and analytical skills and the ability to quickly identify key questions, design key experiments, and understand the limitations of a study.
Lastly, at CIRM I learned the process of moving a drug from the lab to the market and everything in between. I also regularly participated in grant review meetings with panels of scientists, clinicians, and patient advocates. These meetings gave me the opportunity to learn what was truly important to each group. While the views and opinions would often vary between the groups, one key takeaway was that for a drug to succeed, doctors have to want to prescribe it and patients have to want to use it. My experience at CIRM taught me to evaluate drugs with the patient perspective in mind; new therapies are worthless unless patients will use them, and sometimes improvements that appear marginal can be very meaningful to patients.
What skills or personal characteristics do you feel contribute most to success in this industry?
Very often, investment firms require that applicants have a background in finance, an MBA, or prior experience in the industry. That is not the case at RA Capital. I wouldn’t say any particular background or degree is required, but there are certainly skills that are critical. Analytical skills, for example. The ability to rigorously analyze data and quickly get to the “meat” of primary literature or a clinical data set is invaluable. Another key skill is effective writing and communication. Much of my day is spent writing and talking. I am continuously expressing my thoughts and providing analysis and it is important to do so concisely and effectively.
In terms of personal characteristics, I would highlight skepticism. Being skeptical is a common trait among scientists due to the nature of research, but this skill is especially important when meeting with companies. Every company is trying to convince us that their assets or data are the best. Skepticism is required to separate the pitch from the quality of the science.
Humility is another important personal characteristic. To put it simply, in something as complicated as drug development, it’s easy to be wrong! There are so many variables to consider, and science changes so quickly; it’s essential to have an open mind and be humble about everything you do not know.
What are the biggest challenges you face as an associate for RA Capital Management?
I think the largest challenge I face is simply the pace of the industry and science itself. There is new data coming out all the time; from company press releases, new primary literature, scientific conferences—the amount of information can be overwhelming. Developing the ability to quickly assimilate and analyze new information is the biggest challenge. But it’s also one of the things I enjoy most about my job. In this field you have to enjoy constant learning and also get good at processing information quickly enough to inform an investment decision. The fast pace is challenging but exciting.
What are some other opportunities within RA Capital Management for scientists aside from the TechAtlas Research Division?
Most opportunities for PhD trained scientists are within our TechAtlas research team. This team is made up primarily of PhD trained scientists in either Associate or Scientific Writer positions. The Science Writers work closely with the Associates as they build the story of their map, acting as a thought partner to develop the key insights for standard of care, unmet needs, and investable opportunities for each disease. As members of the research team gain experience, they can specialize in one of several areas, including early-stage assets, strategic analysis of licensing and partnerships, and equity analysis.
For somebody interested in pursuing this career, what would be your advice to best prepare them?
I would highly recommend that PhD candidates supplement their education in three areas: biostatistics, clinical trials, and FDA regulatory pathways. These topics are not always emphasized or even addressed in many graduate programs. A working knowledge of biostatistics goes a long way; being able to understand statistical pitfalls and the pros and cons of different analyses is invaluable. I would also recommend becoming familiar with clinical trials: the general FDA requirements for advancing drugs into Phase 1 trials and the typical development path for new therapies in your field of interest. Few graduate students get exposed to these areas. I would strongly suggest looking beyond the specific questions of own research project to get an understanding of the broader context: the standard of care for the disease, unmet needs, and competing approaches. If your research isn’t disease or therapy focused, choose a disease of interest or imagine potential applications of your work and research those. Putting new research and data into a broad context is a lot of what we do, so the earlier you can start practicing, the better prepared you will be.
On December 11, 2014, tenured and tenure-track faculty members of the Tufts University School of Medicine (TUSM) filed a petition to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold on-campus union elections. If this election is allowed by NLRB, then the 70 members of the TUSM faculty will join the ranks of their Medford colleagues in the Faculty Forward union at Tufts, a division of the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU) Local 509 (1). As mentioned, this is not the first time Tufts-affiliated faculty have filed for unionizing. In February 2015, majority of the Medford/Somerville campus faculty had voted in favor of unionizing in an effort to improve working conditions (2). And even before that in 2014, adjunct faculty members on the Medford campus, rallying under the Adjunct Action division of SEIU, negotiated a significant raise in their pay (3) that is set to be completely in effect by September 2016 (4).
The TUSM faculty appears to be motivated for similar reasons; in a joint email to Tufts Daily, Dr. Karina Meiri, Professor of Developmental, Chemical & Molecular Biology (DMCB), and Dr. Henry Wortis, Professor of Integrated Physiology & Pathobiology (IPP), mentioned issues regarding salary and research funding as major sources of motivation. They elaborated in the letter that while faculty members are trying to get funding in an increasingly competitive environment with diminishing sources, the university is putting on additional pressure on them by providing “negative incentives”. Drs. Meiri and Wortis mentioned, “If faculty were unsuccessful, [in their application] as they were pretty much bound to be, given the odds, their salaries would immediately be cut, often by very significant amounts.” They also pointed out that many faculty felt that their ability to speak their minds on administrative decisions was being limited. Drs. Meiri and Wortis believe that through unionization, financial transparency and partial restoration of decision-making ability, job security and stability can be achieved for the faculty. To quote, “Our strong belief is that the educators and researchers at a university need to be deeply involved in decisions that shape its mission and that unionization will provide a path towards…the return of collegiality”. It seems that majority of the TUSM faculty are in favor of unionizing, as almost 60% of them had voted in favor of holding on-campus elections. The ones who did not vote, either did not do so because they do not want a union or they do not feel strongly enough for the need of one, as Drs. Meiri & Wortis explained in their letter.
Faculty unions are not new in this part of the country – if the TUSM faculty are allowed to hold elections on campus, they will join their colleagues at Northeastern, BU, Lesley and Bentley Universities (5). There is also an increasing trend of faculty unionization throughout the country, and Drs. Meiri & Wortis believe it to be a reactionary movement to the increasing adaption of a for-profit model by universities. They explained in their letter, “Many universities have chosen to save money by shifting the burden of teaching to part-time untenured…adjunct faculty members. Others have increased the cost of enrollment to plug financial holes. University priorities are increasingly being set by financial rather than academic agenda. Across the country whenever universities are being managed as corporations rather than collegial institutions faculty are increasingly looking towards unionization as a means to re-assert the original model of shared decision-making.”
While it may seem reasonable to allow tenured and tenure-track faculty to unionize, it is not the case. The legal precedent set by the 1980 ruling in the NLRB v. Yeshiva University, which found the tenured faculty not eligible for unionization for their significant influence on administrative decisions, stacks the odds against the TUSM faculty’s hopes of holding on-campus elections. This precedent is also partially responsible for the opposition of the TUSM administration to the faculty’s petition at the NLRB. As the Executive Director of Public Relations, Kim Thurler, told Tufts Daily “that 1980 Supreme Court ruling … recognizes the substantial authority faculty members hold and their significant voice in determining curriculum, academic standards and policies. Many NLRB decisions since 1980 have followed this Supreme Court precedent.” (1)
Currently, the TUSM faculty waits on the NLRB’s decision on whether they will be allowed to hold elections or not. Regardless of this decision, the fact that this has become a trend across universities, institutions founded on principles of non-profit due to their increasing profiteering nature, is a great cause of concern indeed.
Drs. Meiri & Wortis’ quotes have been reproduced from their letter to Tufts Daily with their permission. The Tufts Daily article was published on Jan 29, 2016, and can be found here.
I read my drafted email with the attached qualifying exam proposal for the fifteenth time, hit send, and then I felt like I was going to throw up.
It was March, the snow outside was half-melted and tinged gray with grime, and I had just submitted my qualifying exam proposal. Three weeks of carrying highlighters in my pockets, drinking tea morning to night, and rarely parting from my computer, and it all came down to the click of a button. At the time, it felt like the most deciding thing I would ever do during my PhD, and that was terrifying. Looking back, it was probably just the irregular sleep hours and too much takeout that had me feeling slightly nauseous.
So, my advice, first and foremost: buy a lot of groceries and do your laundry ahead of time. I sound like a parent, I know, but still: do it. Good food and clean clothes–as well as having those tasks checked off your list in advance–really can save you in the midst of spirals of self-doubt or experimental design frustration. And you will have those moments, but it is important to know they will either pass eventually, or you will beat it by finding a way to prove yourself wrong.
Everyone–and I do mean everyone–told me, with fond amusement: you’ll be fine, it won’t be that bad, no one is out to get you. And I can tell you, with complete certainty, that is true in retrospect. I have become the older student whom I regarded with respectful but extreme skepticism this time last year. Like they said, I ended up being just fine. Still, I remember the stress and the worry, the cycle of figuring out a problem in my proposal to only have that create yet another problem, and so it went, on and on. So I will avoid telling you what most others will and instead advise this: trust your knowledge and your intuition, even if you try to convince yourself otherwise, because you do know what you are talking about. Have faith. You are going to be your own worst enemy in this four weeks of research and writing, planning and designing, but at least it is an enemy you know well. Use that to your benefit: trust your doubt, because it will help you find holes in your work where others will as well.
And there will be holes; you can’t catch them all. This is where help from older students comes in. Your practice talk with them will be one of the most valuable experiences in this process. Be prepared for your 10-15 minute talk to take an hour, or probably two, to be critiqued by your peers. You may not be able to answer all of their questions, but those are questions you then will be able to answer in your exam if they get asked. Their advice on layout and presenting style is also invaluable; they have gone through this before, and their experiences and mistakes in their own exams will be your gain. Take full advantage, even if you have to bribe them to attend with baked goods (just kidding!).
Lastly, invest in some post-its. Keep them everywhere–by your desk, by your bed, in your bag. When an idea or a question or a worry strikes, you’ll have somewhere to record it, especially if you don’t have time to deal with it at that moment.
Faith. Trust. Post-its.
Teleconferencing from 100 miles away into classes, meetings, and extracurricular events is all well and good, but sometimes you just feel the need to practice schmoozing in person. The Sackler Graduate Student Council holds really relevant and useful networking events, and much of the content of these events can be taken advantage of through a teleconference connection, but it is hard to beat the rapport that is established when chatting, or bemoaning, face to face with colleagues over hors d’oeuvres. For anyone who does the bulk of their work away from the main campus of their organization it is imperative to find and cultivate local career enhancement resources. Not only does this give you access to opportunities in your local sphere, it also improves your connection with the members of the satellite facility.
For Sackler students studying at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute (MMCRI) in Scarborough, ME this resource is available in the form of the MMCRI Research Fellows Association (RFA). Because MMCRI is a relatively small institute, we currently have about twenty principal investigators, we have a fairly small number of postdoctoral fellows and even fewer graduate students at any given time. The RFA was originally founded to serve both groups and has recently expanded to serve non-faculty scientific staff and technicians as well. These groups share many of the same needs in terms of networking and professional development events, so the inclusiveness of the organization has worked well for us thus far.
The RFA leadership team and active members are constantly kept busy to ensure we are providing meaningful events each month. Here’s just a small taste of what we do:
• Increase MMCRI visibility in the community by sending members to participate in local career fairs and the Maine Science Festival
• Organize scientific talks from speakers suggested and voted on by RFA members
• Hold professional development workshops such as “Intro to LinkedIn” and “The Art of Schmoozing” lead by University of New England’s Career Services Coordinator, Jeff Nevers
• Maintain a library of material on resume writing, cover letter writing, grant writing, and networking advice
• Work closely with MMCRI and MMC Human Resources to utilize hospital resources such as MMC’s Training and Organizational Development department for the benefit of our members
• Poll members annually on which of their professional development needs are being met and which still need to be filled
One of our newest events is also one of my favorites. In the spirit of positive reinforcement we recognize and celebrate either a mentor or a pair of researchers (one technician and one academic) of the year. This occasion allows the RFA to show appreciation for mentors and colleagues who demonstrate superlative qualities. Appreciation in the case of researchers includes $500 from the RFA discretionary fund (supported by our fundraising efforts) to participate in further career enhancement.
MMCRI may be 100 miles away from the biotech hub that is Boston, but we’re no backwater slouches when it comes to career enhancement and professional development!
Have you recently read a paper that you found interesting and would suggest to others? Post a link to it in the comments of this post! Please also include the title and first author of the paper.
We’ll generate a new post for this each week.
Jumbo T, et al. “Amazing scientific discoveries abound.” http://sites.tufts.edu/insight
The Sackler Deans’ Office and The Graduate Student Council Present:
What do you want to do after grad school?!
Are you ready?
We want to help!
Shadow a Sackler Alum at work through the
“Day in the Life” Program
More info: http://goo.gl/AvpCxl
Apply by January 15th: https://goo.gl/8mxAUW
Dear Sackler Students,
The Team Cathedral Project (TCP) started as a way to support the Cathedral High School athletic department through school physicals and sports medicine game coverage. It has since evolved to include mentorship between the Cathedral High School students and the Tufts medical students with a large focus on education.
Cathedral High School serves students all over the Boston area including Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury, and Hyde Park. They have an amazing 100% success rate in graduating seniors and every graduating senior has earned college admission for the last 12 years straight!
Every year, TCP brings the entire junior class of Cathedral High School to Tufts University School of Medicine where they participate in health care career exploration and even get to visit the anatomy lab.
This year we are hoping to diversify both the types of careers as well as the demographics of the professionals they will be meeting with. As graduate students conducting research in a wide range of topics in biomedical science you would contribute a valuable and outstanding perspective for these students. If you are interested in speaking to the junior class please let me know.
I can be reached at: Meagan.Alvarado@tufts.edu
The field trip will be held on Wednesday February 3rd, 2016 and we would need the speakers to be available from about 11am-12pm.