Red (and Green) Flags To Look for With Biotech’s Buyside Investors


Xconomy Boston — 

As Warren Buffett once pointed out, companies get the investors they deserve.

Observations by the oracle-from-Omaha are hard to dispute, but how does that translate into practice if you’re a biotech company going through the IPO process and trying to read the signs in a whole new landscape of investors known as “the buyside”?

Many people blog about raising capital from VCs, but there seems to be much less about understanding and assessing public investors. What are the signals that an investor sends about who they are, both red and green flags? There are talented people who help with this (bankers, IR professionals, etc) but it’s the company that actually has the relationship with its investors and needs to understand who owns their stock.

Luke TimmermanDavid Sable each wrote recently on “red flags” for biotechs—warning signs that a company has hidden issues (and “green flags”, a nice additional piece from David. They were insightful. Perspectives from thoughtful people outside of companies help.

But inevitably…it also made me think of some of my personal experiences at Avila Therapeutics as we talked to crossover and public investors and at Adnexus Therapeutics where we had filed our S-1 but were acquired before completing an IPO. I also checked with a few of my fellow CEOs and CFOs, to ask about their experiences as they began to engage with public market investors.

Red flags (signs of caution, aka, this investor’s interests may not be aligned with the company’s interests)

1) The break-the-rules ask.  The investor asks you to tell them non-public info. And when you politely decline, they either get irritated or just repeat the question over and over (and over). While most of the red flag experiences are relatively uncommon, this one isn’t.  Nearly every CEO & CFO has this experience regularly.

2) No true interest.  Investors who only meet to pump the company for information about the competitive landscape. Often this is because they have a big position (long or short) on someone else in the field. This person is 100 percent not interested in investing in your company (and, BTW, it’s obvious when someone thinks this). There are other ways for an investor to do their research. No one likes feeling used.

3) “Hi honey, who’s presenting?” and other forms of disrespectful behavior.  Any comments or behavior that is patronizing, sexist, racist, homophobic, or otherwise disrespectful. Fortunately this is reasonably rare, and I think at least sometimes it’s more of a blind spot than intentional, but it’s non-zero and tends to emerge in work-social settings (the industry cocktail party and such). Many investors never behave this way, so for those who still make this mistake, they’re risking investment opportunities. A variant on this: I once had an investor say to me at our first meeting “I never trust management, all biotech CEOs lie.” Certainly trust must be earned, continually, but this was a red flag; what would it be like to have this person as an investor?

4) “I want to grill you on this 15-year old research paper”.  This came up a few times as I surveyed my colleagues, and it’s primarily a question of focus. Biotech investors are generally very smart and well-informed, but sometimes they can delve a bit too much in the weeds or get stuck on minutia that may be dated or not really relevant to the programs at hand. Alternatively, when learning about new company, the junior analyst tasked to figure out the science can become overwhelmed. They’re under pressure to learn it so that they can explain it internally yet may lack the experience to know where to focus their efforts (hence questions on a 15-year old paper). Often this person doesn’t listen well, which is challenging because the company can actually provide the needed scientific roadmap. Tough, critical questions are always welcome; arbitrary or tangential ones aren’t a good use of time.

5) “I just want to help you be successful”.  This is the sentiment from those investors who want to help the company design clinical trials or identify the best indications to pursue or basically tell the team how to manage the company. Good management teams value input and ideas, but it is their job to run the company. Justifying every decision to investors either means that the investor doesn’t trust management (in which case they probably shouldn’t invest) or that they really want to be in an operating company (in which case they should join an operating company).

6) Very short-term interests.  There are likely many versions of this, but certain types of behavior telegraph that an investor’s interests are very short-term. For example, during an IPO, an investor only asks how the road show is going and what the interest level is. This is a flag that they may only be a flipper, not someone with long-term interests. Or when a discussion concentrates only on upcoming milestones to see whether it’s safe to short the stock.

Green flags

1) Investors Who Prepare.  There’s a reason this is #1.  Green flags go up when an investor has read the S-1 and … Next Page »

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5 responses to “Red (and Green) Flags To Look for With Biotech’s Buyside Investors”

  1. Stumps_Mcgee says:

    Wow, thank you Katrine. Great insight from someone who is actually on the frontline. It’s rare to see a perspective from the inside looking out.

    (Just an FYI…the link to David Sable’s article is broken.)

    • Katrine BosleyKatrine Bosley says:

      thanks for the heads up re: link. will see if we can get it fixed. in the meantime, try these:
      David’s “red flags”
      David’s “green flags”

  2. Guest says:

    Yo Katherine, your lucky to be one of the few companies who made it. Most of you biotech CEO’s are lying scoundrels that hide the data, mislead investors, present only the positive case and worst of all lie through your teeth like the scum you are…You comment on investors reading old research and using it against you, perhaps that is because the biggest scam you scoundrels pull is taking an old drug, renaming or applying some type of vector to claim it works. Everyone knows you guys are up to no good….. so just stop it with your BS.

    You live on a another planet. Most investors think that a biotech CEO is about as honorable as a pile of poop laying in the petting zoo at the fair…

    Lets look at the list of recent IPOs–CCXI, TZYM, RNA, ZIOP….these are great investments,…as you postulate everyone should have blindly just invested in this crapola… WRONG 3 of those companies were using old technology from the 70s you buffoon.

    I know you don’t have time for this, you probably have a secondary offering to go do so you can rip off more unsuspecting mom and pop retail investors.

    get lost with your altruistic talk, your a biotech ceo, your lips are moving so 85-90% is lies… go back to ripping off retail investors, not posting misleading articles about biotech on xconomy

  3. David Miller says:

    I have to smile at the 15-year-old-paper comment. Such papers have kept me out of more bad investments than I can count. This usually works one of two ways:

    (1) The paper provides clues as to why similar approaches didn’t work. Or it describes some obscure complicating factor to a chosen population. Older papers, especially those with heavy citations, also tend to be the ones that generate the best questions for management.

    (2) A management team telling me to ignore the 15-year-old paper simply because it’s old — and then not being able to provide a good reason why I should ignore it or updated research that contradicts it. This teaches me management likes to ignore inconvenient facts, which is always useful information for potential investors.


  4. Andrew G says:

    Thanks for adding your unique perspective on this important topic – I will update my “biotech red flag” compilation accordingly!