LinkedIn: The Quiet Force Transforming Biotech & Pharma

Xconomy National — 

Mark Levin’s business is biotechnology, so it’s no surprise he knew zilch about a tech company called LinkedIn as recently as two years ago. But these days Levin sounds like he can barely do his job without it.

“I’m not the most social media savvy person. I haven’t used a lot of these tools at all,” Levin says, referring to blogs and Twitter. “But I’ll never forget, the first message I got from LinkedIn was an e-mail from what looked like someone called link-a-din. I remember asking myself about Mr. Link-a-din. I was trying to figure out ‘who the hell is this person?’”

Levin, a founding partner of Boston-based Third Rock Ventures and one of the more prominent biotech venture capitalists in the U.S., was a LinkedIn Luddite two years ago. To some extent, he still looks like one: his profile contains no photo, no professional biography, and only tidbits of information posted about his employment history. But appearances can be deceiving. He says he has amassed more than 5,000 connections, and the number keeps growing daily. He says he spends at least a half an hour per day on the site, sifting through more than 100 incoming connection requests a week, and firing off dozens more requests to people he wants to get to know. LinkedIn’s algorithms have gotten to know his tendencies so well, the site is constantly suggesting new people in biotech and pharma companies that he might want to meet. He often does.

Mark Levin of Third Rock Ventures

Levin became so obsessive at one point this year that LinkedIn temporarily shut down his account, until he called the company and assured them he’s a real person using the site for business. Just during a 15-minute phone interview with me on Friday, Levin said he got three new connection requests. One was from an MD that caught his eye immediately.

“About 18 months ago or so, I realized that is an extraordinary way to be in contact with people,” Levin says. “Our biggest challenge is to find great people. We don’t know everybody. And you can find a lot of great people here.”

While many in the tech press mock LinkedIn as an oh-so-boring compiler of mere resumes, it has become the indispensable online hub for networking in life sciences—an industry where relationships make the world go round. LinkedIn has a relatively puny user base of 187 million members around the world, compared to Facebook’s 1 billion, and there’s no question people spend way more time engaging with Mark Zuckerberg’s social network. But it’s also true there’s no question which site matters more to the life sciences. LinkedIn is the singular site for finding people in biotech, whether they are biologists, chemists, toxicologists, admin assistants, business development people, finance pros, or CEOs. There were more than 513,000 people in the LinkedIn database who self-identify as members of the “biotechnology” or “pharmaceutical” industry when I searched on those keywords Friday afternoon.

For journalists like me, this is an everyday reporting tool with almost as much value as Twitter, and possibly more. Even though I only use the basic free version of the site, it’s become an awesome clearinghouse of sources that I call on for help with scoops and analysis. I can slice and dice my network of 2,900 contacts by industry, title, location and more. It’s become a treasure trove of personal e-mails for sources, which I never have to manually update when people leave for new jobs, as they often do. It’s even turned into a place where people read a lot of my stories and the resource where I sometimes find new stories to pursue. In fact, I got the idea for this story by noticing that Levin and I have more than 500 connections in common.

Levin, as a venture capitalist, comes to the network for different reasons, but he raves all the same. Nothing great in biotech can happen without a magical mix of an idea, technology, people, and money.

“Our No. 1 goal in life is to know the best people in the industry who are going to make a difference in our companies,” Levin says. “I don’t remember when it exactly became clear, but it was clear to me that a lot of people were using it to stay in touch. We’ve realized it’s an extraordinary recruiting tool. The more I’ve spent time there, the more aggressive I have gotten.”

Levin isn’t kidding about the emphasis on recruiting at Third Rock, which has a “recruiting partner” in Craig Greaves, a former recruiter at Biogen Idec (NASDAQ: BIIB) and Cubist Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: CBST). Levin says all this connecting and re-connecting sometimes leads somewhere fruitful, sometimes not, just like with all other recruiting techniques.

But Levin and his partner at Third Rock aren’t just fiddling around making random contacts, they are being systematic about the connections they form. Once he forms a connection on LinkedIn, he said he sends the new contact a short follow-up note to see what’s new in their lives or careers. He then e-mails his fellow partners to see if any of them know the person. Third Rock uses a premium version of LinkedIn, which has an application that automatically downloads all of Levin’s new contacts into a central database so that all members of the firm can see the person’s profile, Greaves says.

Sometimes an in-person meeting gets scheduled to follow up right away to see if there might be some kind of potential for a match at a Third Rock company. Often Third Rock uses the site for targeted searches, like, say, for an antibody engineer, Greaves says. Other times, it’s just to get acquainted with people who aren’t looking for work now, but might be able to join a startup, consult, or form a valuable partnership with a Third Rock company sometime later, he says.

“We are laying the groundwork and building a network for the long term,” Greaves says.

No doubt, LinkedIn has its potential for misuse just like any other technology, and users need to think about how to use it properly. Back when the site was formed in 2003, people were urged to connect only with people they knew well, because otherwise people might think you were tainted if a shady operator ended up appearing in your network. I think that stigma has largely gone away, because a connection is perceived now as really just like trading business cards, and not an endorsement or recommendation. People have also long worried about whether bosses might be able to use it to spy on their workers, and suspect whether they were getting restless, looking for a new job. I used to leave my entire connections list accessible on the web for anyone who connected with me, until I started connecting with people I don’t really know, and realized some may have ulterior motives that might interfere with my ability to break news.

There are plenty of areas on the site that leave something to be desired. LinkedIn Groups have always struck me as spammy, so I’ve unsubscribed to most of them. The site can be annoying with its constant urges to “update your profile” or “add skills to your profile” or now to “endorse” various people in your network. The whole site appears to be trying really hard to keep people glued to it like Facebook, by constantly updating their status and checking other people’s employment status, which can be annoying and a waste of time.

But the most irritating thing about LinkedIn, to me anyway, is that even though it has achieved critical mass, many C-suite executives and venture capitalists still resist signing up. For example, when I searched on the 40 names of “young and proven” biotech venture capitalists listed in this column two weeks ago, only 24 of the 40 (60 percent) showed up in the LinkedIn database.

I find it baffling that so many senior people in the industry still resist taking advantage of this resource, and have to wonder if they have some better idea on how to network. There’s no getting around the importance of networking. Biotech is a geographically far-flung industry, with hundreds of companies and vendors, who all need to work together in trusting relationships to keep the whole enterprise afloat.

Industry conferences have always been, and still remain, the gold standard way of networking. But those events take time and money, and nobody can do it every day of the week. LinkedIn is becoming the indispensable resource that glues an entire industry together, and helps people make connections between people and ideas and opportunities that would otherwise never be made. While biotech could certainly use a few more groundbreaking advances to make the drug development process more efficient, one of the fastest-growing new tools for the industry is a free resource just a click away on the Web.

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11 responses to “LinkedIn: The Quiet Force Transforming Biotech & Pharma”

  1. Good article, Luke. I’m also a subscriber (since 2004!), and use LinkedIn a lot. One way we use it is to find consultants to work on projects with us on an ad HIV basis. Of course it’s also a great way to “meet” new people and forge new relationships. As a policy, I try where possible to have a follow up email or call with new contacts in order to cement the relationship. I’m disappointed that LinkedIn is dropping their Events feature. I think that’s a good tool for meeting people before a conference.

  2. Respisci says:

    I returned to academia after a decade in biotech and have been constantly approached by students and post-docs with questions on how to get a job in industry. I suggested that they begin with using their connections via LinkedIn and was surprised to learn that most of them had no idea about its existence. I have encouraged them to get on, make connections and search the jobs. Even looking at the profiles of others can help them to sell their own skills and assets. And I warn them that it is not Facebook so stay professional.

  3. It is often the best way to find where someone I have met has moved to when their email stops working.

  4. scientre says:

    I agree with Linda – over the last few years, pharma/biotech employment has become more “fluid” and LinkedIn is a great way to keep connections that may otherwise fall away.

  5. I am not sure I am entirely on board with the idea that LinkedIn connections are like trading business cards. But maybe I am leveraging the connections for more business-related purpopses. Because of that, I find it important from the first request to make the connection personal. While I agree with the personal follow-up, I think using the generic connection request short changes ones chances of making a connection. But I have been using LinkedIn for about 5 years and it gets only more useful professionally.

  6. The fact that LinkedIn profiles are self-updated is key for me. I used to have old-fashioned paper Rolodexes stuffed with business cards A-Z, but all the numbers and emails became hopelessly out of date when people switch jobs, as they tend to do every few years (whether they tell you or not). You also had to remember the person’s name, and couldn’t filter on something like a cancer drug CEO in Raleigh NC. This is a way more efficient way to keep track of contacts.

  7. Ellen Clark says:

    As a recruiter in the pharma & biotech niche, I of course use LinkedIn a great deal. At first I worried that the technology would put the end to the use of an executive search firm. But so many people are now on the site the situation has become just like a job board or other service that leads to an overwhelming number of candidates. Someone has to take the time to contact the people and check out whether they are a good fit for a position. Also everyone should realize that not all have signed up for LinkedIn. If you only recruit there, you might be missing the best candidate. And of course beware the profiles people self- post. There are a lot of false experiences listed and hyped profiles out there.Still there is no doubt that LinkedIn has become part of my daily life and does make it easy to find the person who recently changed positions. Linda, remember me? You were once a candidate for a search I had. Small world

  8. Great article Luke. I appreciate your articles on the use of social media by biotech professionals and am incredulous as to how few are active using these incredible resources. I’m a very heavy LinkedIn user and have it open on one tab all day long. As @carlosnvelez:disqus mentions, it’s great to follow up with a phone call to cement the relationship. What’s funny is that people are still amazed that someone will call after making the connection.

  9. Ellen—what kind of false experiences do you see posted on LinkedIn? Is it just people exaggerating their roles on various projects, or old-fashioned lying-on-the-resume kind of stuff, claiming degrees from Harvard etc that they don’t have?

  10. I disagree with this article and these comments. Sure, LinkedIn has some value as mentioned, but it will not be the driving force behind any innovation. LinkedIn is “dead” and has no means for collaboration. The only reason I know my generation uses the site is when they are looking for jobs. If you want your site to be successful in the future, you need to appeal to us.

  11. Laura Shireman says:

    Interesting article, Luke! When I was looking for a job after graduation, an old friend I had lost track of found me on LinkedIn, told me her company had an opening, and I wound up with an interview and later a job offer from that interaction. I ultimately made a different choice job wise, but since then, I’ve been trying extra hard to make sure my LinkedIn profile is up to date!