The BioTECH Quarterly
Interview with Dr. Vivian Berlin
By Joao Paulo Mattos '08, Features editor
BioTECH: Could you tell us a little about your career, specifically how you went from research management and business development positions to deciding to start your company?
Dr. Berlin: The first major decision I made was when I finished my postdoc at MIT. I was invited to give a talk at Vertex, a start-up company at the time, and afterwards they offered me a position. After interviewing at a lot of academic institutions, I decided to take that position. I was interested in it because I was excited by the idea of having biology, X-ray crystallography, and medicinal chemistry under one roof to focus on a problem that could potentially impact society in the near term versus the long term. I was at Vertex for three years and was then recruited to another start-up called Mitotix. The focus of the company was to apply our knowledge of the cell cycle to develop oncology therapeutics that would target the regulators of cell division. I was asked to initiate a drug discovery program for infectious disease. I took the program from concept through to late stage preclinical development. It was at that point that Mitotix was acquired by a German company, GPC and priorities shifted. I used that as an opportunity to switch formally from managing the science of the infectious disease program to business development. In the capacity of heading up the infectious disease program I led the scientific discussion for corporate partnering efforts. I got very interested in the interface of the company with, let’s say, the “rest of the world.” That was a very exciting process, figuring out how you fashion your science to develop partnerships with large pharmaceutical companies. As you know, to bring a drug to the market costs on the order of a billion dollars and takes about ten years. For early stage biotech companies, there are no products and no revenues from products, so the way biotech companies remain viable is through partnerships with pharmaceutical companies. I formally made the transition from the science to the business side of the industry to obtain transactional experience and because I was interested and wanted to be involved in the process of corporate partnering.
BioTECH: What is the current state of your company's development? Why did you choose to focus on diagnostics for ovarian cancer?
Dr. Berlin: Well, I’m at a very early stage. I have been consulting for start up companies, helping them position their science and technology and develop commercialization strategies. This experience has allowed me to learn about other aspects of the industry and shift my focus from drug discovery and development to diagnostics and technologies that can be applied to diagnostics. In August I decided that I really wanted to focus on a problem that I was passionate about. I had a lot of experience with drug discovery in oncology, but I’ve always had a couple of frustrations. One of them was that to develop a drug takes a very long time. The second was that in the oncology arena “success” is often considered to be the extension of life by several months, with little regard to quality of life. It seemed to me that one could have a much greater impact by developing technologies that would allow one to detect disease at a very early stage. I decided to focus on ovarian cancer because there is nothing in the way of a diagnostic for ovarian cancer. The majority of women present at a very late stage, when the five year survival is between 15 and 20%, whereas for the small percentage of women whose disease detected at an early stage, the five year survival is greater than 90%. If you had a systematic way of detecting ovarian cancer at an early stage, you could have a huge impact. From a business perspective, although the incidence of ovarian cancer is relatively low, the market for the diagnostic is relatively large, minimally all women over the age of 50. I am currently evaluating technologies and talking with potential investors.
BioTECH: Is it difficult to start a company within the biotech industry?
Dr. Berlin: Starting a company requires commitment, determination and ability to identify the right technology and connect it with investment opportunities . I think there’s such an amazing entrepreneurial spirit and no dearth of good ideas out there. I mean, just in this neighborhood alone, there’s so much happening academically that can be translated into a viable commercial venture. The MIT Licensing Office is one of the more entrepreneurial licensing offices for an academic institution. They are proactive about fostering awareness among faculty about getting patent protection for their discoveries and then partnering and communicating with the venture community here to establish companies. So, Boston is very alive in starting new companies, especially in biotech.
BioTECH: Has gender ever been an issue at any point of your career?
Dr. Berlin: Yes, I think it has. For the majority of my professional career, I have been in the minority. Often I have been the only woman in meetings that involve decision making. I think the higher you go in management, there’s certainly a drop off in the number of women. When I was leading programs, there were instances when I felt male colleagues were not entirely comfortable with a woman in a decision making position. One has to learn to deal with that effectively. There’s a very good book entitled Covering by Kenji Yoshino professor of law at Yale that discusses an interesting phenomenon in which women, minorities, gays have to downplay their differences from the predominant culture. But that comes at a cost; if one covers one’s identity because of the negative repercussions for being authentic, then he or she is no longer operating from a position of strength. I think it’s a really interesting book for people of all backgrounds to read. It helps if you’re in management to consider how you could create a more diversified group. How do you create an environment so that people from all different backgrounds can contribute powerfully to the success of an organization? The book is also relevant to people trying to protect themselves by blending in to see how “covering” disempowers and affects their ability to be an effective contributor.
BioTECH: Do you have thoughts on what will be the next great breakthroughs in the biotech industries?
Dr. Berlin: Technologies for elucidating the genetic basis of disease and detecting disease at an early stage are improving all the time. We also continue to get more sophisticated in terms of how we develop drugs. The shift we’re seeing now is that instead of developing blockbuster drugs that target millions of people, the emphasis is on developing drugs that are tailored to smaller populations with specific genetic backgrounds. There’s a lot of interesting work being done on biomarker discovery to monitor drug response. When you do clinical trials, you can follow surrogate markers to identify patient populations that are responders and those that are not and tailor drugs and treatment accordingly. There’s also considerable work to develop approaches for the early detection of disease, particularly cancer, with the objective of reducing mortality by treating early and preventing disease progression. I am very excited about this possibility.
Engineering Society of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All
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