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Virtual Companies vs Bricks and Mortar at MassBio

The MassBio Annual Meeting concluded on Tuesday after two days of presentations, panel discussions and awards. As you might expect from MassBio, this was a well orchestrated event with lots of networking, a very nice venue (the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge), better than expected food and good meeting room logistics for a big meeting with multiple concurrent sessions. Of course, the backbone of the event was MassBioPic the action packed agenda featuring high impact speakers ranging from CEO’s and Senior executives of world class corporations to a high school Senior from Norton High school who (speaking to a crowd of ~500 people!!) demonstrated quite convincingly why her school won the MassBioEd Innovative School of the Year Award.

There were numerous memorable highlights over two days, many of which yours truly may consider taking on if time permits, but one session stands out clearly in my mind, and is the subject of this post. It might be because it was the last panel discussion of the event for me, or perhaps because the subject is one that I think about a lot. The session was: Virtual Companies vs Bricks and Mortar in MA, moderated by Martha Farmer, CEO of” North Shore InnoVentures.”:http://www.nsiv.org Panelists were: John Butler, CEO of Inspiration Biopharmaceuticals, Eric B. Gordon, CEO and President of Atentiv, Ed Kania, Managing Partner and Chairman of Flagship Ventures, Doris Peterkin, CEO of OncoPep and John Reddington, COO of Cambridge Biomedical.

Virtually in the eye of the beholder

The panel was well constructed, with a range of fairly strong opinions on the matter – and with one largely neutral panelist who appeared to hold no bias or preference regarding either business type. There didn’t seem to be a conscious effort to elicit any combativeness, but I found it interesting that the panelists making comments in favor of bricks and mortar seemed really adamant about it. The themes discussed ranged from: ‘contract research labs and consultants are really expensive’ to ‘timelines are impossible to meet without direct staff supervision’, to ‘I have to look into people’s eyes when I’m working with them’ to ‘oh my god, I have to be among people – I couldn’t ever survive working alone’.

On the pro-virtual side, the comments were stated somewhat less emphatically, but convincingly nonetheless (at least to me – but then again, I am comfortable with virtuality and recently spoke about it at the MassBio CRO Symposium). Themes ranged from ‘facilities are very expensive to build’, to ‘its hard to get used to when coming from a big company, but it actually works well’, to ‘while carefully drawn agreements, clear expectations and communications are essential, when executed well, it can be very productive’.

I’d like to go on record stating that if you are a highly social person who cannot get comfortable (or productive) when not in a busy office with lots of people buzzing around, you likely are not a good candidate for heading up a virtual operation. I know many such folks: very nice, great friends, highly productive professionals – just not in a virtual environment. Similarly, managers who thrive on headcount face time are unlikely candidates for virtual companies. I’ve also read about people who can’t imagine being productive without getting decked out in executive business attire and going to an office, somewhere away from home. And, somewhat less troubling in a virtual environment, there are others who can be productive at home, but still need to get (well) dressed before imagining any professional productivity.

fuzzy slippers

On the other hand, if you can fire off a few emails from your phone when you wake (using the phone alarm of course), then stumble out of bed, grope your way to your desk (or cushion, comfy chair, table, etc.) proof a document that needs to go out later in the day and take on your first conference call… …all before brushing your teeth, getting breakfast or changing out of your jammies, you may be a virtual company entrepreneur (apologies to Jeff Foxorthy). Important note: video Skype calls are best handled after getting cleaned up a bit – fuzzy slippers optional.

To be continued…

By: roger.frechette