Drugbaron Blog

October 2, 2012 no comments

From Luddite to Guru: a Cynic’s Guide to Twitter for Biotech Professionals

There was something quite ironic when Luke Timmerman of Xconomy described DrugBaron as “Twitter-savvy”.  Even allowing for poetic license that represents a turnaround to match the heroics of the European Ryder Cup golf team last weekend.

When it comes to social media, DrugBaron is a renowned luddite – seemingly one of a dying breed who has never even looked at Facebook, completely mystified by the current vogue for broad rather than deep interactions. How can a tool so beloved of neighbourhood gossips and celebrity-addicts play a part in the life of a busy biotech executive?

Not once but twice did DrugBaron attempt to engage with Twitter – only to fail completely to see what all the fuss was about.  Frustrated by the limitations of 140 characters and the stream of inane trivia, these experiments were short-lived and only served to underline the pre-existing notion that democratization of opinion was simply a race to the bottom.

So when the epiphany came it was all the more powerful.

Watching my friend and colleague Francesco De Rubertis (@fdrubertis) at Index Ventures use Twitter properly provided the education I had been lacking.  Just because tools like Twitter are intuitive, easy to operate and so flexible they can be used for just about anything does not mean that you can jump straight in and make it work for you.  Cars are easy to drive once you know how – but its dangerous to assume that intuition alone will keep you on the straight and narrow.

So, for the benefit of the few remaining cynics who have been even slower than DrugBaron to embrace the power of crowd, here is a Guide to Twitter for professionals in the biotech and pharma sector that attempts to distil my recent education on the subject into a “how to” handbook to turn Twitter into a tool that you too cannot live without.

The first lesson is the most important.  The quality of the Twitter experience depends entirely on who you follow.

For the uninitiated (if there are any such people left), registered Twitter users each get a username, such as @sciencescanner, and create anything from a trickle to a torrent of comments.  Whether those comments get posted to your Twitter timeline depends on which of the millions of users you have elected to “follow”.

Finding the buried pearls of wisdom is hard though simply because there are so many people using Twitter for so many different purposes all simultaneously.  Imagine if every radio station in the world were broadcasting on the same channel – the resulting cacophony would be unintelligible.  And without some guidance it can take a very long while to find the few streams of information that are sufficiently interesting and useful to justify the intrusion of the Twitter timeline into your daily life.

Tweet when you have something to say: do not fall in to the trap that activity trumps quality even in the throw-away mindset of social networking

Of course, to some extent what you find interesting and useful is a personal choice – and the flexibility of Twitter to mold the deliverables to your personal tastes is the principle driver of its popularity.  But without a guide, its easy to be disheartened by the pointless, personal chatter of people you don’t know long before you find the useful nuggets.  To try and short-circuit the process, DrugBaron has listed at the end of this post thirty or so users to start you off, whose combined output exceeds in quality rather than quantity the output of the best paid-for news services in biotech.

Starting from these thirty, its easy to add people and organizations to follow to see whether you find their contribution useful to you.  Treat the newcomer as a probationer – if they don’t improve the mix (and most will not) then its time to introduce Twitter’s most powerful feature: the ‘Unfollow’ button.  One too many annoying tweet and a swift click will consign them to the noise.

For me, the two biggest sins are off-topic tweets and repetition of the same information ‘in case you missed it the first, second and third time I said that’.  You may have a higher tolerance for either or both than me – in which case you are going to love Twitter. But if you don’t, vote with your mouse and silence the twitterers.

With a well-selected group to follow you now have a peerless source of information about the industry.  Within minutes of the results of a clinical trial being announced, you will know the design, the results and the opinion of a dozen experts in the field.  Best of all, the newsfeed is shaped to your requirements – the problem with conventional news services, such as BioCentury or BioWorld is that the editorial opinion has a real slant towards a particular worldview.  Whether that’s US-centric or a presumption that company building is the right thing to do, if it doesn’t mesh with your take on the world such editorial is added weight without being added value.

On Twitter, you get the condensed news and the condensed opinions of a variety of experts chosen by you.  If you want more European focus, follow more Europeans!  If science interests you, follow scientists; if public companies are your thing, you can bias your newsfeed in that direction too.

And of course Twitter is free, saving you a tidy sum in subscriptions to paid-for news services.  A year ago, these commercial news and views providers were my window in the industry.  Today, I know everything I need to know before their offering even hits my mailbox.

The most important ingredient is a little patience.  Even starting with someone else’s list of people to follow, the information feed that you get is unlikely to be perfect for you.  Invest a little bit of time adding and deleting followers, and that investment will be paid back with an unparalleled source of professionally relevant information – without a single mention of celebrity indiscretion or personal travel difficulties.

“I tweet, therefore my entire life has shrunk to 140 character chunks of instant event and predigested gnomic wisdom. And swearing.” Neil Gaiman, English author of science fiction

On top of the general news, Twitter is also an excellent search tool to complement Google and is particularly valuable for finding time-sensitive information.  A friend of mine who held stock in a small public company had seen the price rice precipitously one afternoon – he wanted to know why, so he could decide whether to sell, and searched the web for information without finding anything useful.  Entering the stock ticker into Twitter brought home the bacon – a dozen tweets explained what had triggered the stock price rally.

As well as stock tickers, hashtags are also useful ways to find information on a particular subject from outside of your usual contacts.  Search for #advancedBC and you will get a string of tweets on the happenings in the field of advanced breast cancer – latest announcements at conferences worldwide, published papers and expert opinions.  There is a fair chance you will learn more about very recent advances in the field from Twitter than a conventional websearch.

If, at this point, your skepticism is mounting – after all, limited to just 140 characters, how can anyone say anything useful? – just remember that most (useful) tweets carry a shortened link to the original source of the information.  Your Twitter feed is not so much the source of news as the compass that lets you navigate through the vast array of information that is put into the public domain every day.  Of course, the sources of information vary in quality, from newspapers to scientific journals, corporate press releases to blogs like the one you are currently reading.  So you still need to keep your wits about you deciding what you believe and what you doubt – but at least Twitter helps there too by exposing you to the opinions of others on a particular information source.  Very often a tweet linked to a particular article is rapidly followed by another endorsing or criticizing the original.

It wont have escaped your attention, too, that Twitter is a two-way communication tool.  All these tweets come from somewhere, and the temptation is to dive in and contribute to the conversation.

Go ahead! Just don’t be too disappointed if nobody very much is listening

The trickiest part about Twitter, as the foregoing testifies, is finding the right people to follow.  That being the case, no-one of significance is likely to find your pearls of wisdom in the noisy twitterverse for some considerable time.  But persevere.  Assuming you do have something interesting and useful to contribute then gradually the people who matter (that is, your desired audience) will start to take notice.

The second lesson to learn is how to compose a tweet.  It doesn’t sound that hard – and anyway everyone is doing it.  But composing a worthwhile tweet about a complex subject is much more challenging that you might imagine.  The 140 character limit is draconian (this paragraph was already over 200 characters before the start of these parentheses).

Stick to one thought per tweet – and tie those thoughts to content elsewhere on the net.  You can write an essay on the subject in a blog article and link to that from the tweet, supported by a pithy summary.

With a bit of practice, you can cram an amazing amount of opinion into the space of a single tweet.  Again, have patience and watch the best exponents of the art to see how they do it.  And before long your own style will emerge.

Just one request: try not to let the ease of expressing yourself completely overpower your respect for your listeners.  Consider it a favour from your followers to admit you to a tiny part of their consciousness and ask whether your offering will be welcomed.  Do they want to hear about your sick dog or clever children?  Do they want to be reminded yet again of the excellent article you published in Nature Medicine?

The solution is simple: tweet when you have something to say, but do not fall in to the trap that activity trumps quality even in the throw-away mindset of social networking.

The first lesson is the most important.  The quality of the Twitter experience depends entirely on who you follow.

So much for the theory: how do you get started?

Sign up at www.twitter.com and set-up your profile.  It takes no more than five minutes.  Then find and follow a selection of people, such as the list below to start you off.  Lastly, you need to download and install a Twitter client on your laptop (and probably on your mobile devices as well).  You can watch your timeline of incoming tweets through the website, but a simple client makes it easier to both read and post tweets.  There are numerous third-party apps, but the “official” client from Twitter does the job perfectly adequately.

Keep the client window open on your desktop while you work, and you will be kept up-to-date with everything that happens in biotech as it happens.  It’s a matter of choice how often you scan the constant flurry of new tweets – if you are easily distracted it can break your concentration in much the same way as arriving emails.  But a quick scan of the timeline every few hours keeps you up to date in seconds with minimal disturbance to your normal working routine.

Once you activate the flow of information it quickly becomes clear why choosing the right people to follow is so important.  There is a cost to being “connected” in this way – no matter how carefully you manage it, much of the information that comes in will be irrelevant to you and sorting through it takes a little time and effort.  As long as the value of the information you extract exceeds that cost, then Twitter will be a positive addition to your working life – but if the proportion of off-topic or repetitive tweets gets too high that balance soon tips you from “informed” to “irritated”.

No amount of writing about something can substitute for the real experience.  DrugBaron hopes that this story of a personal journey from cynic to champion might encourage a few people to do two things: to try Twitter as a work tool for themselves; and perhaps even more importantly to stick with it long enough to mold the information flow into something that adds value rather than vexation.



A few suggestions as to who to follow:

@sciencescanner is DrugBaron’s own Twitter feed, so it has to come first.  Half the tweets highlight interesting new science discoveries applicable to drug discovery across a range of indications; the rest are comment and opinion on happenings in the industry (from start-up companies to clinical trial results, acquisitions to funding models).

Perhaps the single most important follow for anyone in the biotech and pharma space is @AndyBiotech – his feed alone is worth joining Twitter for. First to spot key clinical data, followed by an impressive collation of opinion from around the industry.  I couldn’t function without it.  There are others whose contribution is nearly important, such as @lomu_j and @JohnTuckerPhD, and these guys give you a window on the biotech world that is difficult to imagine without Twitter.

More sector-specific, but no less valuable, are Sally Church (@MaverickNY) whose insightful view of the oncology space you can share with a simple click of the Follow button; cardiologist James Rudd (@jhrudd) is similar, but for cardiovascular disease; and Tim Spector (@timspector), perhaps the world’s pre-eminent twins geneticist, is a more recent addition to the Twitter-sphere and worth a follow for genetics news and views.

Other commentators with less focus on science but more extensive industry news coverage are @JohnCFierce (John Carroll at Fierce Biotech), @matthewherper (Forbes journalist Matthew Herper), @John_LaMattina (former President of Global R&D at Pfizer also writing for Forbes), @dshaywitz (also a Forbes-writer and active industry veteran with broad interests in innovation models as well as digital health), @DatamonitorMark (Mark Lansdell at Datamonitor), and for a more European view add @ScripMikeWard and @AJack from the Financial Times.  A more recent, and very welcome, addition to Twitter is top biotech and pharma analyst @MarkSchoenebaum – another “must-follow”.

These guys offer opinions as well as news and re-tweet a lot of great stuff from other Twitter users, so they do a lot of the filtering for you, and they complement the drier newsflow from organizations like @BioWorld, @fwpharma (another must), @pharmalot, @cortelis and the like.

Other industry veterans (as opposed to journalists) to follow include @Michael_Gilman (now working with Atlas Ventures in Boston after a successful time at Stromedix and Biogen), @carol_gallagher (former CEO at Calistoga, now at Frazier), @marktepper (CEO and founder of multiple start-ups), @daphnezohar (founder and CEO at PureTech) and @ksbosely (most recently CEO at Avila).  @mkoeris and @biotechbaumer offer the start-up perspective as well.

VCs to follow (in addition to some of the above, who have moved from industry into VC) include @LifeSciVC (Bruce Booth, a partner at Atlas Ventures and one of the most astute industry watcher on Twitter), my Twitter mentor @fdrubertis (partner at Index Ventures), @bobmorevc (now at Gates Foundation after successful spells at Frazier Healthcare Partners and Domain) as well as the more prosaic newsfeeds from the VC houses themselves such as @IndexVentures, @adventventures, @SVlifeSciences, @NEAVC, @FlagshipVenture and many others that you can pick up from their websites.

Pharma companies increasingly see Twitter as a way to communicate with their customers, but regulatory restrictions on what they can say about their own products limits the utility of their output to a degree.  Some, though, do a better job than others at still finding something useful to say: try @AstraZeneca, @GSK, @Novartis and @Boehringer to get started.

Top science journals provide useful alerts to their best content without trying to tweet the whole table of contents: @NEJM, @NatureMedicine, @bmj_latest get it about right, but others can be too non-selective and hence intrusive.  Try a few and see what works for you.

Various organizations have useful Twitter feeds too: @US_FDA (though the independent @FDAadcomm from SAC Tracker is probably more useful) and @NICEcomms (the UK National Institute of Clinical Excellence) are worth following together with industry bodies local to you (such as the @ABPI_UK, @BritPharmSci and @BIA_UK for those, like me, based in the UK)

Luke Timmerman has come up with a longer list, many of which I also follow, although one or two eventually met with an ‘Unfollow’!

But its also important to remember that people come and go on Twitter – someone might be very active for a month or two then fade into the background.  So your follow list is a dynamic filter – constantly replenish it with new people (usually found because someone you follow re-tweeted something interesting from another user you had not previously seen).  And spring-clean the list with the ‘Unfollow’ button too if the average quality starts to dip.

Good luck!

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