Explore a Career in Product Management in Biotech- Discussion with Matteus Pan, Principal PM @Bina Technologies (acquired by Roche) and former Group Product Manager @Dropbox
Matteus Pan, Principal Product Manager at Bina Technologies, a genomics based cancer diagnostics company, and formerly Group Product Manager at Dropbox, talks about working as a Product Manager in the Biotech space. Bina Technologies was acquired by Roche Sequencing recently.
Matt has a bachelors in Economics and Computer Science Engineering from University of Pennsylvania.
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Check out the podcast below to listen to the full discussion:
Some of the things that Matt touches upon in this episode include:
1. Examples of problems that biotech companies are working on
2. Dimensions to think along when considering working in biotech
3. Types of projects a PM in biotech might work on
4. Differences between PMing in Biotech vs Tech
5. Team members you work with as a PM in biotech
6. Helpful books for developing some level of basic expertise and understanding of biological systems for laymen
7. How working in this space can be very rewarding
8. Challenging aspects of this job
9. Skills and qualities in someone who would excel as a PM in biotech
10. How to decide between PMing in tech vs biotech
11. How to apply and stand out
Here are our notes from the discussion:
Since biotech is still an up and coming area, maybe you can share an example of a problem, or products that companies in this space are working on right now.
I think one of the things that a lot of companies are starting to look at is something called liquid biopsy. It's effectively a generic blood based cancer test that has the promise of being able to detect cancer at earliest stages. And just to contrast that with what's existing today, let's say that you're a smoker, and start coughing at some point, you go to a doctor, they run a series of tests, and then, they give you antibiotics, and you continue coughing, and then they eventually do some form of X ray and detect that you have some kind of a tumor in your lung, what happens next is that they typically do a biopsy, which is a really invasive surgery, where they effectively perform surgery to remove that tumor, and then test it to see whether it's cancerous. And obviously, the example I gave was referring to smokers, but it can happen to people who are absolutely healthy, have a good nutrition and good diet, it can happen to any one of us, basically. And in those cases, the earlier that you detect the cancer is not the case with all cancers, but the more likely you are to be able to treat it.
And one of the things that's happening in the industry now, a lot of people are focusing on liquid biopsy, where we now know that fragments of tumor DNA enter your bloodstream, even from a decently earlier stage, obviously, at smaller concentrations. And the promise for what a lot of people are looking at is being able to detect those with improvements in how we do sequencing as well as improvements in how we interpret sequencing data. So that you're able to detect those tumor fragments at a pretty early stage and identify them with the risk of developing cancer. And if that works out, as we hope it will, the future could be, just as you go to a doctor to get a cholesterol test every year, as part of that it could be monitoring for early signs of cancer, which would hopefully change the way cancer is both diagnosed and treated in the future.
So that's something that generally a lot of people are cautiously optimistic about, I think we're still in the very early stages, but it’s one of those things that holds a lot of promise for cancer, which takes many millions of lives every year.
I think one thing which will be helpful before we talk about the role, specifically of a product manager in biotech, if you can give us a quick overview of the biotech industry, what are the key areas you might find?
Yes, certainly I can try with the caveat that I've been in this space for less than a year at this point. And a lot of my knowledge is changing day by day, and it also reflects this specific company and field that I'm in.
So, with all those caveats in place - I think that there are few ways to think about the biotech industry. One dimension that's helpful is, are you focusing more on the pharmaceutical side, which effectively is drug development. So drug development - we talked a lot about cancer, it could be for any other kinds of infectious disease. So pharmaceutical, versus, you're focusing more on the diagnosis of diseases, it's much more around detection, rather than treatment itself. Obviously, in the end, those things are connected.
A second dimension that's helpful to think about is is this more of a biological system? So for example, are you looking for some kind of chemical or biological reaction to the drug, a blood sample that has HIV, or, you're developing some kind of new molecule for a drug. So biology versus hardware. And it could be hardware, for example, an imaging platform. And that versus software. So software is much more around data, or algorithms or workflows, and so obviously, in different fields, use different combinations of those different groups. But I think that's one way to think about another dimension of it.
And I think the last dimension is, are you focusing more on the research or the academic space? So are you building tools or platforms to help academic communities and researchers make discoveries quicker? Or are you focusing more on the clinical side of things, and clinical being used in regular routine patient care, either at the hospital or at a lab that focuses on patients. And, I think those also have very different characteristics where you focus on research. I think building a tool for research tends to focus a lot on novel discovery cases, whereas clinical, the FDA monitors the clinical space a lot more carefully, because all the work that you do, will ultimately impact the patient. So those are a couple of dimensions I find helpful to think about when I think through the broad space of biotech.
So then, in that context, can you describe the role of a product manager and actually does a product manager exist in all of these dimensions that you described?
I'm personally more familiar with the diagnostic space, just because that's the area that I am currently in and the reason I chose that is, I guess, somewhat related to your question where I believe that I think I felt I would be slightly more useful in that space versus the other space of drug development.
But I think that product managers in biotech come in many different flavors. The tech industry is more familiar with the software side of things - there I think product management maps a little bit more clearly to what the tech industry is used to seeing the product manager where, you're responsible for some combination of really understanding what are the fundamental new pieces of technology architecture that enable, call it cloud based, or cloud scale computing, to improve the diagnosis of diseases, for example, you work with customers, you understand what systems they're currently using, what they're doing today, how they like the current workflows, you do some form of market research or strategy, understand the science that's currently out there, you're reading a bunch of papers. And then effectively, you then do a lot of execution, testing, iteration and prototyping. So I think that is the flavor of product management that I think we in the tech industry we're more familiar with.
And then I do think that there are a lot of product managers who tend to be a lot more either commercially focused, a lot of people actually in industry have MDs, and a combination of MD PhDs or en MBs. And, they're responsible for example, setting, what is the drug roadmap that we want, obviously, in combination with their science teams, or product managers who are much more focused on the science aspects, and almost very involved with the research and discovery work. So I think that there are many different flavors, and I'm obviously most familiar with the kind that I have, which is the first. And effectively, which then if you think about those dimensions that I talked about, kind of led me to focusing slightly more on the diagnostic side, because I think diagnostics is where we're seeing the intersection of data and technology and the science as well as systems that require more software. Because, again I think I'm much more familiar with software cycles, rather than understanding kind of unique biological reactions that happen when this protein interacts with so and so.
Can you give us an example of a project that you've worked on to illustrate what your role is like?
So the project that I'm currently working on is not released yet. I can't fully talk about it yet. But what I can talk about is the company that I'm working at. Generally, we are focusing on understanding the human DNA, and especially right now, a lot of our focus is on oncology, which is cancer. And I think the unique thing about well unique and scary thing about cancer is that it's really a disease of your genome, which means that it's a disease of something that's very inherent to you. And, a lot of times cancer happens because of mutations in your genome, which effectively is your body's natural, call it programming code that is designed to ensure that your cells reproduce, and when something goes wrong, the cells killed off that effectively, something goes haywire in your body's programming language, and your cells replicate, and your body cant stop them from replicating, and therefore, you develop cancer. And this is as opposed to something for example, HIV, where it comes from an external infection. This is really your body's natural processes gone haywire.
And it can be, obviously, that there's some things that you can do, for example not having something in your diet or smoking, which can accelerate the rate of mutations, but it's also very much a statistical probability, it's almost a statistical thing that it happens. And a very healthy person can get cancer as well. And anyway, that's, I guess, a long way to set up the context for why a lot of people, including myself believe that genomics would be very fundamental to how cancer is treated, especially diagnosed moving forward. I think we then think about how does cancer get diagnosed within the context of the genetic sequencing pipeline? And I think there's several different steps.
Just to clarify over here, the product as such that you as a product manager are working on - is working on figuring out based on this genomics data, whether a person has cancer or not?
I guess the nuance of that is even within the sequencing, or genomic sequencing pipeline, there are many different stages that are involved, some of which involve more, call it chemistry, some of which involves more hardware, for example, if you're building a sequencer, you're effectively reading a physical sample and converting that into a kind of digital signal of what your DNA is. And then there's a bunch of software that comes after, which is how do you interpret all of the genetic data that you observed and identify which ones are significant in the cancer? And I think that many different people working on different parts of that pipeline, the company I'm at focuses more on the later stages of that process, effectively, how do we interpret the vast amounts of genomic data that someone has, and identify which ones of those are significant, which then connects them with a lot of the new targeted therapies that are being developed in the market.
Just to give an example of the types of products that someone may work on - there are many different complexities and problems within that overall workflow. Some of them have to do with a workflow that's really complicated. For example, I think there are many different manual steps that are involved throughout that whole process that I described, and I think there is, you could focus on how do we really automate the entire process, such that, an almost like an IFTTT engine where you're able to decide how at every stage of the process how the software or the hardware knows, what is the natural next step to do based on what happened in the previous step. So that's an example of a product that one could work on.
Another example of product that one could work on is something like Illumina, which is the market leader in sequencing right now. They are building a software suite to effectively allow developers to build applications that would process the data that's coming out of the sequencer.
There's a company called helix, which is a new startup, which is trying to do, again, a kind of a public data store or App Store based on you send them a sample of, you send them a saliva sample, they will then sequence your DNA, and then they will expose that data, obviously, with your consent to applications that you choose to install that then do a lot of interesting things. For example, let me recommend you nutrition advice based on how your body processes different types of food.
Is it accurate to say that a lot of these software based product management roles would be about enabling data analysis and big data and being able to figure out patterns in data?
That's a good question thinking through. And that's I think largely true for a product manager coming from a technical background, but not necessarily a scientific background, is a really interesting place to be, because so let's say we contrast that with being a product manager in the tech space. So I think product managers in the tech space kind of operate have a very unique, and frankly, very powerful position, for better or for worse, where you are the subject matter expert, because, let's see a building enterprise software, you can use it software, you're building a track application, or you're building some kind of billing system, or whatever it is you, you can understand that problem very well, such that you are the subject matter expert. And then, many obviously have a very strong engineering team that, you really understand the technical architecture aspects of that, you set the strategy because you understand the market and your users and your competitors. And you set the strategy. And I think, product managers within tech, obviously, every company is different, but have a very unique kind of ability to understand every part of the product, and set a vision and execute against it.
I think within biotech, it, I think, again, every company and every individual is different, but I think that it requires a certain amount of humility, because in many cases, you are not the subject matter expert, unless you happen to be one of those rare, I guess, rare unicorns who has a PhD in molecular biology, and also, as a computer science background, and also has an MBA, or whatever it is. So it's very rare that you get a combination of all those things. And so I think for someone like myself, who has a technical background, in a more kind of traditional product management background within tech, it requires knowing that it requires understanding enough about the science and the biology, but also having a really strong science team that you work with, and knowing when to defer to them versus when to push back, while recognizing that you're not the subject matter expert.
I think the other part of it too is even with regards to setting the strategy, I think the healthcare industry is just a whole beast of its own, because the FDA comes into play. And medical insurance companies come into play with regards to how tests or drugs are reimbursed. And I think that brand and legacy matter a lot more in health care, you don't just try out a new thing, before it really works, or that this company has a history of doing the right thing. So you have to operate within a system and a broader team that works to achieve a collective mission that you find very meaningful and impactful. So I think that's kind of unique aspect of being a PM in biotech now.
You touched a little bit upon the key team members you're working with on a day to day basis. There's the scientific team, who are the subject matter experts, in this case, on the biology side, and chemistry side. You’ll have your engineering team. Are there any other team members?
As with any good software team, you also have very strong designers, especially as more and more of your, I think a lot of the challenges, especially in diagnostics have to do with how do we process very complex and large amounts of data from an architectural and technical perspective, but also how do we then surface that information to our users who are, very highly trained and skilled, but also, this is a huge treasure trove of information. So what kind of visualizations or how do you distill information to a way that's easily understandable and manageable. So I think that's why you need really good designers.
And then there are a lot of commercial aspects within healthcare that are really important. So again, commercial people who really understand the market and how people think about purchasing software, talking about software, people who understand the regulatory environment. So, what are the things that the FDA cares about? And how do we build such that if the FDA audited what you were doing, you would survive? And I think that there are a few of those additional types of roles that may not exist within normal tech.
And could you briefly describe the typical timeline of a project because you hear a lot about, internet companies literally releasing things every single day. I'm guessing that's not happening in biotech. So what's the typical timeline?
So this also depends on who you’re building for. So if you're building more in the research space, it's possible to move a lot more quickly. Because, your customers expect your tools to change, obviously, if you change things, I think they obviously have to incorporate the changes that you make into their regular workflows. But, I think it definitely frees you up to move more quickly. And then I think your timeline would probably look more similar to a typical SaaS company.
I think, if you're focusing on the latter, which is you're focusing on a product that will be used in actual patient care, then, I think it's hard to give an exact timeline. But I would say, in general, your product will take longer to ship because, it requires a lot more rigorous documentation and justification for everything you're doing. And then there's typically a slightly more protracted testing period at the end of it, where you test it with as much real world data that you can obtain to ensure that the results that you have, will be clinically valid, or accurate. So, I think that can push out your timeline.
I think this is also something, I wish I could do more in my current job, but unfortunately, it just doesn't work that way - I think a benefit that tech companies have, especially if you're focused on consumer, or even if you're an enterprise, but with a meaningful critical mass of users, you can A/B test a lot more aggressively in tech. Because especially for example, the thing that everyone talks about, which is A/B testing on a user signup flow, you can maybe even run 100 experiments a day, if you want, because depending on your user base, and how much traffic you get, you can hit statistical significance with that. Whereas, in healthcare, you don't have, depending on what application you have, you probably don't have that many users. Just because if you're focusing on doctors, or whatever it is, there just aren’t hundreds of millions of doctors in the world. And even then, and because the risk of something goes tremendously wrong, the risk is obviously much higher. So you don't have the same ability to A/B test aggressively. So you have to find other ways of learning.
If I’m interested in working as a PM in biotech, do I need to have any medical / biology background?
I think it really depends on what the company that you're looking at, is looking for. I think if you don't have any biology experience, I would generally recommend looking for a company that is looking to hire someone who's really good and has a lot of experience shipping products, well designed, well built, well architected products and be really committed to learning. I think some companies are very open about, we don't require any kind of biology experience, you know, you just join. You'll learn what you need to learn on the job.
Sometimes they may say that, you know, for the role of what we're hiring for, we do actually require slightly more subject matter expertise, in which case, you know, either you have some relevant background, or some kind of degree in the field. And so, you know, I think it really depends on your company.
And again, what is the core thing that your company does? Can you abstract the biology away to a set of really the bunch of sensors that convert biological signals into data? And then you can you really only think about data, and algorithms and software, or the product that you're working on actually involves, you know, the transformation from biological material to digital signals? So you actually need to understand the first part of it. So I think it depends.
For me, there were a couple of books that I found really helpful. There was a book that was pretty amazing, it's called The Emperor of All Maladies. And I believe the author is Siddhartha Mukherjee, but he's effectively an oncologist, I believe in New York, and he writes this amazing biography of cancer, how the first cases that we believe, we think, are cancer right now, you know, recorded even, you know, during the ancient Egyptians, and just tracking to how cancer has been diagnosed and treated over time, and how people used to do these crazy surgeries - you had breast cancer, they would remove a huge section of your chest, even beyond to do these kinds of radical surgeries to remove every single possible piece of tissue that could be connected to the cancerous tumor. And so he just writes this beautiful biography about cancer that I think helps you really understand both the disease but also some of the fundamentals about what causes cancer and how it comes about.
And he then wrote a follow up book called The Gene, which is slightly more technical, but again, I think still consumable as a, quote, lay person, like myself, and I think that he goes into much more what is our understanding of gene from, you know, if you remember, in your high school biology, from Mendel's experiments of growing, I think pea plants and seeing how their traits intersect with each other, to our understanding of DNA, and then how he believes it's going to be so transformative for healthcare in the future. So I think those are a couple of books that I read that were, you know, I think, really, again, they're not academic books, necessarily, but I think they gave me an appreciation for how the science and the biology intersected with the human experience of disease, intersecting with its history and how it's seen in the more public culture.
And then I think, I guess throwing in another book reference, this one is not at all about biology, but much more about you know, I think the human experience of suffering during disease, which is a book called When Breath Becomes Air, written by Paul Kalanithi. He was a neurosurgeon. Growing up, he initially considered becoming, I think, either a philosopher or a doctor, because he was really interested with the question of life and death. And he, you know, thought that I guess medicine or philosophy will help you answer those questions, became a doctor, amazing doctor, and then developed very severe lung cancer was treated, got better for a while actually went back to work. And then it, you know, the cancer, relapsed came back, and then he eventually passed away. He writes this pretty amazing narrative of his understanding of the human experience and life and death throughout that process. And I think, I think those kind of combination of books, I think, were pretty formative for me. You know, one of the most major diseases facing humans today that we really don't understand very well? How do I understand my concept of purpose and mission and how my worldview, my beliefs about faith, intersect with what I feel, I want to use what I want to contribute my skills towards. So I think that's, I feel like going to healthcare is a so yeah, I think super important, super meaningful, impactful, but it's definitely not a, I guess, a walk in the park coming from tech, because there's just so much to ramp up on and so much where you realize that you don't know and so I think it does require some form of commitment to learning and being part of a team that knows a lot more than you do.
So let's say, I'm at the beginning of my career and I'm trying to figure out whether I should get into product management in tech versus biotech, how should I decide?
Let's see. So I guess I would start by saying that I don't think biotech is for everyone. Not in the sense that because I do think it involves its own unique set of challenges that I think can be very, very rewarding, but also can have special challenges. And so it's not, I think it's something where, you know, I think going into it, it requires a certain degree of conviction, willingness to learn, and almost, you know, to use the word calling it almost requires some form of that, too. And that's not to intimidate anyone from doing it. But I just think it's not, it's not the kind of thing that you know, you go in and you try a bunch of small prototypes and experiments, see what works doesn't work doesn't work, you just try something else. I think it takes a little bit longer than that.
Could you think about it in the form of a career path. Like, for example, you could say, maybe you start with PMing in tech, and, build skills there. And then maybe at a later point, decide to get into Biotech.
Totally. Yeah, I think if you were to look at typical paths, I think that's certainly the path that I took, which is starting off in tech, and then moving on to biotech. That's, you know, and again, maybe it's a function of the social circles. I mean, I think most of the people I know, who are in biotech, also, I happen to have taken that route. But I think my hope is that over time the barriers to entry into the biotech space for someone who is interested in the space would hopefully decrease. And it's certainly decreasing. I certainly couldn't have joined this industry 10 years ago, I wouldn't know anything to be useful at all. But I think that these two areas are intersecting.
I do think thinking very deeply about what you want your mission in your vocation and your work and how you find fulfillment, I think that's a really important question to answer that helps you think about those.
Let's say I make up my mind, I want to get into biotech, what's a good way to get noticed?
I think some of the routes that I know, at least people I know have have taken in the past,, especially if you know someone in the biotech space is spending time with them, understanding the kind of work and the problems that they work on, and the science and what the company, you know, what kind of deep challenges the company is trying to solve. I think just getting a bunch of different examples then helps you start placing, developing some kind of model for what the overall space looks like, and how you want to be involved and what kind of things interests you the most.
So, you know, and I gave some of the examples, as I said, we're at the beginning of this where I think, a lot more to do with very much a life sciences aspect of healthcare itself. But within the broader healthcare space, you know, there are a lot of companies that are tackling super important problems in, you know, insurance and healthcare payments, or, they're working on telemedicine, better platforms to connect doctors and patients or, you know, so those are examples where you really don't need that much specific understanding of science. But you can actually work on pretty important fundamental problems within healthcare.
Once you’re interested in one of them, finding a personal connection to a company is always the best way whether that's going through VC recruiters because they know a bunch of healthcare companies or, you know, friends in the space. You want to be brave and do a LinkedIn outreach to someone, I think that's obviously always way more efficient than trying to drop your resume somewhere. I think all you want is you want is that first conversation that you can get with the team, because once you get that, then you can show your curiosity.
I think one thing I tend to look for in people who I interview is, what kind of questions do they ask me? And, you know, I think for people who are just extremely curious, and there's almost like a never ending stream of questions such that I need to be like, Alright, now let's transition such that I can ask you some questions, I actually consider that a really good sign. Because, you know, I think that's the kind of thing that you need if you're going into a new space, and so not being afraid to ask questions, even if they sound stupid, but just showing that kind of a deep curiosity, I think, is really the first step to continue the rest of the conversation and getting noticed.
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