Frédéric Sweeney is the Vice President of Corporate Development and Strategic Financing Lead at bioMérieux, a multinational biotechnology company specializing in diagnostic tools. He is based in Boston. An alumnus of Dan Durocher’s lab at the LTRI, Frédéric now uses his scientific background to scout for new technologies in a rapidly growing technology field. In this spotlight, Frédéric shares his thoughts on his career path and advice on how to translate your scientific training into a successful career in biotech.
What is your current position at bioMérieux?
bioMérieux is the world’s largest infectious disease diagnostics company, with about 10,000 employees and $2.5 billion in annual revenue, which, by the standards of the diagnostic world, is quite big. My position today is VP of Corporate Development and Strategic Financing Lead. In my role, I report to the executive committee of bioMérieux about business development. I lead our business development group in two main functions: (1) scouting for new technologies, and (2) strategic financing. Scouting involves looking externally for new technologies that are in early-, mid-, or late-stages of development and that would complement what we’re doing internally. This covers the clinical diagnostics side of bioMérieux as well as its industrial diagnostics side, which includes things like food safety testing and biopharma sterility testing. We also have a data analytics component to the business, which is basically software and data-related technologies that would complement diagnostic testing. We are constantly looking around the globe for these new technologies, and that is the responsibility of my group. This is where I use most of my scientific background. We also have a bunch of internal experts who report on these technologies. The second part of my job is strategic financing. At bioMérieux, we have the ability to invest in companies that we feel are very interesting, but which may be a bit too early to acquire. We want to maintain the innovative/start-up environment in these companies through our strategic financing. This side of the job is about 95% financial, and I tap into my venture capital (VC) background for that.
What is that VC background?
After I completed my PhD, I joined a VC fund called VenGrowth. It doesn’t exist anymore but at the time it was the largest in Canada. I joined as an analyst, so I made a cold-turkey jump from science to business with very little training. I really learned by doing at VenGrowth.
Did you do anything in your graduate/undergraduate career to prepare you for that?
Yes and no. At the tail end of my PhD, after I had published a few papers and my thesis story was rounding up, I was looking for an opportunity to gain experience and rise above the crop in the story I could tell as a young graduate student to a VC fund. After a lot of networking, I ended up working for a small boutique investment bank called SHI Capital. They work with high net-worth individuals who are interested in doing seed investments in science companies. Our role was to look at the industry landscape and evaluate these companies from both a scientific and business standpoint, and present the best opportunities to investors. I leveraged my scientific knowledge to focus on the science side of things. I did so part-time for a year while I was in the lab. By doing so, I really developed my network in the investment community and that is where I met the VenGrowth folks. They ended up offering me a job before I was finished writing my thesis.
Did you always know you wanted to go into industry?
No, not at all. I did my undergrad at McGill in the late ‘90s when it was very popular for people to start companies, so I was always around that philosophy while working in labs. I worked with Freda Miller and David Kaplan while they were at the Montréal Neurological Institute (before they moved to Toronto). At the time, David had a company called Aegera Therapeutics, so I was constantly exposed to companies. When I started my graduate studies in the Durocher lab however, I was 100% focused on the postdoc-PI-academia route. About halfway through my PhD, I became very curious about start-ups in biotech. I would say it was more a curiosity and interest in biotech that pulled me in as opposed to a push away from academia.
Was there a moment that inspired you?
It’s hard to tell, but I remember that at the time, MaRS was just getting off the ground, and they had started, for the first time, to offer a class called Entrepreneurship 101. It was meant for graduate students who didn’t know a lot about business, as an introductory course to VC, intellectual property, and things like that. The course was very motivating, and spurred me to get more involved in this area. I’m actually coordinating a course this year called The Ins And Outs of Life Sciences Entrepreneurship in Molecular Genetics at U of T, which I hope goes well and that I can motivate some students myself.
You appear to have moved around from company to company a few times. Is that common in your industry?
The short answer is that it’s not a necessarily a strategy for success, but more a representation of my path. At the end of the day, you have to do your time wherever you go, and do it well. Your history and experiences should all build into a good story. If you look at the evolution of my career, we can connect the dots going backwards to see my story and see how I grew. In graduate school I had decent track record. My jump to VC was very lucky because they are generally very hard jobs to get. It was a combination of networking and having a story that differentiated me from my peers at the time. After VenGrowth, a friend of mine, Stefan Larson, also a Molecular Genetics alumnus, was working as an Associate Partner at McKinsey and wanted to start a company. He called me up and asked if I wanted to join him. For me it was an easy decision, because I had 2 ½ years of VC experience and I wanted to further complement it with some operational experience, like starting a company. I did that for a couple of years, getting a company called Tornado Spectral Systems off the ground, and raising a bunch of money in the process. Then at that point, Tornado was at a stage where it was sustainable; I had done my job and grown out of the company so I knew it was time for a switch. Furthermore, it was not really in life sciences, and I had a strong desire to work in biotech in the US. In 2013, I was recruited to head Business Development and Strategy for an amazing company, a Boston-based VC-backed biotech company called T2 Biosystems. When I started, I was approximately the 30th employee, and within the span of about 3 ½ years, we raised over $240 million, we had our IPO on NASDAQ, and we got a bunch of deals done. At that point T2 became a commercial company, and my goal on the business development side, to lead the company to commercial stage, was accomplished.. I left T2 after an executive recruiter contacted me to ask if I was interested in joining bioMérieux, which is a company that I knew well from my time at T2. bioMérieux is a French company, so culturally it was great for me as a French Canadian. It is a family-owned operation. I knew the CEO Alexandre Mérieux, and knew that we would have a good working relationship. Furthermore, the responsibilities were an order of magnitude more than at T2, so it was a really good professional move for me.
So to come back to the original question, bouncing around is not necessarily a strategy and if you do it too much it can be seen as a bad thing, so you have to be very careful about how you do it. But as long as someone can understand your story by reading your resume, I think that’s fine.
Was there a large pull to move to the US? Is the market better for biotech there?
Being in biotech in Canada is a bit like playing in the smaller leagues, when you could be playing in the major leagues. Things are changing in the Toronto area for sure, but at the end of the day, there is more money invested in biotech in one month in the Boston area than in a whole year in all of Canada. Also for personal development, it is easy to be a king in a small pond but it is humbling to move to a more competitive market where you rub elbows everyday with the best in the business in the world. That was really my goal, and I don’t regret the move for one millisecond.
What originally drew you to a graduate degree?
I wanted to cure cancer, of course. Out of CEGEP I was pretty set on doing fundamental research in life science. To that end, I worked in labs beginning as a first year undergrad. I started by just getting my feet wet pouring agar plates at the Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal. It was only up from there.
Why did you choose University of Toronto over another university?
Firstly, the research being done at U of T was excellent and hard to overlook. I, for some reason, had an affinity (no pun intended) for signal transduction mechanisms, and at the time I wanted to work for Tony Pawson. Originally I applied for a summer position in the Pawson lab at LTRI. Coincidentally, Dan Durocher, whom I knew from my time at the IRCM, had just joined LTRI, working on identifying and characterizing the protein interaction domain called the FHA domain. I had asked Dan for a reference letter for the position in Tony’s lab, to which he replied, “I’m happy to do it, but I just got an offer from Mt. Sinai, so would you like to work with me?” Making that choice was a bit of a no brainer for me, given our personal history. That is how I came to work with Dan, and how I came to study at U of T.
What did you study in the Durocher lab?
I studied a yeast protein kinase called Rad53, which is a homolog of a human protein called Chk2 and is a key protein in the cell-cycle checkpoint mechanism. When a cell is exposed to DNA damage, it will halt the cell cycle and only resume it after the damage is repaired. This one central kinase is in great part responsible for that. I did a lot of work on that, collaborating with Frank Sicheri to look at the structure of Rad53. It was very fundamental basic science which I really enjoyed.
Do you use much of that scientific knowledge in your current position in the industry?
No, not really. The theoretical, scientific knowledge I acquired as a grad student does play a large role, but it’s not the only part of job. A big part of my responsibility at bioMérieux is to scout new technology, so having the language necessary to talk with scientists is actually a huge advantage. I always use this analogy: when I did my PhD I learned a new language and I learned the grammar rules and then I wrote a book. If you translate this to other areas, even though you haven’t written that book, you already know the language and the grammar so you can communicate much more easily with scientists. Obviously I’m rusty and I don’t keep up to speed with everything as much as I should, but at least I can communicate with the people developing these technologies. Compared to my peers, who have the same job in other companies but don’t have the technical background, I can go a level deeper, which really helps internally with our R&D groups and externally as it gives credibility to the whole process.
Do you think that gives you a competitive advantage over your peers?
Yes, when one is looking to hire someone for my type of position, being able to speak the language really helps. We do a lot of molecular diagnostics for instance, so having a PhD in molecular genetics really helps, compared to the other candidates in my field. That being said, it’s not a decision driver or a requirement, but it’s an advantage..
What would you give as a final word of advice to graduate students?
The concept of having a story to tell is important. And I mean a real story, backed up by real experiences. At the end of the day, the business side of things is different from academia, or even professional degrees like medicine or law, where you have a very clear path: you go to school, do your courses, become a doctor, and then open a practice. That’s a very well-defined route, and some people prefer that. The business world, the world in which I live, is a world of uncertainty. We live in a world of risks. You have to like and thrive on that uncertainty and risk. The short answer is that there is no clear or stereotypic path; yes you can do an MBA or work for a consulting company (if you’re lucky enough to get a job there) but at the end of the day when it’s time to get into the real world, it’s all about uncertainty, and being able to be comfortable and thrive in that environment.
Being more senior now, I can really tell if a more junior person understands the world of biotech by the way that they talk and behave about it. That’s a very good sniff test for the ones who will do well (or not). I always remember the key question that got me the job at VenGrowth. During my interview, the interviewer asked me: “What’s your view on the US VC market versus the Canadian VC market?” And remember, I was just a graduate student from the medical genetics department. But luckily, because I had worked at a small investment bank, I had just finished an evaluation on the difference between the US and the Canadian VC markets. I was able to give a sophisticated answer, which impressed my interviewer. But again, that’s part of my story. I would say this: try to think outside the box, find ways to be exposed to the industry, and don’t expect someone to hand everything to you on a golden platter. The story that would attract me, as an employer, would be out-of-the box ideas and stories, such as working in a tech transfer office to evaluate technologies or volunteering at a fund/start up during your undergraduate/graduate degree - things like that.
What was one of your favourite memories from grad school?
The departmental retreats were a lot of fun for me; I hope they’re still just as fun. It was a much smaller department in my day, half the size you are now. What I liked about the department was the fact that you always felt that you counted as an individual, and it was never that you’re just a number. I really liked the personal connection. The level of personalization that the department shows to students was truly important to me.
(Interviewed by Jonathan Palozzi)