Effective Stakeholder Management in Biotechnology

Industry Advice Science & Mathematics

Many professionals who pursue a career in biotechnology do so for a love of science. After all, a biotechnologist’s primary responsibilities include applying biology and other scientific practices to the development of protein drugs, agriculture, cosmetics, and other such products. 

However, biotechnologists have other significant responsibilities that take place away from the bench. Stakeholder management, for example, is a vital—and yet often overlooked—part of the biotech product development process. Below, we examine the key stakeholders within the industry and offer tips to manage them effectively.

Who are the stakeholders in biotechnology projects?

“In biotechnology, everybody is a stakeholder,” says Christa Dhimo, professor of informatics and biotechnology at Northeastern University. This is because every person, animal, plant, or organism has the potential to be impacted by the outcomes of biotechnology work. 

While these entities are considered stakeholders in the larger sense, there are also many individuals involved in the early stages of biotech work that need to be accounted for. These key stakeholders include the professionals who handle development, regulation, authorization, distribution, and other processes.

As so many parties are involved, Dhimo recommends breaking down the groups into two tiers, ranked by importance.

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Tier 1 Stakeholders

In the top tier are the scientists who actively pursue product development. These individuals are considered organizational leaders, and their primary responsibility is to work in a lab to develop the product or solution at hand.

Away from the bench, these professionals may also lead teams or manage the scientific direction of a company or projects. For this reason, biotechnologists need an in-depth understanding of another set of Tier 1 stakeholders: the consumers.

“If a scientist is developing a product that’s super complex and amazing…but the way it’s developed is not done in such a way that it could efficiently find a way to a patient or the final beneficiary of that science, then it probably won’t make the impact it was intended to,” Dhimo says. “So when scientists think about their work—no matter their domain—they need to make sure they’re calibrated to think about their consumer stakeholders as well.”

Biotech consumers range considerably, from the specific patients who will ultimately utilize the developed product to anyone who the product’s development will impact.

For example, in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, one might think the main biotech stakeholders would be those who are sick and in need of medical solutions. In reality, however, Dhimo explains that because “everybody either has something wrong, will have something wrong, is at risk for having something wrong, has had something wrong and has worked through it, or has experienced a devastating loss because of what’s been wrong,” every person is deemed “directly impacted” by the pandemic. As a result, they each are considered a stakeholder within the larger biotech field.

“Stakeholdership is global,” she says. “Whether people are actively thinking about it or not, even before [the Coronavirus], you were considered a stakeholder in biotechnology. Suppose you got the flu shot or decided not to get the flu shot, [etc.]. Simply being alive makes you a stakeholder in biotechnology.”

Tier 2 Stakeholders

The second tier of biotechnology stakeholders includes those who are part of a product or solution’s journey from creation to distribution.

“Scientists and patients are the two primary stakeholders…but as you develop your business and you develop your research, you start layering in additional stakeholders,” Dhimo says. Stakeholders that fall into this category wear various hats depending on what stage in the process they are involved in.

For example, regulators and institutional review boards are in charge of protecting consumers. They do so by monitoring processes, reviewing ethics, and ensuring final products meet regulatory standards before they can be released to the public.

Other stakeholders in this tier include those on the medical or hospital side, including physicians, insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and more. These individuals are frequently involved in the distribution, pricing, and delivery aspects of a new biotechnology product.

Other biotech companies are also considered Tier 2 stakeholders, Dhimo says. “Competitors are stakeholders to some extent because, in science, work tends to be very collaborative. So what helps me advance my science should help others advance theirs, as well.”

In this regard, she emphasizes that any person or group impacted by a biotech solution will be an important stakeholder that needs managing in the field.

3 Stakeholder Management Tips in Biotechnology 

1. Know your stakeholders.

When managing stakeholder relationships, it’s crucial to take the time to understand the needs and requirements of all those involved in the project’s outcome. In doing so, biotech professionals can learn to anticipate potential roadblocks and solve those problems before they even arise.

Though taking the time to appreciate the needs of all involved parties is important, Dhimo emphasizes that the stakeholder with the most to offer is the consumer.

“You need to know them and understand them, be next to them, and breathe with them for a little while in order to understand what’s important to them,” she explains. 

By breaking down the needs and expectations of patients and end consumers, biotechnologists can ensure their work effectively and efficiently addresses the core issues. 

What’s more, Dhimo explains that engaging with these stakeholders helps the patients feel like their voices are heard.

“Gathering this information helps the patients understand and be a part of what you’re trying to do, and it helps them keep it in a positive frame,” she says. “If you don’t understand them and you’re next to them, you’re not doing your job to effectively manage the stakeholdership.”

2. Understand the public’s perception of biotechnology.

Like many science fields, biotechnology requires professionals to have an advanced understanding of scientific principles and the ability to break down those complex ideas into language a general consumer can understand. 

This skill helps with scientific communication in general, but it is also a key tool in managing biotechnology stakeholders. 

“We have to be aware of how intimidating biotechnology sounds to the general public…and have some compassion and understanding around that,” Dhimo says. 

To bridge these gaps and ensure that stakeholders feel as invested and confident in the work as scientists do, Dhimo recommends putting time and effort into exciting stakeholders.

“This doesn’t mean we have to force excitement or enthusiasm on them,” she says. “But because stakeholdership is so global, it’s our job to not immediately talk about mechanisms of action or cell structure or research design. Those are the things that, in industry, really [excite] us but…can risk distancing the general public from work that is truly amazing.” 

Instead, she believes the key is to explain the whole story behind a biotechnology project in a way that’s compelling for people.

“We have to be good storytellers, we have to back everything up with facts, and we have to be aware of what’s important to others. We have to be very respectful of how we come across as an industry so we can be powerful servants to our stakeholders,” she says.

3. Invest in relationship building.

Consumers aren’t the only stakeholders that require special attention, however. Dhimo acknowledges that one of the most effective ways to manage stakeholders like regulators, advisory boards, physicians is by investing time and energy into these relationships early on. This effort includes knowing and appreciating the part each of these stakeholders plays in the biotech process.

For example, regulators are there to hold biotechnicians accountable for their work. “Regulators want to get the right product to the right patient at the right time,” Dhimo says. “They’re there to protect the general public and make sure that if we say a product is supposed to do something, it actually does it and isn’t going to cause harm.”

Whereas some scientists may get so caught up in the potential of their product’s impact that they view these individuals as a roadblock in their processes, the most effective stakeholder managers take the time to understand and appreciate what these professionals offer the process.

One of the best ways to harness that appreciation is by actually building relationships with these stakeholders before their part of the process begins.

“It’s really important to start those relationships with stakeholders as early as possible so that you can build up a report and a working relationship that is conducive to your project’s success,” Dhimo says. 

With regulators, for instance, she explains that instead of engaging them only when it’s time for an investigation of the product at hand, effective stakeholder managers will view these professionals as partners in the overall journey toward a successful release of the biotech solution.

“This partnership allows you to say early on, ‘This is what we’re thinking, this is how close we are,’” she says. “Then you can get that corrective feedback right away and shift things around for the better.”

Honing You Stakeholder Management Skills

Stakeholder management is an essential skill for professionals hoping to excel in biotechnology. Those looking to refine their abilities should consider advancing their education with a master’s degree in biotechnology.

Northeastern has designed its master’s in biotechnology program to include built-in opportunities for aspiring biotechnicians to work on these vital skills both in the classroom and through experiential learning.

To do this, the program encourages students to “talk about the science in the context of a business rather than in the context of an experiment,” Dhimo says. This helps prepare them to address their work with stakeholders who lack scientific expertise and position their projects as compelling solutions to critical societal problems. 

What’s more, Northeastern’s master’s in biotechnology program offers courses focusing specifically on honing the power skills that help make a scientist an effective manager of stakeholders. These courses explore best practices for managing and leading teams within a biotech company, communicating with stakeholders and employees, and more. 

Northeastern’s master’s in biotechnology program also has a unique partnership with the Master of Business Administration (MBA) program. This partnership offers biotech students an unparalleled opportunity to gain exposure to some of the most important trends and management practices defining the business world today.

Explore the program page to learn how Northeastern’s master’s in biotechnology can help improve your stakeholder management abilities, or download our eBook below for more advice on advancing your biotechnology career.

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