By Ivana Magovčević-Liebisch PhD, JD, CEO of VIGIL NEUROSCIENCE, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC
Compared to most industries, biotech life cycles are lengthy. From R&D and clinical development to regulatory approval, it takes an average of 12 to 14 years for an idea to become a reality. Fueling the development of a novel therapeutic often requires multiple rounds of financing, and the time between rounds as well as the time from founding to initial public offering (IPO) can vary greatly from company to company.
In March of this year, Vigil rang the closing bell at Nasdaq MarketSite as a celebratory culmination of the company’s IPO. The journey from our inception in June 2020 to IPO in January 2022 was an unforgettable experience. The progression from a newly formed private company to a public one in just 18 months was not an always easy undertaking. However, with a strong team and an aligned vision, a bold goal is achievable – even with macro constraints.
The biggest challenges and lessons learned
When a company undertakes large, strategic shifts (like a merger or an IPO), it is obviously prudent to plan for challenges and obstacles. At Vigil, we forecasted and planned for various challenges, and we were swift, nimble and creative in addressing them, knowing that our mission of improving the lives of patients could not be delayed.
As a company undertakes bold ambitions, its corporate strategy and development priorities inevitably evolve. Ensuring that a clear plan is communicated throughout an entire organization under an accelerated timeline is no small feat. Goals must be well-defined and action plans need to be fully vetted and analyzed to enable on-point execution. The development of action plans should involve a robust and cross-functional planning process, so it is important to have diverse expertise, and key stakeholders and decision makers in the room. Encouraging a steady flow of vertical and lateral communication enables progress and informed decision making at all levels.
Employees are a company’s most valuable asset. Building an organization requires identifying new functions and filling positions for driving all aspects of corporate growth. It also means attracting the right talent with shared passion and values. In addition, as the company grows, it is crucial to communicate the mission and strategy effectively to all team members as well as provide the necessary support and resources for them to execute and thrive. Employees who have a clear idea of their contribution to the organization are better positioned to support the company’s goals.
Adapting to changing market dynamics is necessary for success in the best of times. Since Vigil’s inception and IPO were both during the unprecedented times of COVID-19 pandemic, we knew flexibility and adaptability were going to be important in our approach. The virtual nature of investor engagements and the “newness” of the company necessitated extra efforts to build credibility with investors and effectively share Vigil’s story. Succinct and clear messaging of our vision, strategy and differentiation was imperative. Additionally, establishing early relationships and frequent interactions with the investor community allowed for sufficient time to educate on the company story, value proposition, and milestones – important fundamentals evaluated by Wall Street.
Navigating the transition
An IPO is only the beginning of a company’s journey as a public company. Developing familiarity with the rigor of SEC regulations and disclosure requirements for public companies early on is important. Designating the right team with appropriate expertise to help navigate the transition and train other team members will help support organizational compliance. The importance of implementing a routinized disclosure framework and establishing a cross-functional disclosure committee should not be overlooked.
Building on a successful IPO also means continuing to establish frequent, transparent communication about the company’s science, pipeline, and milestones. There are a number of meaningful ways to maintain investor enthusiasm, including informal or proactive outreach and communication, formal one-on-one meetings, conference participation, and investor events. When investors have a clear understanding of the company’s value proposition, strategy, and milestones, the company is in a stronger position to maintain long-term trust and withstand a turbulent market. Be precise, responsive, consistent, transparent, and thorough.
Importantly, focus on the company’s mission and keep the internal team excited about prospects. In the life science industry, we are all working towards a common goal: to improve patients’ lives. Biotech leaders need to embody this purpose. When the team is united with a shared vision and corporate strategy, the company is naturally more equipped to deliver meaningful value to patients and shareholders.
Building on a solid foundation
For CEOs looking to take on a major strategic change – especially at an accelerated rate – the basics are essential. A company’s foundation is built on a capable, devoted, and experienced team. Focus on creating one that is firmly aligned on values and goals and can hit the ground running. Most importantly, have the right people in the right seats and empower them to make decisions and respond to unforeseeable challenges in real-time. Resilience is key – leaders should exemplify this quality and demonstrate integrity at all times.
IPOs and other strategic inflection points provide a great opportunity to re-evaluate a company across many dimensions. How robust and sustainable is the pipeline? Is it possible to add more high-quality assets to allow for multiple shots on goal through internal efforts and/or business development? What is the outlook for the company three years from now? These are important questions to ask and answer regularly and will prove instrumental in the long run.
The biotech industry is ever-changing and unpredictable, but with a clear mission, a nimble team, and a well-defined strategy, bold goals are achievable.