What makes a modern-day biotech?

Print 06 December 2017

If biotechnology is the use of living cells and molecules to make biological products, does this mean all companies producing biological products or solutions are classified as a biotech?

Investopedia defines a biotech company as an organisation that uses live organisms such as bacteria or enzymes to manufacture drugs, whereas pharmaceutical companies use only chemical and generally artificial materials. Another financial website, thestreet.com, defines biotech as a development-stage company in the life science space.

Blue Latitude Health spoke to three industry leaders to build a modern definition of biotech today and demonstrate why these definitions are not fit for purpose in today’s market.

Technology – to solve complex human challenges

“Biotechs will start with one scientist and some technology – that is your DNA as an organisation. Then we ask are we adding value here?” This is the starting point for a biotech in the mind of Olav Hellebo, CEO of ReNeuron, a leading, clinical-stage stem cell business. Two words in this statement are worth highlighting – technology and value.

In pharma there is a tendency for certain technologies to become the focus of intense development efforts, due to the scale of the opportunity they present in relation to their therapeutic benefit (e.g statins, PD-1s or TNFs). In biotech, the focus is often on the science and the value of the technology defined by its ability to solve complex health problems.

Nancy Hunter, Marketing Director for a leading pharmaceutical company, explains: “Biotech is a conduit to solve worldwide health problems at an overarching level. What I like about the industry is its ability to always push the boundaries, whether it’s developing new science, looking at issues from a pioneering angle or bringing innovation into play.”

An innovative operational model

Traditionally, biotech companies were small and agile, designing systems from the bottom up around the technology. Without legacy systems in place, their processes grew organically with the business and were tailored to meet the specific needs of their technology and patients. However, big pharma is now mimicking this structure with an internal hybrid approach.

Nancy reveals: “I see blurred lines when defining large pharma from biotech and smaller companies. The industry tends to breed change with mergers and restructuring. I believe we will start seeing more hybrid companies and intrapreneurial business units (in which you have a smaller company within a large company) in the future.’’

This model has been put into practice at Sanofi/Genzyme where a specialist unit focuses solely on research and development, while responsibility for maximising commercial value remains with the larger organisation. This can make a real difference when dealing with new classes of treatment.

Culture and values

What happens when you have an entire company focused on one problem? When that problem is how to leverage science to improve the lives of a specific group of patients, we start to get to the core of what is different about biotech.

“You’re helping a person in that community have a better quality of life or get back to normal baseline health,” says Nancy. “Of course, there is the business aspect but this is a people business, not a drug business. In rare disease, there may not be many patients, but there is certainly a lot of opportunity to make a difference in patients’ lives.”

In biotech organisations, with small headcounts, everyone from the C-suite to the lab-bench is focused on a single goal of solving the healthcare problems of real people. That is not to say big pharma are not as dedicated to the goal to save and transform lives as biotech companies – the drive is simply different.

James Oughton is Global Medical Information Leader at a large pharmaceutical company, which has recently partnered with a smaller biotech organisation, he explains: “There is certainly a level of emotional investment that is hard to get in a large company. If you follow the company, as an employee, from the outset, it’s more likely that you are going to be heavily invested in the company.”

In an age of often cynical corporate altruism, with start-ups tempting employees with lower salaries but a grandiose mission statement, the deeply personal and emotional goals of biotechs can have a huge impact on their output.

Small pharma

So what is a biotech? Is it a company built around a patient-centric mission to leverage biotechnology to solve healthcare problems? Or is it just a startup in the biopharma industry?

We explore this idea in our new eBook where we interview six trailblazers to dig deeper into what it means to be a biotech, including the commercial challenges and opportunities in 2018 and beyond, revealing how those at the forefront of innovation are operating in rapidly changing environments with the unified aim of improving complex markets.  

Our interviews cover the strategic challenges and opportunities faced by biotech organisations today, including:

  •  Big data
  •  Developments and approvals in cell and gene therapies
  •  Biomarkers and combination therapies
  •  The rise of the empowered patient
  •  A growing skills crisis.

Blue Latitude Health is an innovative and independent creative consultancy, made for modern healthcare. Combining the commercial focus of a consultancy with the creativity of an agency, we operate globally and regionally at a brand, portfolio and organisational level. 

Since 2003, we’ve worked with the world’s leading life science companies, in more than 35 countries across the globe, to change beliefs and behaviours in healthcare.

Our collaborative and agile approach combines strategic rigour with precise customer insights and winning creativity to make a tangible commercial difference.



All Portfolio


  • NovaMedica began construction of a pharmaceutical plant in the Kaluga region

    NovaMedica began construction of a pharmaceutical plant in the Kaluga region

    Russian pharmaceutical company NovaMedica, a portfolio company of RUSNANO, announces the start of construction of a plant for the production of sterile injectable drugs as part of its long-term strategy to localize innovative medicines and technologies of their development and production in Russia. The plant will be built in the industrial park “Vorsino” in the Kaluga region.