Media perspectives: Luke Timmerman

Hannah Blake interviews Luke Timmerman

Xconomy

This month’s media perspective is award-winning journalist and Xconomy’s Vice President of Life Sciences Initiatives, Luke Timmerman.

The biotech industry, like the pharmaceutical industry, is always evolving and sometimes it can be hard to keep up. One person that’s always on top of the latest biotech news is award-winning journalist, Luke Timmerman, who heads up life sciences at Xconomy.

Luke shares with us his thoughts on how the biotechnology sector has changed during his time of reporting, how social media has affected his way of working and which companies are the ones to watch out for in the biotech space at the moment.

Interview summary

HB: Hi Luke, thanks for speaking with me today. Please can you tell us a bit about your background, so how did you get into biotech journalism?

LT: Thanks Hannah for asking me to speak with pharmaphorum. I got started in biotech sort of by accident. It was a little over 10 years ago when I was a business reporter at The Seattle Times. I covered a lot of general business topics and the biotech role became open around the same time as the retail beat in Seattle. At the time, Starbucks was the marquee company on the retail beat. So I had a choice of going to either to cover Starbucks or biotech. This was right after The Seattle Times had done a big investigative series on conflicts of interest in research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and it inspired me. When I started looking round at this beat and I saw basic science, human health, business, ethical issues, all of these great ingredients for storytelling, all colliding in one beat, I thought this had great potential, and I wanted to learn more about it. So I started covering it there in 2001, and have been doing it ever since.

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“…basic science, human health, business, ethical issues, all of these great ingredients for storytelling, all colliding in one beat…”

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HB: Now with your current role at Xconomy, what areas do you cover in reporting?

LT: My title is National Biotechnology Editor. What that means is I write about life sciences and innovation, across our network of six bureaus in the US. So we’re in Boston, New York, Detroit in the east, Seattle, San Francisco and San Diego on the west coast. And life sciences for us is about biotech drug development, medical devices, diagnostics, genomics, maybe even a dash of bioinformatics, bio IT, health IT thrown in there, although that’s the kind of thing that could also be covered by my tech writing colleagues. So we define innovation pretty broadly at Xconomy across tech, biotech, and clean tech.

HB: How have you see the biotechnology sector change during your time of reporting?

LT: I think we’re seeing more of a movement towards more personalised medicine, or targeted therapies, than we once did 10 years ago. There was a lot of emphasis on companies going after the biggest markets possible but now it is based on a much deeper understanding of the biology of a lot of diseases that we’re seeing companies go after. And that’s a big change. The finance environment is always going through its ups and downs, regulatory policy swings from one end of the spectrum to another from emphasis on safety to an emphasis on facilitating more new medicines.

But I think the biggest change that we’re seeing this year is a story that hasn’t been told all that much really, and that is a real drought of start-up financing. Very few new ideas can get the seed capital they need to get started. There are estimates somewhere that suggest around 50%, or maybe as many as 70%, of the venture capital firms that have traditionally specialised in biotech are gradually winding down operations, or getting out of healthcare, because they just haven’t generated the returns they need to raise new funds. So that could really have long term implications for the innovation ecosystem really, and I know a lot of people are worried about it, myself included.

HB: You’ve won a number of awards, which one are you most proud of and why?

LT: I would say the series at The Seattle Times called Selling Drug Secrets. This was a story that for the first time exposed the practice of hedge funds and investment banking houses on Wall Street hiring clinical trial investigators as paid consultants and specifically trying to get them to leak inside information about ongoing clinical trials for their own financial gain. This was a big exposé, and generated a lot of, I think, positive outcomes. As I can recall, the American Society of Clinical Oncology changed its policies to require its members to disclose when they have a consulting relationship with an investment house.

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“…it encouraged many physicians to think long and hard about whether they would form such relationships with Wall Street…”

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I think there was also some level of enquiry in Washington DC – both Senator Chuck Grassley’s office and the Securities and Exchange Commission looked into this for a while. It’s hard to really measure and I don’t think the story and the ensuing attention really halted the practice, but I do think it encouraged many physicians to think long and hard about whether they would form such relationships with Wall Street, and if they do to be very careful about what they say. So I think that story resulted in some good.

HB: What did the story teach you about pharma’s relationship with healthcare professionals?

LT: When this story came out in 2005, much of that “cosy” relationship between pharma and physicians had already received a lot of public attention. I think what I learned from this story was that doctors were actually sticking their hands out for money from more than just pharma companies, and it was eye opening.

HB: Recently, journalism has been largely impacted by the rise in social media, how has social media changed your way of reporting?

LT: It’s a really fundamental change, because before at a newspaper you would be the one voice say covering biotech in your city or in your country, and you would disseminate your reporting and writing to many people, it was the one-to-many model. There wasn’t a whole lot of communication back and forth with the readers. Sure they might be able to send you an email or write a letter to the editor, but most people didn’t do that. Now with social media it’s a much more interactive and two-way process. I go on to Twitter and LinkedIn everyday and I see what many insiders and experts in the field are writing and sharing, and they can communicate with me and give me ideas much more easily than they ever could. They can also provide me with feedback about what I’m writing that’s right or maybe a little bit off the mark. It’s a great accountability mechanism. I learn new things every day through social media and hopefully I also get to reach a whole bunch of new readers that I couldn’t or wouldn’t otherwise in the traditional outlets. I think it’s a great trend.

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“… I also get to reach a whole bunch of new readers that I couldn’t or wouldn’t otherwise in the traditional outlets.”

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HB: Finally which companies do you think are the most exciting or interesting within the biotech state at the moment?

LT: Cancer is a very interesting area right now. I think the biology has come a long way, and we’re seeing a lot of good new drugs coming out, and good new diagnostic tools. A couple of interesting products recently include one from Medivation for prostate cancer, which has shown some very good survival data. Onyx Pharmaceuticals has a new drug out for multiple myeloma, that’s off to a good start. Vertex Pharmaceuticals has an interesting new drug for cystic fibrosis, and that’s the leading compound if you will in the orphan drug space. The rare disease area is very hot at the moment. As I said before, I believe this is because of the deeper understanding of biology we have at the moment, as this enables us to make much better targeted drugs. So I think there’s tremendous potential and innovation going on driven by the science.

The irony of it is that some companies are publicly traded, they’ve been rewarded by their stockholders and so they’ve got the resources they need to really maximise what they have with those products and others in development. But we’re just at a point now where it’s very difficult for anybody to start something new in biotech because the financial math has been so difficult – the risk has outweighed the reward for too many investors for too long. So I think we’re going to go through a bit of a drought, we’re in one now in new early stage innovation, and I think we’re going to see the results of that a few years down the road when I probably won’t be able to cite as many exciting new products like the ones I mentioned.

HB: Thanks for your thoughts today Luke.

LT: Thanks very much.

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About the interviewee:

Luke Timmerman is the National Biotechnology Editor for Xconomy, an online technology and life sciences publication. Before joining Xconomy in 2008 to lead its West Coast expansion, he was the U.S. biotechnology reporter for Bloomberg News. Luke got his start covering life sciences a decade ago at The Seattle Times. Luke has received a number of awards for his biotech reporting, including the Scripps Howard National Journalism Award, the Sigma Delta Chi Prize, and several ‘Best in Business’ honors from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. He is a two-time finalist for the Gerald Loeb Award, the highest honor in business journalism. Luke holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and during the 2005-2006 academic year, he was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT.

Which companies are you most excited about within the biotech space?