Career Profile: Kinga Bercsenyi, Associate Director Business Development Translational Oncology Solutions at Champions Oncology – EMBL Fellows' Career Service

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Career Profile: Kinga Bercsenyi, Associate Director Business Development Translational Oncology Solutions at Champions Oncology

Photo of Kinga

Business development roles can be found in many companies and organizations. The exact focus of the role varies a lot, but a common aspect is building and maintaining relationships with current or potential business partners. For this profile, we talked with Kinga Bercsenyi, Associate Director Business Development Translational Oncology Solutions at Champions Oncology, a contract research organization that provides research platforms for oncology drug development to pharma, biotech and academia. Kinga told us about her current role and how informational interviews were key for her transition from a postdoc to her first business development role in 2019.

You are currently Associate Director, Business Development Translational Oncology Solutions at Champions Oncology. Could you explain a little about your current role – what do you help your company to do, and how do you achieve that?

The company is providing solutions for academics, biotechs and large pharma for pre-clinical testing of their test agents. We come in once they have identified a specific oncology drug target and developed a molecule, antibody, virus, or another type of agent targeting that target. I work in the pre-clinical space only and go up to the ‘IND enabling stage’, which is when companies are seeking approval to enter clinical trials. We have a large bank of patient-derived xenograft models, which have been thoroughly characterized. These can be used ex vivo or in vivo to show proof of concept and, ultimately, efficacy. They can also be used to look at what potential biomarkers could be used for predicting response or progression, as well as testing potential combination strategies.

My role is to act as a consultant for the clients. They reach out to me, introduce their asset, and ask us to test it in certain aspects. I advise them on what models to choose, whether to go ex vivo or in vivo straight away, whether they need a mouse that has a human immune system or they could use an immunocompromised animal, and then on designing the studies – so powering the studies, thinking about the readouts, collecting tissues samples. Finally, the big question is how to analyze those to answer the clients’ original question. Someone else is running the project management but when the project is completed, we get back together with the client to talk through the data, discuss conclusions and plan next steps. So at least 80% of the role is about the science. There is then maybe 20% that requires business acumen – and even that is done with the primary intent to help the client with what they need to progress. This might involve getting the next stage of fundraising from investors, or compiling the IND submission so they can progress to the next stage.

What does a typical day look like for you?

The good thing is that there is no real typical day; it’s very diverse. Some days are quieter than others. I like to have at least one call with a client, but some days this blows out of proportions and I just have client calls all day long – that’s incredibly exciting but very, very draining. On days like this, every hour I’m becoming an expert on a different disease – colorectal cancer, sarcoma and so on and that can be very challenging. We also have internal discussions about how we could perform those studies operationally. And sometimes things don’t go very well, so then we look at how we can get the best out of the situation. We also have strategy calls, where the leadership of the company is looking for our input. Here, we might discuss what are the things that we would like to have developed as a service for clients, or a poster or publication about a particularly interesting study. It’s literally a fancy lab meeting. I also spend time during my working day writing statements of works; these are contracts that cover the studies. This is admin that I don’t love so much but has to be done to ensure that all discussed points are captured and the quote matches the client’s budget. Finally, when there’s no COVID wave, we organize seminars, go to conferences, and just have a lot of fun socializing with others and discussing science!

So it sounds like a lot of coordination and communication?

Yes, it is. There are lots of people I see throughout the day who have different pain points, who have different types of pressure, and it’s about understanding where they are coming from and what they need. So if it’s a client or an internal stakeholder, ultimately, the aim is to get as close as possible to what they would like to get out of a situation.

One of the main aims of your role is advising the customers who will use the service. Would you say that is typical for a business development role, and, if not, what would you say is the overarching aim of a business development role?

This very much depends on the company, and even within the same company, it may depend on the territory. So, in the US, for example, things tend to be a lot more transactional as things move much faster and the attitude to risk is different. They might not be interested in running the best possible study but getting something done ASAP. Whereas in Europe, we find people are a lot more careful when it comes to designing these studies. So, they really want the business development person from the CRO to be an esteemed scientist. They are looking for someone who can extend their team in a sense. So, I don’t call them customers; I call them clients as it’s a higher level relationship.

However, even within Europe, the BD [business development] role will depend on the company and the complexity of the service. If you go to work for Abcam, and you are a business developer there, it’s going to be a very different type of discussion, much more transactional and less scientific. You can also be on the licensing side – where business developers assess and negotiate potential partnerships, acquisitions and other business deals; that is very different to the service side in terms of the skillsets that are required.

We run studies that involve a mouse that has a human immune system and a patient-derived xenograft model where we have all the treatment information of the patient, and we have RNA sequencing and proteomics – so if you can have someone who can understand all of that to put together a study, it’s better than having someone with a sales focus. So, it really depends on the technicality of the role, and it depends on the company and I am in an ideal place as a scientist who has business acumen but is still fundamentally a scientist.

So whether or not this role is the right fit for someone depends on what people are looking for; they can aim for a more science or more sales focused position.

In your role, do the clients come to you fairly committed – or is it also a part of your role to get them on board and choose you as the CRO?

It really depends. I think different people have different approaches to selecting their chosen provider. It also depends on the type of agent they are developing: Firstly, for cell therapy companies, for example, the cell itself is their intellectual property, and it needs to be cultured; they tend to want one single provider, and in that case, you talk about a high-level, almost partnership-like set-up.

Secondly, if it’s a small molecule, these companies just put out a call, see who has which model and see who can do an example study for what price. There are platforms for this, so they normally don’t contact us directly; they put out a request for proposals. In those cases, it’s like a war between the different providers to see who can get it, depending on price and the timeline.

Third, for some small biotech companies, the safest option is to go to a consultant who then comes to us; that way, you have even more scientific expertise involved. The consultants are people who have worked in industry for some time, have tons of experience and have taken drugs to the clinic, but now set up their own business to help others.

And finally, of course, there are also the personal relationships: I know people who are now at biotechs and large pharma, and they know me, so it’s easier to establish the trust that we build our working relationship on.

And how did you make the transition into business development?

I did it blindly! I have three kids, which is a really important part of this story. I had all of them during my academic career- and really struggled to maintain ownership of projects during maternity leave and also when it came to flexible working, it simply was not acceptable from a ‘determined’ young scientist. It’s really hard when you need to run a Western blot, and you absolutely need to leave at 5 pm to pick up the children from nursery. If it hasn’t transferred yet, what are you going to do? So, I was really struggling with that and the concept of becoming a PI as I would really need a very liberal institution with a high level of diversity and inclusion background to make it work…even though I have a paper in both Science and Nature, I just didn’t see this career happening for me in the UK. My other ‘problem’ with the academic career route was that I was never quite devoted enough to a single project – I’m too curious to get bogged down on one thing for a long time. There’s nothing wrong with being focused on a single pathway for a lifetime if that’s what someone wants to do – but for me, that wasn’t attractive enough to stay in academia.

So, what I did was to reach out on LinkedIn to people I had met during my PhD and postdoc who had exited academia. I asked them to have a coffee, to shadow them or to just have a friendly chat. One of the people I reached out to happened to be the Head of European Business Development at Champions Oncology and he said, ‘instead of shadowing, why don’t you come and work with me?’. I really had no idea what business development meant at a company like this; all I knew was that I liked him and wanted to work with him. The salary was better than my Wellcome Postdoc fellowship, so there was no concern about finances. And in terms of flexibility, it’s a fully work from home position, so it was perfect for me and my family. There was a bit of travel included in the job description – but then came COVID – so that overwrote basically everything we know about travelling for a job. So, for me, it was really the perfect choice. I knew him and knew we could work well together, and I was also very intrigued by the business angle. The other big thing was the translational aspect; it’s not basic research anymore, and that I was getting closer to the patient.

So, what helped you get your first role was your network and networking. For people wishing to move into this area, are there other things they can do to build a profile for the role?

I think one thing to realize is that the number of transferable skills is way more than you think you have. Initially, it can be quite difficult to name your skills and give evidence that you do have them. A PhD is often seen as a student, even though there are so many skills you learn. I would really regard it as more of a job in terms of how self-sufficient you need to be, the time-management, overcoming a lot of hurdles and at the same time owning something and being the sole person who can make it happen. And don’t forget about the skills for presenting ourselves and our data. Putting together PowerPoints is now a big part of my job. For a client call, I would put together a short presentation to show I’m aware of their company and the targets they are working on, and here is the study design I would recommend. I can do this in fifteen minutes because I’ve done hundreds of presentations during my PhD and I got used to thinking on my feet and putting things together very quickly. And I noticed that it’s not necessarily a skill that everyone has; it’s a very valuable asset!

There are some really good books out there that I’ve used. One good book I had was ‘What color is your parachute’. I found that incredibly useful, but, ultimately, I found my job through serendipity. For those who are sceptical, this is not necessarily the same thing as luck because you create the opportunity for yourself, which you then recognize and you take. I didn’t know exactly what this job was, but I just went for it as I felt it was the right thing to do.  

Are there other skills you need to be successful in your role?

I think the other one that is really important is teamwork. So, although the projects during a PhD are all individual, they are done in a team setting. And, of course, the analytical skills. I do each year the Clifton strengths finder, and the longer I spend outside of academia, the more my interpersonal skills seem to overtake my analytical skills. I don’t think it’s because I’m no longer analytical, but that – because of the field I work in – I have improved on things like vision, futuristic, and ideation. And at last but not least, being a nice person goes a long way!

It’s clear you’re very close to the science still – how much of it is related to what you did in your PhD and postdoc?

It’s an interesting question. As you know, I did my PhD at Cancer Research UK in cell biology in the neuroscience field, I was working on the interaction of a receptor with a toxin and developed a peptide inhibitor that can step in between and hopefully stop the toxin from interacting with the cells. As a part of that work, I did quite a bit of molecular biology, sequencing – pretty much all of the basic techniques used in cancer research. Plus, this was Cancer Research UK, so I also had a lot of exposure to what is happening at the forefront of cancer research.

And then, I went on to do a postdoc at King’s College, where I still did neuroscience but worked on a protein that is a very well-known oncogene, also important for brain development. So I learned quite a lot about cell proliferation, division, growth as well as important techniques, such as flow cytometry and sequencing. Funnily my background in neuroscience is by no means a disadvantage, as a lot of the oncology biotech CSOs are actually ex-neuroscientists. I think it’s because, with neuroscience, it’s very difficult to enter into an entrepreneurial space, it’s just too complicated and thus unaffordable for a spin out. So, a lot of these people with an entrepreneurial spirit will end up in oncology since it is booming, and all you need to know is how cells work.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

I’m close enough to patients to see some of the drugs that I helped test preclinically perform in the clinic. That is incredibly rewarding. I really hope that what we are doing here is accelerating research so that more drugs can reach the clinics and they will be better suited for the patients. Getting to that all important ‘so what’ question, is why am I even getting up in the morning to work.

Another thing I enjoy is working in a stakeholder-client relationship. It’s actually a very diplomatic challenge. I really enjoy finding solutions to problems that ultimately get the best possible deal for both the client and my company. It’s such an intricate skill that I still don’t always get right – because you have the personalities also to tailor this to. But I really, really enjoy it.

Finally, the third thing is that I love data, and I have so much data coming in that I don’t have to work for; it’s incredible! All the work is done by others in the lab, and it is done incredibly efficiently because of the industrial setting and the number of people. I get up in the morning, and I have data in my inbox to analyze.  

What do you see the main challenges in your role as?

One challenge is that, to get everyone to be happy, you need the right experiment for the right price in the right timeframe, answering the right question. But first of all, you have to get the client to have one question because there are normally ten – and that is impossible. So, it’s definitely a challenge to make the most out of the potential funding with the timeline, models and the different types of study we have available. But that’s very much specific to this area of work.

The other challenge is the lack of ownership of the project. If I was an academic, I could say I’m very close to curing this and that, but I’m not. I’m in a supportive service role. At the end of the day, I can make recommendations, but it’s going to go somewhere where I don’t have an overview beyond that. In reality, it’s their data, and they get to do what they want with it. But the majority of the clients are happy to take us on really as a part of their teams. So, it’s not something that is felt every single day.

The other one during covid is that this role is so communication and people orientated, and seeing people in 2-D only for two and a half years now has its own challenges. As a big part of this job is going out and meeting the clients: having dinner, going to conferences, going to really cool companies. That’s been a challenge, I think, for everyone during COVID. But I’ve just been to benevolent.ai in London, and it looks like a San Francisco start-up; it was so good to be out of the garden office.

Do you think you will be back to travelling more now?

I hope so! I think we have to just make the most out of it when the cases are low. I live in London, but the majority of my clients are in Cambridge or Oxford. These are day trips that are easy to do as long as the client allows visitors and, if they don’t, we get creative. So, for example, I’ve had a lunch in a farmhouse with no walls with air circulating – so we could see each other face to face. The conferences, I think, are feeling the hit as not everyone is ready to travel yet, which means you’re getting less interaction than maybe you normally would before covid. But this is the new reality we live in.

Do you think there is anything we did not talk about that is really important?

I did get the job through serendipity, but I met my future employer at a consultancy course run by UCL. So, I think it’s quite important to go to these additional activities. If for nothing else, just to find out about yourself, so like what are the things that generally excite you. And then, in terms of the CV, don’t do five pages. It hurt me a lot the first time I had to cut it down to a single page, but now I think how could I ever have had anything longer than a single page. If you know people who have left academia and they are working in a role that you think might be interesting, just be reckless and reach out and ask every question you possibly can. This is basically how we all got our jobs. So happy to pass on the favour. It shows straight away on the CV when someone doesn’t have the business sense yet.

So your advice is to go beyond the lab and do additional activities?

Yes. So, I did get some comments about not being committed enough to my lab work. But I’m so glad I did do them. First of all, I identified things I didn’t enjoy so much or didn’t want to be doing until the end of my life. And I also learned about things in terms of what I might like. There wasn’t a business development course, but there were lots of different courses that made me realize that these are my major drivers and strengths. And this is the direction I want to go into. And on your CV you can put these courses to evidence your interest in and knowledge of industry.  The candidate’s business sense or industry sense is really important for the industry. And whoever you look up to, and is in a role you’d like, look them up on LinkedIn. Don’t copy – but just use their profile as inspiration for your profile. The majority of people outside academia get their job on LinkedIn. Now I have no need to apply, as the companies have head-hunters and recruit business development professionals directly from LinkedIn.

One final question: you brought up earlier your family, and that work-life balance was an important consideration for you. Did you find the move improved that?

I was always the one who left the lab the earliest, and wouldn’t be available for the cheese club. I also wouldn’t be able to work over the weekend, as my husband works over the weekend. Because I wasn’t always present, I always felt like I was not performing as high as I should – despite publishing well. I was really torn about this, as someone can have a brilliant idea while taking a shower at home. But, of course, the hands-on lab work is a different matter; you can’t do a western blot if you aren’t physically there. My current job is performance-based. So as long as you are efficient and can do your work successfully, nobody cares at all what time you go into your garden shed office and leave your garden shed office. And the other thing is there is no hands-on work here, so I am not committed to starting an experiment and then finishing it.

I highly recommend this job for anyone who loves science but not hands-on science – and wants to have flexibility but also wants to work hard. It is a competitive environment, you do need to perform, but it’s not driven by time.

Kinga can be contacted on LinkedIn.

EMBL fellows and staff members can find and contact former staff/fellows working in business development, and other, roles via the EMBL Alumni Directory. Please see our article on informational interviews for ideas on how to make the most of such opportunities.

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The EMBL Fellows' Career Service incorporates the EMBL Interdisciplinary Postdoc (EIPOD) career development programme. EI3POD and EIPOD4 have received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreements 664726 (2015-2020) and 847543 (2019-present) respectively.