BioStrata is putting the strategy into life science communications
Paul Avery and Clare Russell explain why success in the sector is not only about R&D
What prompts two scientists with PhDs to their names to give up life on the bench and start a marketing and communications company?
Within a few minutes of talking to Paul Avery and Clare Russell, of Histon-based BioStrata, the answer becomes clear: life science marketing is in their genes.
With a passion for discussing science and connecting companies to potential customers, they feel they can make a substantial difference without putting their lab coats on.
And as they explain their story, they reveal how many businesses in the life science sector are missing a trick by not telling theirs.
“I found I was more excited by talking about the science than the actual bench work so that led me to seek a role in communications,” says Paul, who followed a degree in genetics and a PhD in molecular biology from the University of Cambridge with research into the pathology of arthritis and the study of gene regulation during fruit fly development.
“My background is immunology,” says Clare, who was a medical researcher in a clinical lab at the QE Hospital in Birmingham. “I loved the lab work and the fact that it was patient-focused but I’m also a people person and I like engaging and networking. When you do research, you become an expert in that area but you don’t always get to see the bigger picture.”
The pair worked for a number of communications agencies, including spells together, before founding BioStrata in 2014.
Now it represents clients from start-ups to global corporates, with about 60 per cent of its business outside the UK, across mainland Europe and the United States.
This experience spans firms working in areas such as research instruments, reagents and tools, as well as biotechs, pharma companies, agrichem, contract service providers, diagnostic developers, food analysis specialists, medical device manufacturers and more.
“We wanted to be results-focused,” says Paul. “Everybody would say that and there are a lot of great agencies out there. But many have specialisms in certain pockets. They might be search engine optimisation agencies, or public relations specialists.
“One risk with that approach is that you can end up seeing every problem as one that can be solved by what you can do. So if you’re an SEO agency, everything becomes an SEO problem.
“Marketing has got so complex over the last five years in terms of the strategies and tactics you can use, so we always try to turn everything on its head and ask: What are the results the company needs to achieve and how can we build a strategic and tactical plan to deliver against those results?
“It’s a lofty vision and it’s meant we’ve had to grow quite a big, multi-disciplinary team quite quickly.”
The BioStrata team of 21 boasts eight PhDs, two MScs and others with a range of industrial lab experience, alongside a combined 100 years-plus experience in marketing, with digital, writing, PR and social media skills.
Paul says they’ve needed a “rock solid” recruitment process and an industry leading training and mentoring scheme.
“We’ve hired some amazing people – and that’s where Cambridge comes in. There’s a great talent pool to hire from. For example, our new director of digital services had a senior digital strategy role at Argos. For a niche agency to attract someone like that is a real win,” he says.
BioStrata’s approach to helping clients begins, appropriately enough, with research.
Clare explains: “We tend to go through a discovery process. What do they want to achieve and who do they need to communicate to? We want to be very strategic with what we do. Sometimes it’s quite easy to press go on a programme. We would rather take a step back and understand exactly what we want to achieve.
“That’s where BioStrata came from – the biosciences aspect and seeing a project from multiple levels.”
Paul says: “The first part is the funnel diagnosis, where you’ve got people who aren’t in your sales funnel and haven’t heard of you. We look at how to help you raise awareness of your offering, create demand, generate leads and push people through your funnel.
“There are a number of tactics: public relations, paid advertising, social media, email marketing and producing content for a brand to position their experts as thought leaders.
“If you’ve honed the message and the story, the people you are targeting will naturally see that your company’s offer is for them.
“After that, you might look at lead generation. That’s where you have people who know about you but you don’t know about them and turn them into contacts that you bring through your sales process. In the digital age, that’s predominantly about getting them on your website and having conversion mechanisms.
“For companies that don’t have big contact databases, we will undertake programmes that focus on awareness and lead generation to fill their database with relevant people.
“If they have a database, we will look at how well they are leveraging it. They might have 10,000 relevant contacts who never turn into customers – why is that? What can we do to improve conversion?”
Clare adds: “Our real strength is bringing the science element back in. Companies don’t have to over-explain to us.”
“We could see the world was changing,” adds Paul. “The flip is from marketing with a sledgehammer or a megaphone – ‘Buy from me! Buy from me!’ – which is about being in front of people, to marketing with a magnet to draw the right people to you, by adding value for them as part of your sales process. The evolution we see is companies producing content that delivers value to their prospects before they’ve engaged with them or sold something, so that when someone is ready to buy, they’ll buy from you.
“It adds new tactics to the mix – like blogging and building your own following as a brand – and changes how you use traditional tactics.
“So where you might use things like banner advertising to promote products, instead you could have a banner ad that says ‘Read this ebook that helps with this challenge’..
“By targeting the 40-50 per cent who are interested in the challenge, rather than the two per cent who want to buy it right now, you can catch more people’s attention.
“But with widespread adoption of this approach we’re going to end up with ‘content shock’. Everybody tries to produce content and become this inbound magnet to attract people in. They will become overwhelmed with options. We need to find ways to make our content stand out.
“Ironically, it’s becoming about more detailed, hyper-relevant, informative content – like you’ve got in your publication – so you can be the source people turn to and own the niche of information that people want to access. This is only just starting to catch on in the life sciences.”
Clare adds: “You could get lost in all the content you can consume on the internet.
“Publishers have a really nice way of collating content around areas.
“It’s been challenging over the last five years where there has been so much digital focus. A lot of quality print publications have had to really think about their strategy for their business model. But these things do tend to happen in cycles and it will come back around again.”
“That’s why our PR and writing teams are still our biggest teams,” adds Paul. “We put the interesting, valuable content that puts the audience first at the middle of our approach. Then it’s about what channels you can leverage to get the content in front of your prospects. Working closely with publishers to produce great content for an audience is still an excellent mechanism to deliver information to people and build trust and awareness in your brand.”
We won’t argue with that point…
“Now you’ve also got your website and social media, so it makes sense to put your content at the middle and use all of those to promote your expertise too,” says Paul.
In 2018, BioStrata aims to expand its team and its client base in Cambridge and beyond.
“Many of us got into science because through research we can improve the world,” says Paul.
“Now that we’re not on the bench anymore we still want to play an important role. Our role is to connect people, ensuring the flow of technology. If people have never heard of the technology, they won’t buy it. If they don’t understand or trust it, they won’t buy it.
“Because the technologies people come up with are so smart and cool, there is almost an expectation that they will become virally well known. It doesn’t happen for most.
“If you don’t undertake a strategic marketing and communications programme, I worry some amazing technologies will fall by the wayside.”
He says that while B2B companies will typically spend 7.5-15 per cent of their revenue on marketing and communications, in the life science sector some will spend less than one per cent – and often start too late.
“As you move towards your next investment round, you can’t start telling your story a month before,” he says. “You need to start a year before. There is a social proof element to all this – if people are talking about you, that kicks in. If I’ve never heard of you, is there a reason?”
A more welcome trend in the sector is increasing collaboration with academia.
Clare says: “One of the main drivers was that drugs were coming off patent for pharmaceutical companies and drug discovery was becoming phenomenally expensive.
“Everyone was having to be really innovative in how they fuelled their drug discovery programmes.
“That started to drive collaborations in early-stage research with academia.
“There was also a real shift with how big pharmaceuticals worked with CROs (contract research organisations), and many outsourced parts of the drug discovery process.”
Paul observes: “You can take more risk when you collaborate with academia.
“A lot of what academia is doing is trying to be on the edge of innovation. Pharma has to manage risk. If you can mix them, there’s a real recipe for magic.”
With its mix of scientific expertise and marketing and communications skills, BioStrata looks to be creating some magic of its own.