Kelly Gelinne, our Director of Marketing, sat down with Geoffrey Banks, Ph.D., Nuventra’s Founder and Chief Executive Officer. Geoff founded Nuventra in 2008 and has led the company since then as both CEO and as a principal consultant. He has over 20 years of extensive experience in large pharma, biotechnology, and specialty pharma, and an established track record of clinical, regulatory, and entrepreneurial success.
Geoff has served as a clinical pharmacology consultant and corporate R&D advisor to over 300 companies that range from venture-backed startup biotech companies through large multinational pharmaceutical companies.
Tell us about your career path and how Nuventra was founded
Geoffrey: I did my Ph.D. in Biochemistry. Then, I went out and did a postdoc at NIH, and decided that laboratory work wasn’t best suited for my skill set. So, I decided to move into the pharma industry. At that point, I started at a small CRO—sort of like Nuventra is today in terms of its size. I got some experience early on in that CRO working on clinical pharmacology Phase I studies.
Early on in my career I met a pharmacokinetics consultant that I later started Nuventra with — Bill Wargin. I went from that CRO to a new position at a pharmaceutical company called Salix here in North Carolina. I got a tremendous amount of experience there, as well as some late phase experience, but I really enjoyed working on the early phase healthy volunteer type studies. So much so, that when Bill came in as a pharmacokinetics consultant to Salix, he and I were talking and he had an opportunity for me to go into consulting with him. He was the one who got me my first opportunity with a client.
The client was looking for an individual with my skill set to help fill in the gaps as they were starting to build out their clinical group and so, I left Salix on a Friday afternoon and on a Monday walked into a consulting role with my first client, thanks to Bill. And Bill had a quite large consulting practice at the time and he was able to give me some overflow work, and so that’s essentially how Nuventra started.
There wasn’t a grand scheme to build Nuventra into a large consulting firm. It was, as I like to say, sort of a perfect storm of an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up — working with Bill’s overflow work that he provided and my first client ready to go — I knew that I had the skills and the confidence to be able to work as a consultant. And essentially from there, we started to grow the business. We realized that we had an opportunity to create something larger with Nuventra than we were as individual consultants. Together, Bill and I, took advantage of that and continued onto where we are today, which is much larger than I anticipated at the beginning.
Tell us about the biggest challenge you faced at Nuventra so far
Geoffrey: You know, they don’t teach business skills in scientific Ph.D. level courses in graduate school. Coming in as a scientist, my focus was on doing the consulting work, working with clients, and helping them on their drug development programs – but I also had to run a business. And I think that’s one of the things that worked well between Bill and I. He wanted to focus on the science and didn’t want to have to run the business side of things. So, I took it upon myself to quite honestly just figure out how to run a consulting business and build the different things that we needed in order to make the business successful. I wore a lot of hats at the beginning of the company. Pretty much everything you can think of from IT, to legal, to scientific, and everything else. Now, I have slowly started to (sort of) take those hats off.
So, the biggest challenge was just learning how to function in the business world after coming from a scientific background.
What do you like and dislike about consulting?
Geoffrey: I think one thing (that is a two-edged sword) is the variety of consulting. As a consultant you get to see so many different drug programs and different approaches. But even beyond that, when you work with clients, you get to understand how all these different companies do things just a little bit differently. It’s a very interesting perspective and insight into the pharma industry, and I’ve worked with clients all over from 2-person startups to multinationals. Just the amount I’ve learned from being able to support their drug programs over the years is amazing.
But the other side of that sword is never knowing what’s coming in the door tomorrow. You might have a plan to do a particular project tomorrow, and that could be thrown out the window because you have another client that needs your help.
A great example of this that I remember was a couple of years ago a client reached out with an email on a Saturday and said, “we have to respond to the FDA by Monday. Can you help?” And as I started to look at it, I realized the FDA was asking for a tremendous amount of information that this client hadn’t actually developed in their program yet. And so, I took my Sunday afternoon and worked with them to try to answer as much as we could for the agency. It basically took my weekend away from me. But what happened is, it ended up being such a huge client for the company and really an interesting program in oncology that eventually had quite the potential to help patients as well.
The nice thing about putting in the hard work is getting to see the payoff when drugs get approved and to see that we’re making a difference.
How do you think COVID-19 will impact the future of drug development?
Geoffrey: Certainly, the COVID pandemic is such a terrible global emergency right now. I think, hopefully, with the rollout of the vaccines that we’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s interesting, we’ve had to learn a number of different ways to function in the midst of this pandemic, and I’m leaning a lot on technology right now. I’m hopeful that some of the lessons we’ve learned and some of the techniques we’ve implemented to get us through this time will continue because, quite honestly, the pharma industry is a little bit rooted in the past.
There are obviously regulations and specific guidelines we have to follow, but a lot of things we do are because that’s just the way it’s been done forever. It can be very slow and arduous, and I think what this pandemic has shown us is there’s a lot of things that we can do to speed up drug development without compromising the safety of the studies that we need to do.
The vaccines are a great example—to have a vaccine from concept to rollout in less than a year is just unbelievable. A lot of the things we do at Nuventra, such as the types of modeling and simulation and other techniques that we use, really help reduce the amount of time and effort that goes into an R&D program to get a drug approved. So, I’m hopeful that all of this will lead to a much more efficient use of technology and that we don’t go back to the way things were, but that we keep looking ahead and continue trying to come up with even better strategies to improve drug development.
And really, at the end of the day, like we saw with the vaccines coming out for COVID, the goal is to get them to patients as soon as possible.
What advice would you give to a new scientist in the industry?
Geoffrey: There are two things that I can think of. Making as many contacts as you can by interacting with as many people as you can early in your career. And the other one is, don’t pass up opportunities. Take advantage of opportunities that are presented to you.
If I think about my time in the industry, it’s a very small industry, and it is about who you know and getting to connect beyond just a LinkedIn connection. It’s important to get to know as many people as you can and not just within your company, but also with third-party vendors and consultants too. Because down the road, people move around and I’ve been fortunate to be on the receiving end of a request from someone I met early-on in my career. For example, Bill, who wanted to help me get started in consulting.
And so, just having connections and word of mouth is really important to be able to cultivate relationships and keep in touch with people along the way. And the other side of that is, taking advantage of opportunities that are presented to you. I could have waited longer until I had more experience to start consulting. I didn’t have a tremendous amount of experience when I started Nuventra, but I knew I had just enough to be able to move into consulting and do well. I had people who told me that consulting probably wasn’t a good idea and that I should be more careful, but I just couldn’t pass it up. I had to take advantage of it and even though I had four kids, one who was four months old at the time, when I started consulting (and again, I could have waited), but it just seemed like it was at the opportune time to do it.
And so, I’d say, there’s going to be those opportunities that might be a bit of a stretch but take advantage of them. Take some risks and, you know, it might work out.
Kelly: Tell us what you do in your free time.
Geoffrey: A lot of running. I like to participate in 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons, and play a lot of tennis. I just got into bike riding recently as well. I think it was probably a result of the pandemic since all the gyms are closed. Getting outside and just enjoying the outdoors is really how I like to spend my free time.
Kelly: That’s great. Well thanks so much for your insights today, Geoff.
If you have any questions for Geoff or for any of our other consultants, please don’t hesitate to contact us.