Biotech finance: from IB to VC / HF to funded startup

I worked in the healthcare IB group of a lower-tier BB, then was a biotech analyst at a $1.8B late-stage VC / growth equity fund / public equity fund, then founded a venture-backed biotech startup. I've also worked in advisory and BD roles with several startups and in finance and BD at Google's life sci subsidiary. I currently live in the Bay Area and do consulting and advisory work for biotech startups. I don't have a science background.

I used this site back when I was recruiting, and checked back in recently and saw some questions about biotech. I've written some "biotech finance 101" articles for scientist-friends trying to get into finance, and figured I'd adapt that material for finance people looking to learn more about biotech.

This post is about the most fundamental finance skill that is unique to pre-rev biotech: forecasting a P&L for an unapproved drug. If you work in biotech IB now, this will be basic for you. If you are in IB in a non-biotech group, this stuff should be pretty straightforward. If people are interested I may write posts on basic valuation techniques for IB, intermediate valuation skills that are relevant for ER and late-stage buyside roles (VC, PE, HF) and advanced valuation skills relevant for all of the above, plus early-stage VC or startup roles.

I have loved working in this space. Because it is still relatively undiscovered, even if you don't have much experience you can work with some of the smartest people in the world, and on technology that can seem like science fiction. I work with people who are turning human blood cells into eggs, designing synthetic proteins that activate neurons in response to magnetic force, and engineering custom organisms to cure cancer, fight infection, and make beer.

It is a very unstructured and non-traditional path. It is not for everyone, but if it is for you, then you won't be happy doing anything else.

Forecasting P&L for development stage biopharma

Your first "toe in the water" of biotech finance will likely be forecasting the P&L for a pre-revenue drug company. Like most other things in banking, the math here is pretty easy, and the challenge lies in making good estimates and assumptions. This is the first thing that got me interested in biotech - I felt like making these models was much more intellectually interesting than doing 10 high yield refi models for acute care companies.

Basically, take the same P&L model template you use for any other industry, and insert a bunch of rows above your revenue line. You will do a detailed revenue build, starting with number of patients the drug is designed to treat, then layering on pricing, then estimating an adoption curve.

Revenue build

An easy way to get a feel for this is to look at equity research reports for pre-revenue biotech companies. Many will lay out the revenue build. This requires no science knowledge to understand, though you'll need to learn a few terms like incidence and prevalence, and you'll get familiar with concepts like different subpopulations of disease, lines of therapy / treatment algorithms, how to read prescribing info, get introduced to drug pricing, basic concepts like royalties and gross to net discounts, etc. Most of this info can be found by googling.

A basic formula is:

  • Start with the population of your geography of interest (ie # of people in the US)
  • Then layer on the epidemiology data - incidence and prevalence - to estimate how many of these people have the disease
  • Then layer on any filters for subpopulations - are you targeting patients who have failed two previous lines of therapy? Patients with a particular genetic mutation? Patients exhibiting certain symptoms?
  • Then filter for accessible patients. How many of these patients are diagnosed? How many see a doctor regularly? How many have insurance that will cover the treatment?
  • Then filter for how many patients will be treated
  • Then filter for how many patients will be treated with your drug, vs another drug
  • Then multiply by price per patient (you should look at gross and net pricing, ie including discounts to insurance companies, wholesalers and retailers)

In most cases, you can get pretty reasonable estimates for "peak sales" if you do this.

Uptake / market penetration curve

The hardest part of revenue modeling is usually predicting uptake / sales trajectory. You have an estimate for peak revenue, and you know revenue starts at zero before the drug is approved, but what happens in between?

Investors commonly get this wrong - even investors who specialize in funding drug launches. I know some investors that, for rare diseases where only ~50 physicians treat the disease of interest (yes, you can develop billion+ dollar drugs treating these rare diseases), will call all 50 physicians and ask how many patients they treated in the quarter. These same investors have made terrible calls estimating launches for drugs in bigger markets (Regeneron's Praluent is a classic example of the market being very wrong on a prominent drug launch).

It can help to look at the market from the bottom up. How many physicians treat this disease, how many patients does they typical physician see, and what are the alternative treatments. For a good launch, you need a drug that is meaningfully better for patients than the standard of care - otherwise physicians won't prescribe it, and insurance companies won't pay for it. If you have a good drug, then you want to see what kind of sales force the company can afford, and how many physicians that sales force can reach.

You won't be expected to have the right answer to this in IB. You'll likely benchmark some similar launch curves, or do some basic sensitivities around management's assumptions. You'll also probably look at data sources like IMS Health's prescription tracking database.

This will give you your basic post-launch topline.

Cost of approval

Then you need to model what it will take to get the drug approved. This article is a pretty good starting point for understanding how long each stage of drug development lasts, what it costs to get through each stage, and the probability of success at each stage (it is a paywalled Nature article, although you can see the relevant figures). For more detail on the drug development process, FDA's website has an overview of drug development for patients that is written in approachable terms.

You'll want to refine your estimates based on the disease the company is treating, their trial design, and several other variables. If they are developing a cardiovascular drug, they will likely need to conduct large Phase 3 studies with thousands of patients to get approval. If they are developing a drug to treat a life-threatening rare disease, they may be able to get FDA approval with studies of only a few dozen patients.

Look at the company's investor presentation or SEC filings to get a sense of what their specific path to FDA approval is. If they aren't public, look at public companies developing products to treat the same disease. You can also look through clinicaltrials.gov to see the kinds of studies that other companies did. Google is also your friend.

Then you need to estimate probability of success. Probability of success varies widely based on stage of drug, disease, quality of preclinical disease models, and types of patients you enroll in your studies.

This is impossible to do accurately, which is why you see some biotech stocks going up 100%+ -- or going to zero - overnight when study results are released. Whether your guess is better than the market's is usually close to a coin flip.

Being good at this is probably the single most valuable skill you can have in biotech, and the reason funds like to hire PhDs, who can get into excruciating scientific detail to assess how likely it is that a drug works. If you are just a banking analyst and aren't putting millions of dollars behind your estimates, you can either use the company's estimate, or use this article as a starting point.

How to learn this

The best way to learn this, other than talking to the biotech team at your firm, is to read equity research reports for pre-revenue biotech companies, read investor presentations, and SEC filings. Google anything you don't understand.

Try to identify which assumptions in the equity research models are BS - most valuations in biotech right now are at levels that can't be explained by fundamentals (ie there is a lot of strategic value / M&A speculation baked into a lot of prices), so many ER models that aren't sell recommendations (ie most of them) will probably have some holes, and some of the holes may be large.

Once you get a sense of the terminology and basic techniques, try building your own models using just SEC filings and google (and maybe the investor presentations).

The next step after this is to learn how to value the cash flows you forecast using these techniques. Then, it's all about diligence and getting good inputs into your models -- reviewing clinical data, talking to doctors, reading regulatory documents, and reading scientific papers. Happy to write about these topics if there is interest.

Comments (8)

Oct 16, 2018

Appreciate the time you took to write this out. Definitely a helpful resource! +1 SB

Oct 17, 2018

Did you study biotech / biology in undergrad / grad school?

Oct 17, 2018

No, I was an econ major and didn't take any biology courses. I mostly learned from colleagues, and from experience managing R&D projects at startups.

I think there are two aspects of a bio education: theoretical and experimental. You can get some of the theoretical part by just reading clinical data and scientific papers until you understand enough to have an intelligent conversation with a doctor or scientist, then talking to lots of doctors and scientists, then repeat indefinitely, learning a bit each time. Basically being very curious and not afraid to ask dumb questions. A good 30 minute discussion with an expert will teach you more than hours / weeks of reading papers

The experimental part is harder to get. I feel like there is a visceral understanding / intuition of how science is done that you can only get by plugging away in the lab. The only real way to get that is a PhD from what I can tell. The next best thing is by managing an R&D project -- you are one step removed from the lab work and see how the sausage is made, without having to make it. If you can't get a job like that, make a friend at a lab and ask him / her every week to tell you about their work, and ask tons of questions

If you have a PhD, you will be a world expert in one narrow area, but you won't know that much about other areas. A neuroscience PhD will probably not know that much about cancer genetics. The advantage of a PhD is that you are able to get through publications 100x faster than a non-PhD, and that you have that scientific intuition from years of lab work. But some PhDs are so used to being experts that they are afraid to ask dumb questions, which can inhibit their learning

A bio undergrad degree can help, but it won't give you that much of an edge unless you do relevant lab work and have some exposure to the biotech industry during undergrad.

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Oct 23, 2018

Really appreciate your writeup.
Could you elaborate on what routes you see for breaking in today? Undergrad, semi-target, bio major but signed to a MM Tech group for FT. Biopharma/Biotech genuinely excites me - both the science and corporate dynamics - and ideally where I'd like to play long-term

Would it make sense to pursue HC/Pharma/Life Sciences buy side from tech IB?
Do you recommend trying to lateral to a respected HC IB first? How practical would that be?
Really interested in where the pipeline of opportunity is for the industry today and how to bridge my experiences to get involved

Most Helpful
Oct 17, 2018

My experience getting to the buyside (in 2012) was pretty traditional -- through a headhunter. I also got other interviews through headhunters or connections that MDs in my group had to funds. So for that route, being in a good healthcare IB group is advantageous. But i got super lucky, back then you could probably count on one the number of large-ish biotech VCs that hired ppl straight from IB.

Today there are a decent number of hedge fund / public equity biotech jobs you can get from IB, there are even some late stage VCs that hire from IB, though not many. If you want to do early stage VC that's quite tough w/o a phd, though that's where the best opportunities have been the last few years (for all this i'm referring to biotech / biopharma, healthcare more broadly including services is a different world that im not as familiar with)

Overall i think being in a good HC IB group, or perhaps even better, a good HC ER group, are:

  • Hat in the ring for headhunters and funds that ask IB MDs they know to connect them w good analysts
  • Get some relevant deal experience and industry exposure, which can help with interviews
  • One less way for someone to rule out your resume

If you are in a non healthcare group you can still get in front of these positions but you need to network well and really show you 1) want to do biotech and 2) know how to invest in biotech.

Even if you are in HC IB, the thing that will get you from first interview to offer (and that will allow you to keep your job if hired) is demonstrating you have, or are developing, a good investment mindset. Always have stock pitches at the ready, and make sure they are good. Practice your pitches, get people who are smarter than you to challenge you, learn and improve. Talk to a few doctors or scientists about your pitch. If you can demonstrate that you can not only analyze investments well, but have an efficient and repeatable process for finding promising investments, even better. This you can do regardless of what IB team you are in but requires a lot of extra work on top of your day job, so you really need to enjoy it.

You can use this process of learning how to invest as a networking tactic as well. Connect with people at funds and send them some stock pitches, and ask for feedback. Focus on being very clear and very concise. Don't oversell. Add some value to their lives, show you are eager to learn. You can do this, or any other kind of networking, from any bank / group as well

If you learn how to invest and network really hard, you can get a buyside job at an HF from any group. Doesn't mean it's easy. Even coming from HC IB / ER it is difficult -- especially for VC. It is a fairly unstructured path, and you need patience and persistence. Many investors I know characterize their job search as less of finding a job, but a job finding them

I dont know how hard it would be for you to go from your tech group to an HC IB group. It may be better to do that, may be better to just try to directly network your way to the buyside, may be better to do HC ER, maybe even go to b school. But regardless of which path you choose, you will need to learn how to invest in biotech, and show people you know how to invest in biotech. So maybe get a few good stock pitches and then try to discuss them with people in IB, ER, HF etc

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Oct 18, 2018

Thanks so much for writing this up. Would love to hear more about the more advanced techniques you mentioned

Oct 19, 2018

This is super interesting and probably the most helpful write-up I've seen on WSO for HC-focused VC people in a loooong time.

Oct 19, 2018
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