Interview with Bhavna Hunjan, Head of Corporate Strategy and Development at C4X Discovery

What is your role at C4XD? What does it incorporate?

In a nutshell, my overall responsibility at C4XD is to seek out opportunities that will make a positive, and material, impact to the Company. It can vary from the financial impact to the balance sheet or P&L statement via deals or financing, or the operational impact of adding exciting technologies or capabilities through strategic partnerships or M&A. The types of opportunities I seek are aligned with our company strategy, which I also have a hand in crafting as part of the Executive Team.

More specifically, my remit sits across business development (licensing and strategic partnerships), corporate strategy (including M&A), commercial intelligence, investor relations and external communications. It's broad, exciting and keeps me incredibly motivated.

How did you come to work at C4XD and how has your role evolved since you first joined?

I grew up in a close, business-minded family and always knew I wanted to combine my passion for business strategy and growth, with my love for life sciences. I had the fortune to study Biochemistry at Oxford University where I achieved First Class Honours - the experience was challenging but formative, and it sparked a lifelong interest in life sciences. Each of the choices I've made since then, and throughout my nearly 15 year career, have therefore always been driven by a desire to gain further experience, skills and knowledge that form the foundation of the type of role I'm in at C4XD.

My first job was at Lehman Brothers on the fixed income trading floor. This was a baptism of fire - I leaped from my day-to-day language focussing on glycosphingolipids and nucleocapsids to interest rate swaptions and Basel II in less than 10 days! I also then lived through the bank's insolvency (an experience in itself) prior to joining Nomura Plc, the investment bank that acquired the European Lehman Brothers business. My experience in banking greatly influenced me. I quickly learnt to thrive in high pressure situations, build productive business relationships, negotiate, and execute bespoke transactions. I also experienced the fast-pace of the Capital Markets and City life, which have driven me to a proactive, impact-led mindset.

Following this, I went into strategic consulting, first in an advisory capacity at PwC and then in an inhouse capacity at Cancer Research UK. Across these two roles, I worked on a huge variety of projects from new product launch, regulatory affairs, digital investment, NHS reform, precision medicine, and clinical research. The most important aspects I learnt during this part of my career was how to be solution, rather than problem, focussed, the importance of a well-informed point of view, and how to utilise all the expertise and resources I had to hand to explore options and identify a route forward.

Together these experiences have all proved to be vitally important to my role at C4XD. I initially joined the company in 2016 as a Senior Corporate Strategy Manager and quickly stepped up to my current role of Head of Corporate Strategy and Development. At first, my work focussed on strategy development as the company transitioned from a technology platform to a drug discovery engine and, although I continuously help to evolve our strategy, I now always have an eye on execution.

Has COVID-19 affected business development?

I think the true impact of COVID-19 across all aspects of business and non-working life is yet to play out. If we reflect on the circa six month history we can refer to, I believe that the economic impact will be profound, with initial calls for a V-shape recovery seeming premature. Like everything, it's important to look behind the headline figures and contemplate the detail - for example, the S&P 500 may look like it has bounced back, but sitting behind that is the reality that some sectors have thrived (for example, internet and food retail) whilst others have been decimated like retail, travel and oil & gas. This is alongside a backdrop of the lowest Bank of England base rate in history, negative UK GDP growth, and exceptionally high US unemployment.

This is important for our sector as, despite benchmark biotech and pharma indices now showing little / no year-on-year negative change, it is comprised of a hugely broad group of companies with diverse financing strategies, portfolios and management styles. Therefore, the impact of COVID-19 on these businesses will be vastly different too. For example, those reliant on in-silico technologies and in-vitro / cell testing are likely to be less impacted than those in the midst of large clinical trials where patient recruitment has / had ceased to be possible.

This all feeds into business development activities as in-licensing demand is intrinsically linked to risk appetite, long-term financial stability and portfolio progress. In any licensing deal, all parties want the asset(s) to reach the market and become a success. Some pharma companies may maximise on the situation, double-down and aggressively build their portfolios and capabilities, whilst others may choose a more cautious route to focus resources on internal projects.

Personally, from my own experience of the last six months I have witnessed a resilient and talented sector thrive in the face of adversity. Business Development activities have continued, albeit remotely / digitally, and those companies on the hunt for innovation have made efforts to ensure their needs are heard. Some fantastic deals have been signed during this period, and I hope this trend continues.

How are you currently communicating with potential partners during this time? What has worked well?

The biotechnology and pharmaceutical sectors are truly global businesses. Prior to the widespread COVID-19 lockdown, a large quantum of Business Development interactions already took place across time zones on phone and video conferences. That said, face-to-face meetings were particularly helpful when making first contact with new companies as its easier and more effective to build rapport quickly in-person. As such, the well-established BIO-Europe Spring and BIO conferences have historically been invaluable to licensors and licensees alike.

Since lockdown, these renowned conferences have taken place digitally. I have been surprised by how efficiently the organisers have successfully adapted to lockdown restrictions and pleased to see the positive spirit within the sector in engaging with the new platforms. Despite some of the inevitable initial glitches with software compatibility, internet bandwidth and video conferencing etiquette, Business Development communication continues as close to normal as we can currently hope, I'm sure the next multinational in-person networking event will be a welcome milestone for all though - I look forward to the bubbles!

What are the main challenges the businesses are facing during this time and are there any activities that are impossible in a virtual worls?

 Finance and liquidity, crisis management and strategic protection of business growth are likely to be challenges felt already across many businesses both within our sector and in other industries. Personally, I believe a challenge that is likely to transform business longer-term is the way in which companies will need to adapt interactions with their workforces. Although the theories of creating organisational structures that drive positive culture have been around for a while (moving from hierarchies to flat or holacratic structures), the COVID-19 pandemic has forced companies to consider how to protect their people with a level of empathy I don't believe has existed before. Although this is immensely challenging given the diversity that exists in any workforce, getting it right now is likely to have a hugely positive impact on future generations. I hope it does anyway.

Thinking about activities that might seem impossible in a virtual world - I have a tendency to think positively, so I don't believe there are any. Business interactions have continued, legal transactions have been executed, large financing rounds and IPOs have completed, and recruitment continues to be successful. Technology, coupled with more human patience and adaptation, has enabled this and is likely to continue to improve.

What do you think the lasting effects will be to business development in the future?

In essence, this depends on how long the pandemic lasts, whether we see multiple peaks and how different governments choose to adapt to these peaks, the availability of an effective vaccine and numerous other factors that cannot be predicted. Business Development is long-term strategy for growth. For example, if a company in-licenses a pre-clinical asset, they are committing to multimillion pound spend for multiple years before they may potentially start to reap returns. It's a risky business. In a scenario of repeated lockdowns and a continuously stagnating or declining economy, companies may shrink back from these higher-risk activities. In an alternate scenario of an effective vaccine being made available quickly and risk-appetite returning, there may be a material uplift in licensing activities as positive investment sentiment drives buoyancy in the sector. It's not possible to
predict right now.

What advice do you have for those who are working in strategic decision making and business development at this time?

First and foremost, protect your workforce and your clients. Their health and wellbeing supersede the bottom-line, but it is likely to also drive greater loyalty in the long-term. This includes honouring your contracts where possible to reduce the negative impact of the pandemic on other businesses 􀍴 this will put you in good stead when preparing for recovery.

Secondly, focus on long-term competitive positioning and building future shareholder value. This includes continuing to invest in R&D, keeping an eye on acquisition opportunities, and prudently managing current cash to maintain the company's financial health.

Finally, communicate with your loyal investors clearly and reassure them of your long-term growth, revenue potential and market positioning. In these volatile times, being transparent and honest is likely to generate longer-term trust and allow investors to make more fact-based decisions on their own portfolios.

But overall, have faith, search for pragmatic solutions and stay connected.

"The most important aspects I learnt during this part of my career was how to be solution, rather than problem, focussed, the importance of a well-informed point of view, and how to utilise all the expertise and resources I had to hand to explore options and identify a route forward."

Bhavna Hunjan
Head of Corporate Strategy and Development
C4X Discovery