Meet Ines Buth and Ludger Wess, Founders of akampion
Q: What was the idea behind akampion?
Ines: It all started with a discussion about the quality of corporate communications in the life sciences sector. We felt that many companies were either over-selling or under-representing their own assets and achievements. So we decided to offer our advice in developing sustainable, compelling corporate stories and business cases for our clients.
We joined forces when we had both reached a level in our careers where we had achieved almost everything we could at that point. I was Head of Investor Relations at Micromet (now Amgen), and we had just completed a very successful reverse-merger into a NASDAQ-listed company with former CancerVax. Being responsible for the global communications strategy and activities in the context of the reverse merger was exciting and tough at the same time. I spent approximately 2 weeks on the road every month, and travelled to the US at least once a month. Looking back, I’m deeply grateful that I had the opportunity to work with such a great team and that I was able to contribute to Micromet’s successful positioning over the past years, retaining them as a client until their recent acquisition by Amgen.
Ludger: When I was an editor with the German Financial Times, I closely followed the implosion of the dot.com and biotech bubbles in the year 2000, and ensuing fallout for high-tech companies. This was followed by the decryption of the human genome and the advent of nanotechnology, to name just a few developments. Once the markets recovered, investors returned to high-tech and, subsequently, laser technologies; nano- and biotech companies started to flourish again.
Being highly interested in biotechnology, I changed jobs to report on this industry for the trade magazine BioCentury. I sensed the insecurity of founders, CEOs and investors about how to build a sustainable business in this field, how to identify genuinely promising innovative approaches, and how to find exit opportunities. The changes in investor sentiments, ups and downs of companies, funds, and entire sectors in this industry kept me busy.
However, as I was looking for interesting stories, I was rarely inspired by the corporate communications materials offered by high-tech firms On average, I was sent around 100 press releases a day, most of which were boring and unable to communicate the information needed for a news-worthy story. High-tech companies failed to explain what their technology was actually going to solve. They claimed it was superior to existing solutions… but how? Which solutions were they really offering? And why were they worth investing in ?
In healthcare, drug companies were unable to define what the label of a new drug should look like. Would it be first-line, second-line therapy? What plans did the company have to address funders once regulators gave their approval? Websites were no help either. A few buzzwords, a generic mission statement – how did these companies expect to attract any investors, partners, customers – or the media?
It soon turned out that I was not alone in asking these questions. Investors frequently asked me whether I had recently come across any really interesting companies. Managers with big corporations confessed, off the record, that they were drowning in business proposals offering collaborations on new technologies and products, whose viability they were unable to assess from the communication materials they received.
Finally, after discussions with many people in my network, I sat down with Ines, and soon we got excited about the idea of setting up a business to address these deficits.
Q: What sets akampion apart from other communications consultancies?
Ludger: For one, there is clearly our extensive experience of having worked in the sector for decades. We have witnessed and analyzed so many changes and trends, so many successes and failures that we can provide thorough guidance to companies, but also to journalists and investors. In addition, we are very familiar with the culture within the media and companies. We are also passionate about science and innovation, and acutely aware that big changes lie ahead for financing and business models as well as for the healthcare system as a whole. In sum, we know the business inside and out and are therefore able to anticipate what lies ahead. And by analyzing and writing about it, we are a part of this development.
Ines: There are a number of things that distinguish us from other consultants and agencies. It’s not just the fact that we come from either a corporate background or journalism. It is the quality of our work – Ludger is a still a member of the National Association of Science Writers , while I am a member of the Life Science Committee of the Society of Investment Professionals in Germany (DVFA). You’re only accepted if you have a strong professional track record – both organizations are by invitation only.
As Ludger has already mentioned, our extensive network sets us apart – we have worked with so many different people over the years, ranging from journalists, investment bankers and seasoned CEOs to the heads of local industry organizations and even headhunters. Another key differentiator is the way we work. We have a strong background in communication and management techniques, such as storytelling, creative dialogue and scenario planning. Our clients are not “advised” by juniors or interns – which is exactly what many larger agencies do! Of course, we collaborate with freelancers and have two juniors who support our daily business – but at the end of the day, every document is checked and signed off on by us. We have been a team since 2006 – we believe that continuity is a key prerequisite for quality.
Q: So how do you work exactly?
Ines: We have offices in Berlin and Hamburg. Conferences and business travel also take up quite a lot of our time. When it comes to our daily work, Ludger and I are very complementary – not just regarding our professional background, but also with how we approach new projects. Ludger is very tech- and science-savvy and easily excited about new ideas, innovations etc. It’s usually me who asks: OK, so how can we put this all together? How can we position this? I keep challenging things. At the end of the day, we come up with results together that are much better than the ones we could have achieved individually.
Ludger: Frequently companies are so preoccupied with operational challenges, securing financing and finding partners that they fail to give corporate communications the necessary attention. Which is a mistake. People want to hear stories they can get excited about. If you want the attention of investors, partners and the media you need to do more than listing milestones, accomplishments and breakthroughs. You need to talk about the ups and downs, mistakes that were made, various obstacles you faced and how you mastered them. Only then will your audience become interested. Therefore, we first have to listen internally and ask all sorts of questions. Then we create relevant communications materials and craft narratives targeted towards a certain audience or, sometimes, even for a single journalist. These storylines are conveyed to the audience our client is interested in reaching, predominantly in one-to-one interactions with key opinion leaders. Thereby, we connect our clients with these people. It’s a highly dynamic and ongoing approach, but in the end it’s very effective in raising the visibility and credibility of a company. We call it the Triple C approach: create — convey — connect.
Q: What have been your most rewarding experiences so far?
Ludger: We had a customer whose researchers had already succeeded in developing an oral drug in an indication, which no one had thought possible. They then tried to repeat this achievement by developing it for a completely different indication. However, investors were very hesitant. So we drafted a presentation and on one slide plotted its development – patents and papers by the company and subsequently by third parties – on a time scale, to illustrate how the company’s discovery had developed from an outsider theory to mainstream, eventually generating blockbuster sales. In a second slide, we overlaid this graph with the situation in the novel indication to give investors a sense of what they might be missing out on if the did not join in. These two slides, we were told, had been the ones most investors demanded to see again. Eventually the company was able to close a $ >50million financing round, for the first time attracting US investors. In fact, it was one of the biggest financing rounds of a non-listed biotech company in Europe that year.
Ines: In my view, the most rewarding experiences are triggered by exceptional results. For example, we were able to position one of our clients, a medium-sized French nanomedicine company, in Wirtschaftswoche, Germany´s biggest financial magazine. They got a two-page article with pictures – for the first time, this put them on the radar of more than 800,000 readers, in particular managers, i.e. decision makers, and opinion leaders. Another example was a client who got very positive feedback from a number of potential corporate partners on the new website that we developed. Before then, this client had struggled to convey his story via his website, and we know from many people – investors, journalists, partners – that they often look at a company’s website prior to first contact.
One last example: I organized a roadshow in Switzerland for a client, a mid-cap US-listed company. At first, it was really hard to schedule meetings and get investors interested. We revised the teaser that was sent out and provided additional background information – and I made some informal calls to my network, which really helped a lot. In the end, we even got one-on-ones with some top-tier funds focusing primarily on large caps. It is possible to achieve excellent results with your communication activities. But you have to run a broader scope of activities and put more effort into it than most people would expect.
Q: Final question – which developments will have an impact on the European healthcare sector?
Ines and Ludger: In the European media, generalists have taken over; science and technology are paid less and less attention. Although the situation in the US is different, US media traditionally do not follow European, Indian, or Chinese developments closely. So there is a gap in reporting what goes on in the world. Our aim is to help close that gap. Besides, the European media sooner or later will be forced to report much more on research and development, in particular in healthcare, as the public is demanding more information. In the US, patients increasingly turn toward the media and the internet if they want to know more about a condition, a therapy proposed by their doctor and even about the doctor and the hospital they are planning to visit. Reports by the media have led the public to challenge medicine. And the European healthcare sector will inevitably have to change fundamentally, with trends towards personalized medicine and well-organized, self-confident patients who track their genes and data and who demand to be better informed. At present, no one is closely following these developments. That’s where we come in.