GapSummit 2018 – An International Conference in Leadership Development and Industry Innovation

By Max Kushner
PhD Candidate in the Tumor Biology Program

Weekly lab meetings and annual department-wide presentations teach us how to clearly and concisely talk about scientific hypotheses and data. Whether we’re presenting at poster sessions, chatting with fellow ‘lab rats’ about our day-to-day experiences/headaches, or delivering chalk talks for potential postdoc positions, the academic researcher’s skillset is invaluable and should be practiced at every opportunity. However, outside of the scientific conferences that we students attend, professional development and industry conferences offer unique insights into the outside world and have a different mission. 

Recently, I attended the GapSummit, Global Biotech Revolution’s annual intergenerational leadership development conference, that brought together leaders from the biotech and pharmaceutical industry, who ‘engaged, challenge and inspire the 100 Leaders of Tomorrow’ (LoT─ the name given to the selected early career stage attendees like myself). It was an incredible experience to hear from speakers such as Rick Klausner, former director of NCI, Paul Stoffels, CSO of Johnson & Johnson, Jane Osborn, Vice President of R&D at MedImmune, and many others about the technological, political, and philosophical Gaps that the biotech and pharmaceutical industry faces. More time was set aside for Q&A than didactic speeches, so us LoTs had the chance to ask questions to internationally diverse speakers. I was humbled at the accomplishments of fellow LoTs – biotech startup owners, professors, policy consultants, and students made up our international cohort. The diversity of experiences and expertise shined brightly throughout casual conversations, Q&A sessions, and breakout workshops over the three-day conference. Finally, the third day of the conference was the collaborative case competition that our teams had been working on for months. My group was selected as a finalist in the competition, and I had the opportunity to present our innovative Gap solution to a panel of judges in front of a crowd of 150+!

GapSummit emphasized different lessons about the biotech and pharmaceutical industry. First and foremost, the industry has varied stakeholders with diverse and sometimes opposing interests. Patients and physicians need treatments, business strategists need growth, policymakers need regulations that provide oversight, and financiers need profit. Moreover, the international marketplace has a diversity of needs that cannot be met by one company, strategy, or therapeutic. In hearing from many of the speakers, I learned that an R&D productivity Gap and Me Too product development is beginning to take a toll on the creation of new products and drugs, and that increasing drug affordability is intimately tied to accessibility and modifying current patent regulations. Overall, I learned that it’s complicated, and truly, the leaders of international biotech and pharmaceutical firms do not have all the answers and have only just started to identify the questions. A fellow LoT, Cecilia Johansson, wrote a fantastic post about the content of the conference, so give it a read! I’m happy to communicate more in the future about GapSummit, but the remainder of this post is going to be dedicated to how I prepared for the conference and what I gained from the experience, as a grad student attending the conference.

Application and Preparation

I learned about the GapSummit, when Tumor Biology PhD program alumnus, Dr. Carla Cabrera, and her team, hosted last year’s conference at Georgetown. The focus of the conference was interesting to me, having worked in both academia and industry, and having a personal interest in policy. I emailed Carla to get coffee and to learn a bit more about the conference and what makes a strong application. She was extremely helpful and her excitement about 2017’s GapSummit was infectious – I applied immediately. It was important to showcase my experience working in academia and industry, highlight previous and current leadership roles, and to emphasize what I was hoping to gain from the conference as a LoT. The Voices of Tomorrow Case Competition is a big component of the application and conference, so it was important to talk about ideas that I had for the challenge. Upon hearing that I was accepted, I was excited but also needed to figure out how to fund my trip. Thankfully, Georgetown’s MCGSO course grant was able to fund my flight; there are other funding opportunities available throughout the University as well! Once in Cambridge, the sponsors of the conference covered the cost of everything else.

As with scientific conferences, preparation is key to having a fruitful experience.

As with scientific conferences, preparation is key to having a fruitful experience and not just zone out during sessions. In general, attend conferences where you’re invested in the subject! It sounds obvious, but if you’re attending a policy discussion and haven’t been following policy blogs, or a bio-business conference without being versed in startup and general business development, you probably will not get much from the content of the talks. Even knowing a 20,000 ft. view of the topic is better than flying blind. Take time daily to read about discoveries/industries/policies so that no matter what conference you’re attending, you can make a contribution, or better yet, ask an expert. GapSummit was a smaller conference, so I tried to know a little about most people speaking, but a lot about the professional history of someone I was interested in meeting. Utilize a strategic combination of internet searches, LinkedIn profile views, news stories, or just general Google-ing. I kept notes in my folio which I carried everywhere.


During GapSummit, I spent just as much time engaged in unstructured networking and relationship building as I did attending talks, breakout sessions, and case competitions. While there are opportunities to network in many conferences, this extreme example was a feet-to-the-fire moment, and I enjoyed it. In general, there are many different ways to network, but I found that I always tried to keep in mind if there was something I wanted to get out of that interaction. This is not at all to be self-serving, or to say that you shouldn’t talk to people who you don’t think can do something for you; in fact, it’s the opposite. I really enjoyed casually talking to fellow LoTs about their opinions on the session we just had, hearing their opinions regarding newly presented ideas and how it related to their own work or experiences. I thought these were the most valuable connections I could make – with leaders and colleagues my age who I could learn from, and hopefully, they felt the same with the time they spent with me.

If you have a question you want answered, ASK! 

From the preparation I did, I also knew that there were many speakers I wanted to engage with. This goes back to my earlier point – if you have a question you want answered, ASK! I was able to chat with a policymaker from the Obama administration about drug and medical device pricing because I used to work in that area when I was working at a biotech company outside of Chicago. I was curious about the day-to-day life of management consultants working in biotech and healthcare, so I sought them out and asked what I wanted to know. Oh, and always ask for a card (see below!). Much like academic interactions, all experts in their field want to talk about their work, their expertise, and impart some wisdom on those following in their footsteps. I found approaching some of the more ‘intimidating’ bigger names at the conference was easy because they want to talk, or else they would not have come in the first place. You’re prepared, so take a deep breath and go strike up a conversation!

My final piece of advice is to make sure that you use the contacts you made. Personal connections are a fantastic way to get a bit of inside information, establish a collaboration or partnership, get a referral for a job, and keep friends within your workplace. It takes effort, but they’re worth maintaining. Personally, I’ve gotten coffee here in DC with a speaker from the conference who was in town, who I chatted with at length back in Cambridge. I’ve also kept up with my Voices of Tomorrow Case Competition group, and one member is trying to pursue our startup idea in her hometown in Nepal.

The GapSummit was a truly unique conference. I don’t know of an event where industry leaders get together, and discuss the issues they see, to teach future generations. I don’t know of another event where consultants from McKinsey and strategists from JLABS judge a case competition. I learned a great deal about the biotech and pharmaceutical industry, and I also tried to highlight some of the professional development lessons that I learned as a PhD candidate participating in a non-traditional conference. I would encourage people who are interested in the industry to apply, especially those who are wanting to be challenged to work on an innovation case competition with an international group. It will surely be one of the most memorable experiences during graduate school and it taught me much about the diversity of future career paths.

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