BioBuilder Career Conversation: Kerry Black Transcript

Natalie Kuldell (00:04):

Hi, Kerry. Nice to see you this morning.

Kerry Black (00:07):

Morning. Hi, Natalie. It’s nice to see you.

Natalie Kuldell (00:09):

So glad that you can join today to tell us a little bit about your work and your career. So, let’s start there. Let’s have you maybe introduce yourself and where you work and a little bit about what you do.

Kerry Black (00:22):

Okay. So my name is Kerry Black. I am head of US early solutions operations for UCB. I came to UCB through an acquisition of Ra Pharmaceuticals where I was vice president of operations. So I have dual bachelor’s degrees in molecular biology and biochemistry, with a graduate degree in chemistry. And I got an MBA just because I decided I didn’t want to be in the lab all the time. Basically that’s how I end up where I am.

Natalie Kuldell (00:46):

You are, um, firing on all cylinders, right? Life science, chemistry, business. Can you say a little bit more about UCB and maybe what they do and what you do for them there?

Kerry Black (01:01):

So UCB is, is a mid-stage biopharma company. So, you know, Ra was a little 100 person company that started from, I was the second employee there. We started from the ground up and we have a great lead candidate. That’s in phase three clinical trials. It’s about to finish wrap up their phase three. And it was basically the reason that UCB acquired us. Interesting enough, we always said Rah was very much driven by science, but our CEO said we could be the Walmart of pharmaceutical companies. If the board would let him, he wants patients to have access to drugs and not pay extraordinary amount of money for drugs. Now you have a board that says, well, you need to make money, but ultimately that’s his goal and UCB interesting enough, their tagline is, for patients driven by science. So you know, for a company that was going to acquire Ra, it’s like the perfect fit.

Kerry Black (01:49):

Because it really fit with our mission, which is we really want to change patient lives, in a meaningful way, but in a way that everyone has access to it. And interestingly, you know, UCB lives that mantra even in the way they do their IP, where in a small biotech company, you file patents everywhere. You protect every possible thing. UCB doesn’t do that because they don’t wanna prohibit other people from making good drugs. Well, they wanna have a solid strategy and a solid business strategy. It’s not exclusionary. It really is, we want science to move forward across the board, not just for us. It’s a very interesting philosophy and it’s one, they live, they have a whole patient value mission. That’s part of their mantra.

Kerry Black (02:30):

I mean, everything’s patient value, including all of our goals, how are we helping patients? But it is a mindset. I think scientists, especially if you’re in an early phase of research, you can get in your lab and you can do stuff and you really never have a sense of whether or not it’s gonna come to fruition, the connection of the patient journey to everyone that works at UCB, lets you know that even the little thing that you’re doing in a lab that while you don’t see, it may not become a drug, you are working towards something in a company that is working towards making patients lives better. And it really does, I think give the scientists that meaningful connection, like they really are doing something to make the world a better place. And that alone is inspiring.

Natalie Kuldell (03:06):

That is, there is so much there that I think people could jump on board with, you know, the idea that you’re bettering patients lives, that you’re making it as openly accessible as possible in order to do that. That it is focused on the betterment of the world through patient care. I think that there’s just so much to resonate with and I think people don’t see that as an industry, um, I don’t know, end point or an industry motivator, right? One of their pillars of guidance. So I think it’s incredible that UCB is this shining example of how it can work. Yeah. So what do you do there for them?

Kerry Black (03:51):

So, I have a very broad based role, so in Ra I did everything from recruiting, legal, IT, procurement, environmental health and safety. Um, any general operation, anything that needed to be done. I describe my job as anything that needs to be done to run a company or to help people work in the lab. Like I don’t do the science anymore, but I make the scientists lives better. You know, it’s like that old Bayer commercial. I don’t know if you guys remember Bayer used to have – we don’t make the plastic, we make the plastic better. That’s essentially what I do. I do all the thankless tasks that we need to make a company run. And I’ve grown that role by just taking on more and more responsibility because I have a science background. I understand how a lab works. I can do the ops piece, but I also know how to purchase equipment.

Kerry Black (04:34):

I know what equipment they need and I know how to negotiate. So I just leverage all kinds of different things to make this job. When we got acquired. They weren’t sure. I wasn’t sure if I was gonna fit in to a big company like this, because everyone’s very siloed during transition or integration. I met with like every work stream possible and the guy’s like I’m one person. Yes. I cover all these things. And I used to think that I know a lot of things, but really I’m not that deep, you know, Jack of all trades master of nothing in the last 10, 12 years that’s changed. I know a lot about a lot and I never would say that before, but I’m going toe to toe with all these people in these companies and I get irritated sometimes this is your only job and I know more than you do.

Kerry Black (05:14):

How was that possible? Cause I have all these other work streams I have to cover, but it’s the nature of the person I worked for that really pushed me to drive deeply. So when we got acquired, they weren’t sure – the manager I have right now is like, I don’t know if they’re gonna let you do what you do. I’m like, that’s fine, I’ll go somewhere else and do it. You know, I need to find meaningful parts of my job. I spend a lot of time doing it. If I’m not happy, I’m not gonna stay. And ultimately they’ve just let me, I do talent and mentoring on a personal development. I have a team of people that run, we run four different sites in the US – all research sites. But I do a lot of coaching and mentoring, a lot of HR, a lot of personal interaction site development, which is really interesting.

Kerry Black (05:58):

Yet, I still have to make sure that all of our sites operate. So I have to make sure I have an operations manager at different sites. Some of them are very new and they’re learning this. So I govern a lot in terms of, you know, how are we running our shipping and receiving, and our lab stocking and who’s doing our waste hauling and making sure that we have an EH&S program, but there’s meetings that have to happen and that. So, it’s basically oversight of all of that and a team of like 10 people. And then I technically run all of US protein operations, and there’s really a person that does it. She just reports to me. She does everything. She’s amazing. So it’s kind of a broad based role of, I still do a lot of recruiting. Like I don’t do the actual recruiting myself, but I interview people and I talk about, what motivates people when some people come in, do a job. So it’s still a lot ofm what we call talent rather than human resources.

Natalie Kuldell (06:43):

Yeah. It’s amazing because I think the notion that running a team is such a vital part of working in science, right? Like I think some people come into science because they’re fascinated by the science and that’s a wonderful motivator, but ultimately, as you were saying, you have to love your job. And if your job is building a team and making sure the team operates well, it can be in the field of science and focused on science. But in the end it’s team building and coaching and mentoring and, you know, making sure that the trains run on time and things like that.

Kerry Black (07:20):

People can get in the building, that the building’s secure. I think that if I were gonna say to any student, you know, I love science. I love science from the time I was in elementary school. It was my favorite subject. And I overloaded all my science classes. I went to a college that I think I took 15 credits in the social sciences, not the most well-rounded education, but fortunately I’m an avid reader. So I covered all the gaps outside of school, but I loved it and I was passionate about it and I never wanted to leave science per se, but I’ve had opportunities where I don’t have to. I’m still integrated in the science. I do need to be able to explain to people what UCB does and what some of our research programs do, but I don’t have to conduct the research.

Kerry Black (07:55):

And there’s not only roles in operations like that, but there’s there’s roles in marketing, so one of our chief commercial people is from R&D. He’s not writing prescriptions. He’s not filling prescriptions anymore, but he’s running a whole marketing program. So there’s all kinds of interesting things you can do with a science degree. And even with that, but being a science field quality control is one, regulatory affairs is another big component, clinical operations, running clinical trials, managing CROs who are running clinical trials, clinical research associates. There’s just a whole plethora of opportunity within science where you don’t have to be the scientific expert and you don’t have to be at a lab, you know, pipetting liquid from one tube to another, but you can still be heavily involved in science. And in that vibe, I love that we still have that biotech vibe, even with UCB, that people excited about what they’re doing, they’re passionate and they’re incredibly smart. Yeah. Which is it’s amazing to be around.

Natalie Kuldell (08:45):

It’s a wonderful thing to be around smart people for sure.

Kerry Black (08:49):

Yeah. And I just tell people, you have to love it though, whatever you do, no matter where you end up, you spend a lot of your time doing it. And I know I love to work and I’ll continue to work as long as I enjoy it. And if I don’t enjoy that, I’ll find something else, but make sure people, you’re going into science for the right reason because it is it’s hard and your college career is gonna be much harder. It’s not the reward of like the finance type of thing. Love it though, and be passionate about it.

Natalie Kuldell (09:16):

Yes. I think that’s spot on and that there are many ways to use that love and passion for science within, advancing the whole mission of science. So, what do you look for? So let’s say a student is super interested in this kind of a role or in one of the teams that you mentioned, whether it’s operations or regulatory affairs or something like that. Like when you see a resume or when you read a cover letter, what are you looking for in that?

Kerry Black (09:46):

Sorry. So candidly, I’m not a big reader of cover letters. Just gonna say that I’ve looked at probably if I have to tell it’s at least 10,000 CVs, if not more than that, I did all the recruiting from Ra, from day one on. So I look at a CV and I very quickly look at, I try and get someone’s story from their CV. And I look at it and this is terrible. I look at it like, why should I hire this person? So by the time I finish reading the story and I reading a CV and I build a story, I really wanna like that person. So I wanna, I try and get at what their motivation is, looking at, what they’ve done in the past, how long they were there. And that’s a big thing for me. I mean, in this market, people jump around every couple of years, but if I see people jumping year after year after year, I’m like, it’s not the type of person I want.

Kerry Black (10:28):

So especially young people going out, here’s my thing. And I have two kids who are both in college. You’re going to work the rest of your life. I know everyone wants to build up strong CV and have an internship every summer. That’s great if you can get it. But if you also have a good job where you’re making money and you wanna spend time with your friends, do that too, or volunteer. Do something that’s meaningful, but enjoy your life. I think work life balance is really important. And I just see, I lived on a treadmill for a long period of time. It’s a means to an end. I did it. I will never do it again. And I don’t want that for my kids. I want them to have a responsible job. I want them to have their own money, but I don’t want them burnt out at twenty-one, twenty-two.

Kerry Black (11:06):

So if you like it and, you know, I like to see young kids coming in, it’s hard with college students. If you can get an internship, at least one internship over your four years, that would be fantastic. Show employment and volunteer activity that you’re committed to your community, that you’re committed to a job, not just someone, you know, this is terrible. I had a silver spoon. I didn’t have to work. You know, my kids work. I want everyone, I wanna see someone making a commitment to that they can show up every day and do what they need to do. As students get older, you know, when I’m looking at someone coming in for an internship, you list the courses that you’ve taken so you get a sense of where you’re at. Use something like BioBuilder, definitely put that up on the front thing and actually put it in your little executive summary that you participated in a program like that. Over time, as people develop in their careers, I like to see people taking on more and more experience and more and more responsibility.

Kerry Black (11:56):

That’s ultimately how you want to see someone grow. I wanna see someone that stays for at least a couple years to make a commitment and they continue to grow that thing. Ultimately, when I interview someone, I wanna get at their motivation. What drives them as a human being, not just as a scientist, but what are they passionate about? Why are they passionate about it? Because I assess people on their personality and their fit in the organization and their fit for the role. So I like to like the people I work with. I want to be able to say, Hey, how is your weekend? And I mean, it, how was your weekend? I also wanna, I am very transparent when I interview – to a fault sometimes. There are people that don’t like my methods. Um, but because my feeling is, if I don’t tell them exactly what this role is going to be, I’m not trying to sell you on something.

Kerry Black (12:39):

I’m trying to tell you what our company’s about, what the job is about. And if it’s a job that you don’t think you’re going to like, don’t take it because if you do take it, you’re gonna come in here. You’re not gonna be happy. I’m not gonna be happy. Your manager’s not gonna be happy. We’re gonna start over again. Right. And I think that’s important. People need to learn. It’s okay to not like something. And it’s okay to ask hard questions in an interview because I look at that candidate is interviewing me and every person they meet with as much as I’m interviewing them, because they’re gonna make a commitment to come to this company. And they’re gonna a lot time here. And I want them to do well. So I think that’s the biggest thing I want kids to know is ask questions and if you don’t have questions that’s fine too, but you just say, you answered all the questions I would’ve had. But I want people to assess not only the role, but the cultural fit. Because that’s what I’m trying to do. And I will leave technical pieces to the scientists and, you can get at their technical ability, but I’m trying to get at who they are as a human, what’s driving them to come here, how they’re going to fit in with the team and how they’re gonna work well with the group that’s already here. That’s what I look for.

Natalie Kuldell (13:36):

I think that is such an important lesson and such an important takeaway from this and one that not a lot of people, sort of open and openly say, but, it is okay to be you in an interview, right? Like it is actually desirable. You’re trying to make sure that it good fit in both directions. You’re not there to try to please the person and try to like shoehorn yourself into what you think they want you to be. Because in the end, like you say, it’s going forward. It has to be a good fit in both directions. And way better to find that out in an interview. I also love what you said about how a CV can tell a story. I don’t know that people think about it that way, but it does speak to what you’re interested in and committed to and, I think that’s awesome advice. So any last, I mean, sometimes people wanna know, well, what kind of coursework, or what kind of a major or anything like that? What do you see? What are your trends that you’re seeing for UCB, with people coming in and being successful?

Kerry Black (14:46):

So on the science side, obviously need to have some degree in science, but I can tell you what the CEO of our company, Ra used to say that you really go to college to get a degree. That’s not what you’re gonna end up as. We’re gonna take you in, and we’re gonna teach you our science, and you’re gonna learn here and you’re gonna grow. You have to have a base background. You have to understand, I look at science as a language, right? So you have to understand the terminology. You have to understand the language, but you’re gonna go into a field, and whether it’s in a graduate program or whether it’s when you get into a company, you’re gonna learn what that company needs and wants. So for Ra, we took people in and we had a platform that we got out of Harvard, and the idea was to find, use this platform to identify un-druggable targets.

Kerry Black (15:24):

And then one of our first successful programs was a C5 inhibitor. We had no complement biology experience. So what did we do? We had our scientists learn complement, learn that complement cascade become complement biologists. So you have PhDs that have spent their entire career, or postdoc, maybe doing hematology. And now you’re at a company that needs complement biology. You learn complement biology. You went into neuroscience, you need to get some experience in neuroscience. You need smart people who are agile. So I think biggest thing, kids you’re majoring in science, you get the BS, make sure it’s a BS, not a BA. Take all the annoying classes. Find your passion somewhere, right? If you decide you wanted, you know you started in chemistry and you like really don’t like chemistry. Find another part of chemistry. I have a chemistry, it’s all protein chemistry, um, be flexible.

Kerry Black (16:09):

And if you don’t like something admit that you don’t like it and try something new. You know, at some point be solid. But when you get into a company, the base assays in biology are going to be the same. But then we’re gonna ask people to go and develop an assay. You’re gonna have to be smart enough to go into the literature, be diligent, be driven, be independent. That’s those are the key things that make people successful. We do have people that just come in and, you know, check the box. They like to do their one assay, they do it from nine to five and they leave. And then you have the people that are innovators. They’re interested in science. They go into literature. They learn and they wanna keep learning. You’re going to be successful if you are.

Kerry Black (16:45):

I say, people should spend 50% of their time out of their comfort zone. That’s how you engage. So you have to have a section of your job that you do really well and you’re comfortable in, but the rest of that should be learning, growing, learning something different. Are you exposed to something different? Because you get exposed to different things and you think differently. That’s the whole basis behind DE&I right? Diverse teams. People think differently, you get to a better solution than you would. It’s same with science, you know, talk to the biologists, talk to the chemists, talk to DNPK and see what they do, learn about different things. It helps broaden your perspective.

Natalie Kuldell (17:18):

Yeah. I so agree. I mean, BioBuilder is at its heart, exactly that, right? You have something that you’re curious about, interested in, need to learn, and it motivates your learning outside of your comfort zone, talking with people that do things differently or think differently. And, you know, the students that participate in our programs, put the pieces together in such unusual and creative ways. So, you know, creativity and lifelong learning and all of these pieces that, sometimes when you’re learning science and you’re just memorizing a bunch of pathways in a cell or something like that. It doesn’t always feel connected to that, but it’s wonderful to hear that when you work, the ability to think, the ability to be creative, work together on a team and to learn new things, is really what’s valued. I think you must have a very fun team that you work with and it must be a challenge every day. I really appreciate your taking some time to talk with the students and share your experience with them.

Kerry Black (18:19):

I’m happy to share. I think it’s important. I think I’ve had the opportunity over time to learn from other people. I’ve had a lot of mentors and sponsors in my career and I’ve been very, very fortunate and I’m happy to return that favor. So, students, you have my email address. If someone, some student says I’d really like to talk to her in more detail, feel free to pass on my contact information. I’m happy to meet with as many people as I can because when I love science, I love what it means. And I think we are changing patient’s lives and it is important, but it’s fun. And I want people to get that same passion. It’s not everything you think it is, right. You’ll get into your first job and be like, I had no idea that it’s actually like this. Um, and that’s fine. But I think that the more I can help people and guide them and give them information that helps them make a decision. That’s important too. That’s part of my outreach, you know, within UCB is help people make better decisions about what they wanna do with their career or even informed decisions. You don’t know what you don’t know. So I’m happy to talk.

Natalie Kuldell (19:13):

With people that’s wonderful and generous. And thank you so much.