Belharra rides the sound waves, chronicling its short history in 'Birth of a Biotech Podcast'

Biotechs face a core communication challenge. How, in an industry that can spawn hundreds of startups every year, can you connect with the talent and investors who are integral to your prospects? Belharra Therapeutics has come up with an atypical answer to that question: podcasts.

The West Coast biotech put itself on the map at the start of last year when it exited stealth with $130 million from investors and a deal with Genentech. Biotechs typically go quiet after holding their coming out parties, getting back down to business and only popping up again when they have a deal, funding or other milestone to publicize. Belharra was no exception.

Now, Belharra has deviated from the playbook by lifting the hood on its formation in the seven-part “The Birth of a Biotech Podcast.” Hosted by Belharra CEO Jeff Jonker, the show chronicles how two postdocs met at Scripps Research, began collaborating and ended up having to choose between accepting “double-digit million term sheet offers” from pharma companies or founding their own biotech.

Many versions of that story are playing out right now, and have been for years, but they are rarely told in anything approaching real time. Most of the stories are never documented. A few are told years later, after time has smoothed off all the rough edges and success has applied a veneer of inevitability to the uncertain, contingent process of building a biotech.

Belharra is giving listeners a more contemporaneous account. Jonker was initially a little skeptical about whether there was an audience for a show about the creation of Belharra, asking himself, “are we just being egotistical?” when the idea was proposed by the biotech’s media advisers.  

The CEO also had doubts about whether a podcast was a good use of everyone’s time. Traditional means of biotech communication provide tangible outputs. A press release is published and media outlets pick it up. The podcast “feels a little bit more like ‘let it be free and float on the wind and see what happens,’” Jonker said. 

Now some episodes are out in the world, Jonker has been “pleased and impressed with the reception.” People have told Belharra they have found it useful, the CEO said, and “so I think mission accomplished.” The show has a loose, conversational tone, inspired by the breezy interviews Sean Hayes, Jason Bateman and Will Arnett conduct on the "SmartLess" podcast, while still digging into the details of biotech building.

“When you're talking about something that's a dialogue, I don't know that there's a better format than [podcasts] for actually letting people hear the conversation,” Jonker said. 

Belharra is aiming the podcast at several different groups. The podcast is a chance for the biotech to tell its story to potential new hires, investors, collaborators, consultants and board members. Reaching that group could bring direct benefits to Belharra, such as access to talent and capital, and thereby justify the time spent on the podcast.

The other goals of the podcast are less tangible. Belharra is working to build its brand, something that could be valuable but is hard to measure, and Jonker also wants to reach people who may aspire to build their own biotechs. 

“There are probably people that would hear some of these things, learn from them and they would be better prepared to build their own companies,” Jonker said “Part of the thesis is that we may be able to contribute, just in a very small way, to people's progress.” 

The realization that the podcast could reach aspiring biotech builders was a turning point on Jonker’s path from mild skeptic to podcast host. With the end of the seven-episode run now in sight, the CEO is open to getting back behind the microphone once Belharra has reached a new phase of its evolution.