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Interview with Lee Buckler, founder of LinkedIn's Cell Therapy Industry Group

April 2013
Lee Buckler

Lee Buckler

What prompted you to start the Cell Therapy Industry Group on LinkedIn?

Having been Executive Director of the International Society for Cellular Therapy (ISCT) for six years (2000-6), I had a lot of first-hand experience with the ongoing thirst for more and better information exchange as well as better tools for networking with colleagues of similar professional interests.

One of the most valued but difficult-to-manage aspects of the ISCT website was the online discussion forum. Other existing communication tools (e.g., journals, newsletters, even websites) were clunky and never sufficiently real-time to be optimally useful. In-person networking forums are expensive and infrequent. Platforms for online networking and information exchange have never been widely adopted by the scientific community.

When LinkedIn announced the ability to form groups in 2008 I jumped at the opportunity, hoping that it might provide the kind of information exchange and networking we needed, and that LinkedIn's popularity would support the widespread adoption of the Cell Therapy Industry Group.

What I also knew, having been in the sector for 8 years at the time, was that while there were forums largely dedicated to academics and research, those in industry were still in need of a place where the dominant topics of discussion were issues of import to companies in the sector. From its inception, I wanted to create a forum largely dedicated to industry and to clinical development, more than to academics and pre-clinical research.

What I've discovered is that people seem to appreciate having a moderated forum in which they can share information, discuss ideas, make connections, and debate issues facing their industry.

I learn something valuable from the group every day, and am so pleased that people are giving of their time and ideas in ways which make it such a useful tool.

What are the current vitals of the group?

As of today (3 April 2013) there are 4,812 members. It took 2.5 years to reach the first 1000 members, 9 months for the 2nd thousand to join, 6 months to bring in the 3rd thousand, another 6 months to reach the 4th thousand mark, and I expect we'll see the 5th round of one thousand members joining in just 5 months.

Approximately a third of the members have 'senior' or 'CxO' titles, 24% are in research, and 27% are at the manager or director level.

While the group was initially comprised largely of corporate people from the United States, the membership is now growing fastest among academic and people from outside North America. Approximately 21% are in the major US biotech/pharma cities (Boston, NYC, San Francisco, Washington D.C., San Diego), with the rest spread around the world (the highest national concentration outside the US is Israel).

Members describe their primary industry as 46% biotechnology, 14% research, 8% pharmaceuticals, 7% medical devices, and 6% hospital/healthcare.

The Cell Therapy Industry group is currently growing at a pace of approximately 50 members per week. I review each application to join, to ensure they have a professional link to the industry. I probably reject 4 applications per week on the basis of incomplete profiles. If the reason for someone's desire to join the group is not clear from their profile, I'll ask them to provide a rationale. I do all this to minimize unwanted spam. I move all job postings to the 'careers' tab and all conference notices and other adverts to the 'promotions' tab. If someone is a repeat 'spam' offender, or rude, I'll ask them to stop. I've only had to remove a couple of people from the group for being a repeat offender. The quality of the posts and discussion is very important to me, and I believe important to the value of the group to its members.

In terms of activity, we average 20 new posts and 40-50 comments or responses per week.

Clearly there are a lot of members who are passive readers/consumers and likely others who rarely visit the group. What's important is that there are a lot of ways to find value in a group like this, provided we all follow what few rules exist and respect other members.

Has the evolution of the group met your expectations or has it surprised you?

The way the group has grown continues to surprise me. We now have more members than the paid memberships of ISCT and ISSCR combined. We also have more members than either ISCT or ISSCR have in their free LinkedIn groups - and our group is really just devoted to industry and clinical development generally, not including topics related to pre-clinical research.

On a regular basis I'm pleasantly surprised by how useful the group is to me, but more importantly how it appears useful to colleagues in the sector - leaders and newbies alike.

Finally, I'm very proud of the way we've been able to engage in some very candid, passionate debates, and exchange of ideas, while generally being respectful of the participants. This is generally a forum where all ideas and contributions are welcomed (provided they do not turn 'personal') and where we try not to force a bias on or into the discussions.

Any closing thoughts?

While I'm not ashamed of the fact this is 'my' group, I try to make it very clear I want to run it in a way which accords with the group's consensus. As such, I try to reach out on occasion for feedback on 'sticky' issues or questions as a means of getting a sense for how the group wishes me to govern the group. I'm hoping this translates into members feeling like this is 'their' group - a group for the mutual benefit of all who are in or interested in the cell therapy industry. Finally, as always, I want to thank each and every member for making the group of whatever value it is today.

The easiest thing in the world is to do what I did - start a LinkedIn group - but it takes a critical mass of members who regularly contribute to make it a thing of value.