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How M:M Bio used Scrum, Kanban and Agile Practices for R&D Projects in the Oncology & Immuno-oncology Space

March 28, 2024

In this episode of the Community podcast, host Dave West is joined by Kirsty McCarthy - CEO of M:M Bio, Andrea Nisbet - Head of People at M:M Bio and Yuval Yeret - Professional Scrum Trainer. They talk about how M:M Bio uses Agile in drug discovery and R&D in the oncology and immuno-oncology spaces. They discuss how Agile principles were applied in a bio-manufacturing context, while combining Scrum and Kanban practices. They also talk about their transition to an agile approach and the necessary mindset shift to be agile.

About Our Guests

Kirsty McCarthy founded M:M Bio, along with her husband Tom, in 2016 with a vision to build an ecosystem of biotech companies that could learn from each other, leverage resources and be a great place to work. Before M:M, Kirsty spent about fifteen years working in the commercialization space building and growing companies focused on new technologies. Kirsty has an MBA from Melbourne Business School.

Andrea Nisbet has worked at M:M Bio Limited for 4 years and has supported the wider ecosystem growth from 3 companies to 4 and from 8 core team members to over 70.   Andrea is passionate about building and supporting a culture where everyone is able to perform to their full potential and where they feel a sense of inclusion and belonging.

Yuval Yeret is a Professional Scrum Trainer and an agility coach working with startups, scaleups and enterprises such as Gillette, Dyno Therapeutics, MightyBuildings, Siemens, Intel, and CyberArk. Yuval is passionate about leveraging the Scrum principles of Empiricism, Self-Management and Continuous Improvement to tackle a variety of Products ranging from classic software products, through IT systems, all the way to cyber-physical systems and Business Processes such as Marketing and Sales/Revenue.



Lindsay Velecina  0:03  
Welcome to the community podcast, a podcast from the home of Scrum. In this podcast we feature professional scrum trainers and other scrum practitioners sharing their stories and experiences to help learn from the experience of others. We hope you enjoy this episode. Hello,

Dave West  0:20  
and welcome to the community podcast. I'm your host, Dave West Today's podcast is focused on on an experience report. Actually people using Scrum and Agile and Kanban in the real world. Not that not that it ever happens outside the real world. But it we have the opportunity today to talk about mmm bio, and their journey, which I'm really interested in, obviously, from Boston, we have a huge biotech community here. And I get the opportunity to talk to people in this field all the time. So I'm really excited that that we have a few people to talk about this journey. We have Andrea Nesbitt, head of people, Christine McCarthy CEO, and we have the PSAT that helped them your value out here as well to keep us all on track and honest and maybe you some liberating structures or something if we if we run out of steam. So thank you for joining me today, everyone.

Kirsty McCarthy  1:28  
Good to be glad to be here to be your Dave. Ray.

Dave West  1:32  
Thank you. So um, I guess it'd be really nice, you know, quickly to do a quick round robin to where you're all talking to us from and you're where you phoning in from today.

Andrea Nisbet  1:47  
I'm in Hampshire, in the United Kingdom.

Dave West  1:52  
Beautiful part of the world, Andrea and Kirsty I'm

Kirsty McCarthy  1:56  
in Oxford in the UK. But clearly from my accent, I'm not from the UK. I don't have the Queen's English. So I'm Australian, but I'm living in Oxford.

Dave West  2:05  
Again, another amazing place and your bow, where can our listeners expect to hear you from?

Yuval Yeret  2:11  
And I'm based in Newton, Massachusetts, and from the accent, you can probably build it I love for me who either.

Dave West  2:20  
And so, and obviously from my accent, I'm not from Boston as well. So that's a confusing group. There's only Andrea that actually is, is it true to her accent as it were so. So thanks. Thanks for joining me. So let's get going and talk a little bit about actually, I'd love QST to if you can kick this off, really, and talk a little bit about you. And your journey mm bio, how it sort of came about, and really sort of find out for our listeners, what the sort of context for this change was.

Kirsty McCarthy  2:57  
So So I founded mm bio with my husband, Tom McCarthy. So Tom and I were in the US in 2015. And it had just sold a biotech to one of the big farmers. So Tom had been was the CEO of that company and sold, and we were deciding what to do next. So Tom had a lot of experience in biotech. My background has actually been in tech, so commercializing intellectual property around machine learning artificial intelligence, in the early days. So we're in the US saying, We understand the northern hemisphere, what do we want to do, and we were both passionate to do something that actually exploited all our experience. To build companies, we're not where every company doesn't make the same mistake again. So because what we'd seen was, you know, all these different biotechs and then making the same mistakes, or, and even IT companies making the same mistake. So how do we create an ecosystem of biotechs, where we can learn from each other where we can actually share resources, share learning, share their experiences, so that we become more efficient, and ultimately, so that we can get, you know, drugs to people faster so we can improve lives. So and we thought that that was really apt is sitting somewhere between big pharma, we have lots of resources, really slow and single asset, biotech, really nimble and fast, but really don't have access to that to resources and shared learnings. So what we want to do is create an ecosystem that sat between those two things. And so that's where mn bio came from, and with the vision to actually set up biotech companies that could be nimble and fast but to have access to learnings and shared resources are

Dave West  4:50  
a bit like an incubator, if that's the right word to describe it.

Kirsty McCarthy  4:54  
Probably we extend on the incubator model in that we're co Located. So all the companies at the moment are located in Oxford, you know, new companies will be located in different places. But so we all sit next to each other. And we're actually there for the journey and incubator traditionally is providing support at an early stage and said, Here you go, go and go on to into the world and be successful. And but we're actually together for the whole journey from a biotech. So from that early discovery stage, through translation and into the clinic, because we think there are different skills and different learnings at each stage of that, that evolution.

Dave West  5:32  
I've had super interesting. And so when you look at your portfolio, would you call that a portfolio of companies that you are, you're looking after? When you're looking at those? Tell me a little bit about how you help them? You know, what is the product? And the you know, a little bit more about the product space? Is it a particular stream of biotech and machine learning? Or is it is it all over the place,

Kirsty McCarthy  5:58  
the three companies that are currently in the mm pod, as we're calling it, so three companies, so they're actually grow therapeutics, by the US therapeutics and 35 bio, or three companies sitting in Oxford, they all happen to be in oncology and immuno oncology, which means they get to share learnings across that, you know, that therapeutic area, they're actually all small molecule companies, which might make things to biotechs, maybe not to other people. But again, it's so again, they, the heads of chemistry from each other company can share learnings and experiences in how you actually develop a small molecule to treat these diseases or to to hit these targets. So So yeah, we share learnings across the whole journey and all fate on all aspects of Japan, drug discovery and development.

Dave West  6:45  
Okay, that's, that sounds amazing. And obviously, well needed, you know, as the every year, I get a little bit older. And I sort of feel like my body is not necessarily as good as it was. So really do appreciate all the work you're doing. Let's, let's think a little bit about Agile and Scrum and how that fits in. So I understand it from, you know, sort of like this idea that you're creating this portfolio of organizations shared learning, everybody's helping each other, you're hopefully getting some shared services, shared ideas, sharing intellectual capital, etc. But how does agile and and Scrum fit into this? Andrea, maybe you can share a little bit? Yeah,

Andrea Nisbet  7:30  
great happy to. So we actually think that Agile is a perfect match for drug discovery, because you have this unknown end point. And you need to be able to pivot really quickly based on the data that you're receiving as you're going through the process. So it can be a bit more challenging. But equally, it's really valuable to incorporate at the preclinical and clinical phases, having that agility. And some of the advantages we found been faster decision making, and increased transparency across the team. And you know, that wider collaboration as well. So some really huge impacts that we've been finding in terms of using agile in the biotech space.

Dave West  8:17  
And so you've helped these portfolio companies or three portfolio companies that you're working with, you've given them that, that training helped them to think about the use of Agile and Scrum. Is that how it how it's worked with your portfolio companies?

Andrea Nisbet  8:34  
Yeah, that's correct. So actually, we we did that through you, Val, as well. So you value might want to, you know, chip in in a minute. But, you know, through, we actually came across you vow, a new Val was instrumental in doing the initial training with actually everybody who was working in the ecosystem. So we thought it was really important that everybody had that baseline understanding of using Scrum, and agile, you know, and the Kanban approach, so that everyone was talking the same language understood the same methodologies. Clearly, there will be people that have a greater understanding some of our PMO will be using it more in depth, but actually, everybody understands the journey of a UVA, do you want to sort of add anything to that?

Yuval Yeret  9:24  
Yeah, definitely. The work at it. Mmm. You know, it was part of the realization that I've had that when you talk about agile, you're talking about something that's inherent to our scientists, our thinking. So being empirical trying things that should be natural, and I think that's why at least the principles really resonated for everybody that have been part of our workshops and our training and I have Besides workshops, because it's not as simple as just training people, here's how you use Scrum or Kanban. Go do it, we really emphasize the principles and we need to really figure out how is that appropriate for us, I mean, the, you know, we talk about Scrum 30 days or less working increment. But when you have a molecule that needs to be manufactured by a third party, and that process takes time, there's more of a complex value stream to this learning and closing the feedback loop. So it's really interesting how the team and the different teams in bio, managed to take the principles and actually use them in their context by some, you know, useful combination of the principles and practices of, of Scrum and karma.

Dave West  10:53  
Science scientists can be a little bit skeptical of trying things and transparency isn't necessarily their natural way of working, I'm not being rude of scientists, you know, they're amazing. And obviously, they are changing the world on a on a minute by minute basis. So how did you get all of these very diverse human beings? Was it was that to really come at this in a, in a very positive way? Was that a real challenge? Or was it relatively easy?

Andrea Nisbet  11:28  
Cuz did you want to take that one.

Kirsty McCarthy  11:31  
So it was a challenge initially. So we went through a process with UVO, talking to the team about the advantages, and you know, how we might apply it, to get the buy in to actually hold the workshop. That was the original, as you Val said, it's more than just one thing. This is a constant learning experience or journey that we're on. So for that first workshop, and then even coming out of that workshop, there were different levels of engagement and enthusiasm for implementing agile. So then it was a matter of actually just getting going and seeing the impact. So from you know, we came away from that first workshop. And we agreed, we're going to run four pilots. So essentially, one, you know, one per company and one in mm, different types of projects. So some purely r&d, some less r&d, operational. So we approve those projects, those pilots got going. What we saw was that actually, it was almost out of control. So as soon as it got going, it will get Oh, actually, that's really useful. That's really interesting. And we actually saw, particularly, I guess, you know, Trello boards and Kanban, being adopted across the organization of a whole lot of projects. I don't, in hindsight, I think you've all worked, we missed really, then we got, we got the Kanban boards, but we didn't always get the mindset shift. And I think we're still as that we're still on that journey. And really thinking about, well, how do we go back and make sure that we're thinking we've got the agile mindset, and because to complement, I guess, the operational operationalizing of this. So again, we're still on the journey. But really, it's people have seen the benefits, and people have been very engaged. So really, it's just pervasive now across the ecosystem. That's

Dave West  13:20  
amazing. St. So tell me a little about that mindset thing, because one thing that I saw in a couple of biotechs, that that, that I've spent some time with is the one, the idea of what's the minimum we can do to get to that result was perhaps not always the journey that the teams wanted to go on. They wanted to be very diligent, they wanted to do lots of work up front, before they got to a certain point. And that was definitely a wrestler. Was that part of the mindset challenge? Would you say? Or was it something else?

Kirsty McCarthy  13:59  
I think it is, if I answer that question, maybe in a slightly different way, in that our project management office now is really coming up with the hybrid methodology to try and address that. So how do we actually combine traditional project management and agile? And it is actually to address that planning phase upfront? So because I think it's in a lot of what we do in biotech, there are particular dates that we have to hit. So, you know, we need to dose a patient in the clinic, and that date doesn't move. And there's certainly costs associated with that. So we need to have that high level planning and view. And so how do we work back from that? And then once we've got that clarity, it's then how do we apply Agile to actually execute on that plan? So that's where we've got to add a lot of our on our r&d projects. We've now adopted this agile this hybrid approach, where we use both. So

Dave West  14:56  
really what you do in the planning is understand what are the constraints It's like a clinical trial, you know, which obviously use a third party. And there's lots of constraints there, contracts, et cetera. We need to hit those dates. We've got maybe some constraints in manufacture, we've got comms constraints here, bring it making those all very visible and transparent. And then saying, considering these constraints, how do we work? What can we do, as it were? Would that would that sort of sum it up? Kirsty

Kirsty McCarthy  15:27  
very much, and very much. And so as soon as you're through that planning phase, you're very much into that all the great things about agile, you know, the transparency, that you know, the focus on, you know, sprint goals, the focus on the really critical things that we need to hit do to actually hit those outcomes or achieve those outcomes. So yeah, very much.

Dave West  15:48  
And what does?

Andrea Nisbet  15:51  
No, sorry, I was just going to add to that, and just say, I agree with that. And definitely in terms of, you know, sprints, and reviews, and planning, retrospectives, all those things happen, you know, in line with the Agile Kanban approach, so but it's that initial planning piece that just might be slightly, slightly different as Kirsty outlined.

Dave West  16:19  
Your Well, what? Well, from your experience, would you Yeah,

Yuval Yeret  16:23  
so one thing to add about these hybrid environments are very common bofit biotech in other areas. The the planning that I find usually helpful in these environments is both the constraints as you're saying, but also plan for uncertainties or risk management, whatever language you want to call around it. The question of why do we even need agile if we do all this planning is a useful question to ask ourselves, if every time we go into such a project, and it's typically around, okay, we want to work within these constraints. But we also have a lot of uncertainties, especially if we're doing scientific discovery. As we're doing this, we need that URL in order to be able to inspect and adapt within these constraints. And that's both the mindset and the technique that typically helps people trying to

Dave West  17:19  
figure this out. So So you've out what you see, you identify those massive unknowns, not hard. Obviously, that sounds like a contradiction, you know what I mean? The areas of uncertainty, the areas of, of high risk, and you ultimately try to push that left as we would say, in the sort of Agile world try to manage that uncertainty as quickly as possible to do the things that expose those issues and risks earlier. So because that obviously have an impact on on downstream activities, clinical trials, manufacturer, whatever those those those things are, is that that was what you're advocating more or

Yuval Yeret  17:59  
less, more or less. So your backlog, if you want to use the backlog in Scrum, your product backlog would be based off of a mix of execution related items that you know what you need to do. And you might know that you need to do them early on, because of lead time, as well as risk oriented learning oriented items, assumptions, maybe even leap of faith assumptions that you want to de risk as quickly as possible. And it's a tough balance, right? Do I do the things that have a long lead time now? Or do I do the de risking things now? Because if I don't do risk them, all of those long lead time items are meaningless. I mean, we won't have something to those the patient with we don't find, you know, the right formula. But if we don't get prepared for those things, the patient, it's going to be useless without the ability to actually try it out. In vivo, in vitro, whatever you call it. Yeah.

Dave West  18:59  
So So hang on a minute, then. And that's one of the biggest issues that we have with adopting scrum from my experiences, it makes you have those hard conversations. And that's not necessarily what you want. Because many of these, these are startups, these are young companies. So their resources are very constrained. And now you're actually see, okay, well, we can do all this work that we have to do now, which has got long lead time. And we have to also do all this discovery stuff. Oh, how do I mix those two together? Is that that must be that must be very interesting for everybody involved. Yeah.

Kirsty McCarthy  19:41  
I think it's a really important conversation. And you're right. I mean, the fact that that is we have those conversations and it's transparent, is really valuable. And it's really valuable for our investors and the board because so we're all VC backed companies. And if we can be really clear with them are saying we have decided to do these things for these reasons. And exactly as you well articulated, we've made a decision, we know that there's risk here. We know we've got this lead time. Therefore, based on all the information we have, we have decided to take this course of action. So those conversations are really valuable internally, but also for us in terms of our stakeholders and communicating with our stakeholders. But

Dave West  20:23  
doesn't that mean, and I really want to lean into this I ran a VC backed, helped run a VC backed company, and talking to the VCs wasn't necessarily the most enjoyable experience when you're bringing bad news. So sometimes, you know, you, you would avoid some of that. So do you have to have a different kind of investor with this way of working because of the level of transparency that creates?

Kirsty McCarthy  20:51  
We've got great investors. And, and I think culturally, and Andrew has been key to this. Our culture isn't just internal, it's actually the way we deal with everyone. It's the way we deal with investors, it's the way we deal with our partners. And that is about transparency, because we like we build long term partnerships. And I don't think you can build those long term partnerships if we aren't transparent and honest and clear about what we're doing.

Dave West  21:14  
And the investors understand this kind of approach at a very high level, obviously, not some of the detail.

Kirsty McCarthy  21:21  
Yep, absolutely. Yep. They're on the journey with us. Yeah,

Dave West  21:26  
that is awesome. That is amazing. Because one of the biggest problems I found running is, it was we were always very careful what we were transparent about. And sometimes that ended up getting, as you rightly said, getting us into trouble and in the long term, because maybe some assumptions were left unchecked in the short term. So it's really, really great that you're working that way. So what does success look like? I, you know, we're, we're working in this way. We've got the three portfolio companies making things transparent, the making that risk, you know, sort of trade offs at the start sharing it with our investor win community. You know, what, what, what does success really look like? If you have a clearer picture on a sprint by sprint pay basis? Or how what does it look like?

Andrea Nisbet  22:21  
And I'm happy to start on this and Kirsty feel free to add to there. So, you know, we do have Trello Kanban boards for projects. And as we're sprinting. So I think feedback from team members is really positive as well, which we get through the retrospectives and their sprint planning. The achievement of our sprint goals is real success. So I guess I've a project that I was involved in, which wasn't an r&d project, it was a recruitment project. So one of as we got Series B in for one of our companies, we needed to increase our headcount by almost doubling our headcount across the ecosystem. So we set that up as an agile project with a scrum master supporting us. As success for the team, we're seeing how much was achieved, as we were sprinting, we did actually start using Fibonacci, as well to measure how many points and just every fortnight when we were checking in, and the team seeing how much they achieved, you know, that's really motivational for them. And especially then when you communicate that part of it was communicating back out into the business, what was achieved, keeping the stakeholders up to date. I think just as a very quick stat, we worked out, we've done something like 700 interviews and 700 onboarding meetings in a year, you know, so that is success. For us. So more, more satisfaction, you know, celebrating the successes, achieving, and everybody understanding what is happening.

Dave West  24:03  
I think that sort of highlighted a really, Andrea you highlighted a really interesting sort of outcome of Scrum is you feel continuous success as opposed to this, it all starts really well. And then there's this massive period of unknown, and then it and then it finishes in a chaotic, nightmarish, everything everybody's running around spinning their heads up. We sort of keep that constant, whether we've asked scrum agile approach, and that's true of internal projects, and also the r&d type projects as well. So

Kirsty McCarthy  24:41  
can I just add to that, I guess, it's really hard to compare, I guess, you know, project and projects. We don't have exactly the same there's no apple and apple. So what we have done is now we've got some really significant data points. So you know, when companies have hit particular milestones, because we're on the same these three companies, again, as I said, oncology small molecule. So we've been able to measure when they've hit significant milestones. And that might be, you know, candidate nomination for their, for their molecule it might be you know, when you get into the clinic, and we've actually shown the data's tells us that we actually hit those milestones, significantly faster and more cost effectively than industry averages. So, it although it's really hard to do this on an individual project by project basis, we're seeing now that that rolls up into, you know, a significant advantage. Well, a significant change in the way we can actually do this work. And

Dave West  25:39  
hopefully, I mean, obviously, unfortunately, science, there's a lot of luck involved. It's no, we do pretend there isn't it. But hopefully, that advantage will manifest itself. Because as you do this better, faster, get more data on it, then, you know, the ultimate that look, you start, you know, being able to improve the likelihood of success, and the rest is success for everything. That sounds awesome. That's great. So I guess we're coming up to the end of the of our, I could talk about this for ages, because it's so interesting, the work that you've been doing, and, you know, you're literally changing the world, one molecule at a time, which is, which is crazy to say, but you know, if somebody is in a similar position, obviously, we're in Boston, I'm in Boston, a lot of biotech companies, a lot of experimenting of how they're going to work in in this in these new opportunities, and these new programs and projects. If you're in the biotech world, and you're listening to this podcast, what would you? What would you recommend for them to get started? What would what would be the thing you would tell them? And I'd love you know, Andrea, maybe you can start.

Andrea Nisbet  26:56  
Um, I think just give it a go. Now, you need to give it a go. But obviously, you need to have a bit of understanding around what that is. And that's where we started. And that's how we came across And, you know, found out what you were doing, and then got connected with you vow to help us with the workshops and the coaching. But we haven't looked back. So we think, you know, look into it a little bit and just give it a go, you haven't got anything to lose, and you have got so much to gain from doing it.

Dave West  27:26  
Thanks, Kirsty, what would you leave these these people with?

Kirsty McCarthy  27:34  
Yeah, the same, give it a go, you know, pick a few projects, make sure you do do the training, because I think it's that common language is really important and what you're trying to achieve. As I said earlier, I think we're doing a little bit of catch up, I think in terms of agile mindset, because it was easier for us to implement operationally then to actually then get people to really think about the, the mindset, which permeates more than just project management. It's actually a mindset across, you know, a culture and an organization. So, yeah, jump in. But I would say don't forget about the mindset, really, you know, think about that, as you implementing this.

Dave West  28:11  
I think that's really, really great advice. Thank you for that you have our last words. Yeah,

Yuval Yeret  28:20  
as Kirsty's, the highlighting the mindset, and for me, it's, you know, the principles as well are so hard to get in place. It's so easy to jump into operationalizing. And the principles or sorry, the practices of the day to day. What I would say for people in, in biotech, what I've seen work is start with the principles start with pragmatic, pragmatic view of what patterns what practices make sense in our context. And that's how we started, and then bio. And don't forget these principles, and from time to time, you do need to get back into a room and you know, reflect back on the principles and the mindset and ask yourself, ask yourself, why are we using these practices? What, you know, what really makes sense? Versus what are some of the things that we just started doing by default and don't really make sense for us. Think about your operating system, the the ecosystem that you're providing to, you know, the portfolio companies or to your own teams as something that you're inspecting and adapting as well. There's version one or 0.1 that you start with, you need to keep inspecting and adapting it.

Dave West  29:52  
Never done. That's always no, which is always very disappointing. Wouldn't we like to be done that A lots of success along the way, on that journey to being never done. It's a bit like the healthy lifestyle that you're meant to adopt in January. It's never done, unfortunately, or Thank you. Thank you so much, Andrea, Christy, your Val, thanks for spending the time and sharing your journey. It sounds amazing and I'm, I'm gonna keep my eye on on the on the internet for the for many of these portfolio companies as they gain success and help the world in the in the cancer oncology sort of wild which is which is such an important one to everybody, I think. Well, thanks for listening. This was the community podcast, your host Dave West here listening to a really interesting experience report from mm bio about their journey. And you know, get going I think was have a go. But remember the mindset and remember, you're never done, but you can have success along the way. Thanks for listening, as always. And if there's hopefully in the future, you'll be able to listen to new podcasts and maybe we'll even hear from mm bio as their journey continues. And there's also a big back catalogue of podcasts as well. So feel free to dip into that. Thanks for listening everybody scrum on


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