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Connections with Leading Thinkers – Sarah MacDonald

Niaz Souti of the Accenture Institute for High Performance interviewed Sarah MacDonald as part of a research project on Digital Shoring.

As part of the Accenture Institute for High Performance's mission to develop cutting-edge new ideas and insights, researchers often seek the views of academic leaders, business executives and industry analysts. The Connections with Leading Thinkers series captures some of those interviews, showcasing interactions and discussions with some of the world's leading experts.

Executive Vice President at MassBio, Sarah MacDonald, discusses the role of digital technology in enhancing the growth of industrial clusters.

Sarah MacDonald is the executive vice president at MassBio. Before joining MassBio, Sarah served in a variety of association and policy positions, including interim executive director of the Massachusetts Pharmacists Association and deputy chief of staff in the Department of Business Development for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Niaz Souti from the Accenture Institute for High Performance (AIHP) spoke to Sarah on the role of digital technology in enhancing the growth of industrial clusters.


Could I start by asking you about MassBio’s use of digital platforms. We’ve noticed that MassBio’s LinkedIn group is large and seems active. How much of the intra-cluster interactions are taking place on LinkedIn?

The LinkedIn group is actually very interesting for us. At the MassBio LinkedIn group, we have a large number of members but only a small fraction of them are actively posting to the group. One thing we have observed, however, is that our LinkedIn group is a great platform for promoting our events. We attract a lot of event participants through our LinkedIn page.

Thinking about our active LinkedIn Group users, I would say that overall we have three groups: first, there are service providers who share topics of interest with the industry to show their capabilities. Second, we have HR folks sourcing talent. And third, we have life sciences professionals looking to advance their careers. 

We do try to keep the group as relevant to our community as possible. Our membership is closed, and we approve each request. We do have members from outside of the area, but we generally try to keep it a highly curated group.

Building on that point, the life sciences community expands beyond Cambridge. Have digital tools helped bring the margins of the cluster closer to the center?

Yes, I think so. Digital tools, not just LinkedIn, are helping to do this. They help create what I would call a “cluster of suburbs.” People in the suburbs use them to start relationships and then take things offline. They come to Cambridge once a week for example with days that are packed with meetings that have to take place here. Then they use digital tools to follow up or continue those in-person discussions.

What about Twitter? We’ve seen that MassBio hosts Twitter conversations based on certain topics, such as the #impact2020 report.

Twitter is another useful tool and we have noticed that it is a very good way to build relationships in this cluster. But that is, of course, in addition to face-to-face relationships, as those are still highly valued. Twitter is especially helpful during conferences, as people actively tweet during these events using certain hashtags. That helps cut through the clutter of conferences, and it also allows people to initiate new relationships and find the thought leaders. 

At MassBio we have hosted a few Twitter Chats—on early-stage funding, life sciences IT, patient advocacy and workforce development—as part of the follow up from the #impact2020 report. This actually came to us as a suggestion from a communication agency that had a client who had done something similar. We now try to do one of these events each month. It is part of our strategy to create and keep a momentum going around the report. But one thing I would point out about these Twitter events is that they are actually highly choreographed. A lot of thought and energy goes into preparing questions, and it is not as spontaneous as it might appear. Pre-identifying your participants plays an important role in determining the chat’s success.

We also schedule these chats after working hours. That’s when many people can get on Twitter and really engage. In addition, we try to make them routine for our members—something that is on their calendar for every month; that way they know when the events are happening.

What benefits do you get with these Twitter events that you wouldn’t get with physical ones?

A few things. For a start, they allow us to carry the conversation over the year. They also allow us to test the water about topics of interest to our community. And they enable us to reach people who can’t come to our offices at Kendall Square, like scientists that are in labs for long hours or those that live and work in suburbs.

Thinking about your own use of Twitter, as well as MassBio’s CEO, Bob Coughlin, who is also very active, as a cluster participant, what benefits would you say you get from using Twitter?

At work, we have our talking points and agenda. We use Twitter professionally to promote and spread those. But my personal account is used for things that excite me as an individual. For Bob, it is a little different. He is the CEO, so is always busy, and always on the go. For him, it is an opportunity to interact with those he doesn’t get to communicate with. He uses it for different reasons but one of the main ones is simply being able to engage with the community.

Twitter and other digital platforms have their benefits, and we do try to make use of them. We did have a very interesting experience recently when we lost our e-mail communications for one week at work. It certainly challenged a lot of what we were doing but gave us an opportunity to do things differently. For example, we usually send reminder e-mails before our events. This time we had to pick up the phone and call people. It made for a more intimate experience as calling someone is different from emailing them.

It is intriguing that you observed the interactions to be unusually intimate, given the norms within your network. Building on this, could you share your thoughts about the culture of the cluster?

Geographically we are very small, and everyone within the cluster is very well-networked. But it can be a hard network to break into it from the outside. Once you get in, the community is supportive. I’m not sure why this is, but it could be because everyone has their heads down, doing what they are doing.

No doubt that the cluster is established and growing. Looking a few years into the future, what are some anticipated challenges of the cluster?

There are a few challenges facing the industry in Massachusetts. We’re finding that early stage funding is becoming a problem. A lot of the money from venture capital (VC) funds has shifted to later stages of the pipeline, creating an imbalance. VCs are increasingly creating companies, not funding them. One issue this causes is that it is becoming harder to start companies because most of the money is in the later stages of the pipeline. There is also the problem of changing regulations and the need to adapt to them. Uncertainty in healthcare policy is never good for companies trying to chart a course forward.

Workforce development is a concern. Many people in the cluster are asking whether we are going to have the skilled workforce that we need if we continue to grow as we have. Our universities are educating a great labor force but there is a small window of opportunity to get folks into that first job before they leave the region after graduation.

Thank you Sarah, this has been extremely interesting.