# 132: “Bureaucratic Bullshit” Avoiders Save Lives

Bolzen, di Stefanie, and Antonello Guerrera (6 Feb. 2021). Kate Bingham: Why UK strategy on Covid vaccines has been a great success. La Repubblica/Die Welt.

Story behind the Passage

Yesterday, I happened to watch a report about the British vaccination success story. I had not followed up on this closely. But as soon as they mentioned that a venture capitalist named Kate Bingham was heading the task force that managed the vaccination procurement, I was alert. It immediately made sense to me. So, today, I followed up on this story and found a great interview with her with the German newspaper Die Welt and La Repubblica. I very much enjoyed reading it and this is why this post is going to look a little different today.

As someone who was trained in literary studies, I do love quotes. In this interview, there are so many revealing and inspiring insights — at least for me — that I will not talk much about my own thoughts and perspective today. I will simply give you some of my favorite quotes and add some comments. You will immediately understand why I am a fan of the task force approach of the Johnson administration and of someone like Bingham running it. For sure, I do not know a lot more about her at this point than what I briefly skimmed online. But honestly, it does not matter. My heart jumps whenever I read stories of people “disrupting” the conventional habits of entire organizations, social sectors, and even politics. This is definitely what she has managed to do based on her decade-long expertise.

Before we start, let me give you my personal conclusion:

Enjoy these appetizers and I highly recommend reading the entire interview.

My Learnings

“The instruction I was given by the Prime Minister was to save lives as soon as possible, so we had a very clear goal. We had a very clear focus on being quick and securing the most promising vaccines for the UK as soon as possible.”

  • Without a clear goal, you will not be able to focus and succeed — at least when dealing with a challenge like this one.

“So the concept of looking at data and establishing what the different strengths of the different data packages were is something that I’m familiar with. But also the team that I put together is familiar with.“

  • For the record: The word “data” appears 22 times in the interview. Just for people who still doubt that big data has any relevance. In addition, as the example also strikingly shows: data literacy is a transferrable skill.

“Both of them have good data, but the BioNTech supply chain was clearly far advanced for European supply ahead of Moderna who had prioritised supply in the US ahead of Europe. Everyone thinks it was sort of amazing. It wasn’t. It’s what we do.”

  • Data, data, data — it gives you a clear indication of which logical actions to take. This is how “amazing” things become a daily job.

“I’ve been in the industry for 30 years and the team that I work with have been in the industry at least as long, if not longer, meant that we had connections very broadly across the industry.”

  • We live in a networked age in which technology scales connections faster but humans drive them. It has nothing to do with age, by the way. It is about long-term reliability.

“Our goal was to do whatever we could do to encourage the companies to talk to us. That meant we had a sort of “UK offer”, as it were, which is if the company needed support in the scale of the manufacturing and fill finish and if we could offer that, we offered it and if the company needed us to help with running the clinical trials, we did that, too.”

  • Deals are not just like: “You sell and we buy. We have a common goal, so, let us see what it takes to reach it quickly. We all contribute our strengths.”

“As far as I was concerned, geography didn’t matter. I was only interested in securing the best vaccines. For example BioNTech: Sean Marett, who is the chief business officer, was somebody I had backed in one of my companies before. I’ve known him for, I don’t know, 15, 20 years. So it’s very easy for me to just pick up the phone and had lunch with him a year or two ago when he was in London, easy for me to pick up the phone and have those conversations. I don’t think this was anything to do with the UK being better or anything. I think that is the wrong narrative. I think it’s just a different strategy.”

  • Talking, talking, talking builds trust.

“That’s a political question. I don’t have a view. The reason we’ve got so many doses is that we know which of these vaccines would work. So if you go back to May, we didn’t know what, there were no vaccines against any human coronavirus, so we didn’t have any confidence that any of these would work. So what we did was to pick the best vaccines, each of the four categories of different types of vaccines.”

  • Being a pro means you know when to shut up and leave the playing field to others. Politics is not the (preferred) game of business executives.

“The UK had a very strategic approach, which was to secure vaccines quickly. And the European approach seems to be more sort of a more typical procurement approach, which was more about making sure you got the best value for money for your vaccines. It wasn’t related to Brexit and is not related to people being better or more experienced. I think there’s plenty of very, very, very good people obviously in the EU and in fact, you know, if you look at the companies are, you know, BionTech his exceptional, CureVac is exceptional. Sanofi is fantastic. Lots of good companies there.”

  • In other words: strategy eats bureaucracy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner

“You do not build a racing car from scratch in six hours.”

  • Making a long story short with clear picture language.

“Regarding the recent accusations of cronysm and others against you, a Whitehall source said to the Guardian that you’re “used to doing things quickly and without bureaucratic bullshit”. Do you think that bureaucracy is something that’s going to be very much of a danger for the development of vaccines?” …

“I make recommendations to the people that make the decisions in the UK, the Secretaries of State or Business, Health, Cabinet Office and Treasury. We have four very senior ministers who are the decision makers. That was one of reasons why we were able to be quick. If I called and said we need to have a decision on this in 24 hours, we had a decision in 24 hours. I think that is unusual. It is true to say I was not keen on bureaucracy. I’ve never worked in a big company, let alone the government. I think it was very forsighted by the government to allow us to set it up like that.”

  • Working in a big company is like working in politics — you never get anything done the smart way. But, of course, you can always give yourself a pat on the shoulder that you are a good service wo/man to your country!

“It’s like any investment. You look at what the opportunity is, what is the potential of the investment you’re making, what are the risks and what’s the potential balance and how you mitigate against all the risk wherever possible. On balance, is this the right thing to do or not? Here people are dying, so the longer we take, the more people will die.”

  • Knowing what investments are all about does not hurt anybody — time is not just money, it saves lives to speed up.

“‘Just stop people from dying’. I’ve been involved in the development of lots of new medicines for people who have no other clinical options. So my career has been to stop people from dying.”

  • Is that rewarding or what?

“The scientists talk to each other irrespective of borders. The clinicians talk to each other irrespective of borders. Venture capitalists do. Politics is separate. But what actually goes on is co-operative. So I would believe anything else other than this is cooperative. This is a wonderful industry. The pharmaceutical industry is often painted as a bad industry. It’s not. These are very thoughtful, generous people, which is really difficult doing this stuff. It’s fantastic that it’s working. So I’m absolutely convinced on that global collaboration.”

  • Global collaboration takes place behind the scences, this is where lives are being saved, not in front of cameras.

Reflection Questions

1) How does your personal image of “venture capitalists” correspond to the impression you have of Bingham?

2) If you were offered to head a task force that could contribute to saving many lives — would you say “yes”? Why/not and under which circumstances?

3) How do you think about the issue of international collaboration in the current situation?

Founder & CEO of Companypoets

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