Naming Is A Competitive Sport: 7 Lessons from Aveo Pharmaceuticals Name Change
Over at Xconomy, Luke Timmerman wrote a piece called Why Would a Biotechnology Go to the Trouble of Changing Its Name.
The story focuses on Aveo Pharmaceutical’s name change to Aveo Oncology.
Aveo was originally named GenPath Pharmaceuticals and changed its name via an internal naming contest. Aveo means “be well” in Latin (and happens to be the name of a Daewoo-manufactured Chevrolet-marketed subcompact).
The Aveo name fit the CEO’s criteria – It started with the letter “A,” is easy to pronounce and tested well in different languages.
As the company got close to market with its first drug, they asked physicians and patients what they thought of the company. Most people surveyed had no idea what Aveo Pharmaceutical did, which suggested a name change.
The switch from Aveo Pharmaceuticals to Aveo Oncology said, “We are here for you to deliver cancer medicine,” according to CEO Tuan Ha-Ngoc. The company also changed its tagline from “Science Passion Impact” to “Human Response.”
Timmerman correctly points out that the narrowing of the Aveo name from Pharmaceuticals to Oncology could poste a problem in the future if the company finds its technologies move them beyond cancer. (Aveo CEO Ha-Ngoc says they have retained the rights to Aveo Pharmaceuticals, which is smart.)
Timmerman concludes the article by pointing to several name changes in biotechnology in the past few years. According to his readers the following biotechnology company name changes were either better or worse.
Abbott Laboratories –> AbbVie
Antigenics –>: Agenus
CombinatoRx –> Zalicus
Inhale Therapeutics –> Nektar Therapeutics
Activated Cell Therapy –> Dendreon
Applied Molecular Genetics –> Amgen
Aveo Pharmaceuticals –> Aveo Oncology
Microbia –> Ironwood Pharmaceuticals
Protein Design Labs –> PDL Biopharma
Seven lessons from the Aveo name change.
- Know what you want. The Aveo CEO was clear on what he wanted from his name. He knew he liked names that started with “A” and knew the final name had to be easy to pronounce and work in several languages. When you start a naming project, having a clear idea of where you want to end up will make the process much easier. Ask yourself these questions as you start the naming process.
- Understand most English, Latin, Greek words have been trademarked. As I pointed out above, Aveo is not only the name of an oncology company, it’s the name of a Chevrolet subcompact. Unfortunately, most English, Latin and Greek language words have been trademarked. Same holds for prefixes, suffixes, phonemes, etc. To avoid confusion, creating a name that uses combinations of words or moves away from the obvious English words, Latin and Greek roots will help you stand out from your competitors (and likely make the trademark process a lot easier).
- Get away from generic, descriptive names. The life sciences industry has many companies named after what they do: biology, genetics, genomics, molecular, protein (Amgen, Biogen, Genencor, Genprobe, Genentech, Immunex, Molecular Devices, etc. etc.). At one point – back in the 1970s when biotechnology had just gone public – these names were very innovative but they were still describing what a company did. The problem with descriptive names? They don’t grow well (see 6). The biotechnology company names that make you take notice are the ones that have emotional, evocative, vibrant names. For example, BLUE HERON, CYPRESS, GUAVA, NEKTAR, ORCHID, TORRENT.
- Pick a name that will grow. The Aveo Pharmaceuticals to Aveo Oncology was an obvious one: The company is about to launch an oncology product and its pipeline contains several other cancer-related drugs. However, if the company finds that its platform allows it to expand into other areas, they may want to consider going back to the Pharmaceuticals name or setting up a separate division (which the CEO mentioned he did). We counsel against using descriptive names because companies change and grow and the technology you develop today, will likely be obsolete in five years, so don’t tie your name to it.
- Be clear on why you’re changing your company’s name. Timmerman says he can tell more from a company’s name change than from its original name because “biotech company names rarely tell you what a company does.” A name change, however, must answer Why? Among the questions Timmerman wonders when he hears about a name change: Did the company run into legal snag, possibly by infringing on someone’s trademark? Did it change strategy by merging with some other company? Is it trying to say it’s not a science project anymore, that it’s matured into a real company that sells products and makes money? Is it trying to distance itself from a past failure, in some (lame) attempt to wipe the slate clean? Did new management come in determined to make a symbolic break with the founder, who coined the original name? Or was the old name just too clunky, too hard to spell or pronounce?
- Use a tagline. When you first launch your company, most people will not know you. A tagline can help your potential customers and partners understand what it is you do. When you’re starting out, the tagline might refer to your product or service. You can use your tagline to make a promise or to outline your unique selling proposition (USP). The USP that Domino’s and FedEx used helped those small businesses become billion dollar corporations in a short period of time.
- Don’t listen to the haters. The article doesn’t touch on this idea as much as the survey results do. For example, respondents said the name change from Inhale Therapeutics to Nektar Therapeutics was change in the wrong directions. As much as it was (and continues to be viewed) as a bad name change, I’ve heard the people at Nektar are very happy with their name. They took a generic, dull, and boring name and changed their name to something bold. Nektar Therapeutics stands out in many more ways than Inhale Therapeutics ever will.
You may also be interested in our series on How to Name Your Life Sciences Company.