Biotech naming trends bypass 'buzzwords and business speak' to build whimsical, memorable brands

In a world overrun by innovative biotechs, be a Mammoth Biosciences. Or a Nutcracker Therapeutics. Or Viking Therapeutics or Centessa Pharmaceuticals. I could go on and on and on with creative names of companies in this industry that are vibrant, fun and eye-catching. But most importantly, they make you overlook the potential scientific language barrier, the potential to not exactly understand what the company is doing at all, and make you want to learn more anyway.

As the #FierceMadness: The Best Biotech Name Tournament twisted and turned toward the final championship, it became clear that there’s more to the names of these companies. We have heard from so many people eager to share the stories behind the names and happy to see this company or that company recognized for its unique moniker.

So we wanted to know: How do you name a biotech?

Many times, founders come forward with their own name or at least an idea of the message they want to put out to the world, experts told Fierce Biotech. They then get in touch with firms like the Brand Institute—most famous for its drug-naming work—or HDMZ, a Chicago-based marketing, communications and digital firm that specializes in the life sciences.

“People have recognized there's value in being memorable and being unique in a sector that's full of buzzwords and business speak. It's kind of fun to have a whimsical name,” HDMZ CEO Dillon Allie told Fierce.

Both firms also do a lot of renaming, after a company realizes their original brand no longer fits the mission or the company they have evolved into.

“Because whatever they came up with as a skunkworks, they were wise enough to know: ‘Perhaps we should revisit this, because we didn't spend a lot of time on it … or maybe our story has changed,’” said Allie.



Finding "The One"


Either way, the goal is to pull out a company’s story or mission and find a name to encapsulate that.

“One of the biggest differences is how personal and really intimate naming a company is versus a product—not to suggest that the product name is less important to the company in success, etc.—but when you say I work for X, there's just a different level of expectation and emotions involved,” said Scott Piergrossi, president of creative at the Brand Institute.

With emotions involved, Piergrossi said that finding the perfect name can be challenging. HDMZ and the Brand Institute start with a structured presentation with the company. A lot of this is expectation-setting of the naming process, according to Piergrossi, because the perfect name is likely not going to be obvious on first read.

“Very rarely will you fall in love with ‘the one’ when it's presented to you, like your eyes start to sparkle and you fall in love. And even if you do fall in love, he or she might break your heart later in the process for trademark or other reasons,” he said. Piergrossi and his team therefore urge companies to trust the process and allow it to unfold.

Names can come from anything. Allie said they will sometimes pull from the founders’ personal interest, maybe their alma mater or some geographical tie.

“With any naming, whether you're naming a company, a platform, a product, whatever—what story are you trying to tell? And to whom are you trying to sell it? And then we always start there,” Allie said.

Allie follows general rules of branding, which means three syllables max and about 11 letters.

“Anything longer than that gets automatically truncated by your audience. And you can see that with FedEx and AmEx. People just casually say that versus the full name,” Allie said. He was surprised that so many of the companies in Fierce Madness broke that rule, especially when tacking on the modifier at the end, the Therapeutics, Biomedicines, etc. (More on those later)

Ultimately, the rule can be broken as long as the company doesn’t mind the truncation. Another consideration is that the industry is global nowadays. So Allie said it’s important to think about how people whose first language is not English might approach the name.

You also have to be aware of words that may mean something different in another language too. He points to the famous Chevy Nova incident, where nova in Spanish means “no go” or “doesn’t go.” That’s not exactly an image you want associated with a car, and the same goes for drugmakers.

“It's a very trite and tired example, but it's relevant,” Allie said.

Perhaps what's important above all else is what is legal and available. That’s where companies may get their heart broken, as Piergrossi alluded to. The game has changed somewhat recently as more web domains like .bio have opened up URL availability. But you still want to avoid URL confusion, where someone looking for you ends up on a similarly named company’s website. (More on that later too).

Of course, the science and technology the company is working on is important—but it’s not necessary to get too in the weeds. Allie said they will look to what the technology does, how it’s different from the rest of the field, the mechanism of action or the specific molecule.

“What we don't want to do, for the most part, is to get so caught up in the science the name ends up being contrived,” Piergrossi said.

One really good example—and one of Fierce Biotech’s picks that was sadly eliminated in the second round—is Tune Therapeutics. While it’s subtle and may appear an arbitrary choice, Piergrossi sees the link to the technology platform honing something. In comparison, CRISPR Therapeutics wants to “own” that technology as one of the first in the space. Its chief peer in the area is Intellia Therapeutics, which counts CRISPR pioneer and Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna, Ph.D., as a founder.

Apple is a prime example of excellent arbitrary branding that doesn’t give a hint as to what the company actually does, according to Piergrossi. Jazz Pharma, which was ousted in the Final Four of the Fierce Madness competition, is a good example of that in the biotech world. The name doesn’t indicate the company's focus—which is neuroscience and oncology drug development—but it obviously resonated with readers enough to push it decisively through the competition. Jazz even took down the much-loved Wildcard entry Viking in the Elite 8.

“Jazz kind of has a certain cadence and feel to it, but it doesn't have any associations to what they do necessarily,” Piergrossi said. “You can build a brand around an arbitrary name. You can shape the name around the brand versus the brand around the name. And there's a lot of desirable attributes to that.”

Piergrossi also flagged Protagonist Therapeutics, which lost in the first round, an example of an arbitrary name that has an aspirational emotion to it.

The Brand Institute was behind Precede Biosciences, a liquid biopsy technology company that emerged from stealth in October 2023. Piergrossi said the idea was to evoke the sense of coming before its time, which matches with the technology that is trying to find biomarkers for diseases before they start.

“So you get from a real word—a meaningful and relatable real word—to the really relatively complex science that they're pursuing,” Piergrossi said. “It helps to tell the story, but it doesn't try to tell the whole scientific story.”

You can also fit a business development strategy into a name, which is what Centessa Pharmaceuticals did. The company’s mission is to find and buy assets with the most promise and form a biotech around them.

“Centessa has the sense of centricity and then has asset backward represented in the name,” Piergrossi explained. “It's a compelling story, but an overall very approachable and nice sounding relatively blank canvas.”

Another factor in biotech naming is making an appeal to talent to come work for you, Allie notes. Would you want to work for Non-Descript Biotech or Nektar Therapeutics?

“Any signal that you can send to people that you're different is going to be important to at least start that conversation, whether it's with an investor, a partner, a clinician or a prospective employee,” Allie said.

The same, but different

There’s another key part to a biotech name: the modifier, or the Therapeutics, Biosciences or Pharmaceuticals tacked onto the end. Those are not an afterthought, Allie and Piergrossi said. A few examples Allie pointed out are therapeutics, which typically signifies that you have the intent to develop your own drugs. Biosciences typically means a company is providing services, tools or technology to the industry (see Twist Bioscience as an example).

“The difference between pharmaceuticals and bio is humongous for people who know the space, right?” Piergrossi said. “One is more traditional and established, the other one's got more of an upstart or maybe a very focused platform or pipeline. So those descriptors serve to inform, but they can also help to clarify your trademark filings.”

These can also help differentiate yourself from another company. And that brings us to a key bracket in the Fierce Madness tournament: The Samesies biotechs. Both Allie and Piergrossi were frankly surprised to see so many companies with similar names. For example, Bridge Biotherapeutics and BridgeBio Pharma. Then there’s ProFound Therapeutics versus ProfoundBio—the latter of which was just acquired for $1.8 billion by Genmab, thus eliminating the confusion.

“I'm just surprised because people are so risk averse these days to litigation that you do have to really be careful,” Allie said, noting that he’s sure each company does its best to ensure they are differentiated. But lawyers often weigh whether a competing similar name would create confusion in the marketplace.

“It just wouldn't be something I would be interested in pursuing,” Allie said, of a same-named biotech.

With that said, Piergrossi said there could be “opportunity for coexistence” among a drugmaker and maybe a digital health company with the same name, but keeping it within the same sector is tricky. This is also where the modifiers can come into play, where the “bio” or the “therapeutics” can provide some differentiation, as it does with the two Bridge biotechs.

Ultimately, though Piergrossi said: “We would be unlikely to recommend that.”