All my previous posts have been related to the market and financial aspects of the pharma and biotech industry. In this post, I am focusing on the human resources aspects and why Biotech is different.
Biotech can be categorised as large biotech or big pharma (Novartis, Amgen, Biotech, Celgene and the like) and smaller biotech (start-ups, small-caps / mid-caps).
The ultimate goal of a biotech start-up is to achieve a licensing deal with a big pharma and use any proceeds to progress its early-stage product pipeline.
But great science should be backed by great management. So, what are the challenges in building a great team for a biotech start-up?
SCARCITY OF TALENT
There is scarcity of talent when it comes to biotech recruiting, partly because of the emergence of new technologies such as drug discovery AI, mRNA, and gene therapy. Therefore, talent in these niche but growing fields is scarce.
For example, a PhD candidate with experience in monoclonal antibody research, might not be as successful in mRNA research. It takes a few years to become a specialist in a certain field within biotech. As a result, there are non-transferrable skills from a specific biotech segment to another. The inevitable outcome of this process is scarcity of talent especially at the C-level.
This gap will only be bridged by externalization of academic research and by fostering partnerships within the industry.
CROSS-FUNCTIONAL & TEAM WORKING
It is imperative that a biotech professional should possess high-calibre team working skills. Excellent coordination between different functions (clinical, regulatory, market access, business development) is needed to achieve the ultimate goal: FDA approval.
Again, this level of coordination and team working is not as crucial in other industries, where each department might operate independently.
LACK OF DIVERSITY
It is not a secret that certain groups are underrepresented in biotech. Few years back, Brady Huggett emphasized this in this amazing Nature article.
BIG PHARMA BIAS
VC investors and BoDs push management to hire executives with big pharma experience. This means that actual skills are often ignored, while the big pharma stamp is looked upon. This is a form of bias that restricts professionals that do possess the necessary skills to perform at their job to get overlooked in the hiring process.
Building a team with cultural fit is indeed a challenge. It is a common strategy to complement an existing team with big pharma executives. But there are some drawbacks with such hiring strategy.
Big pharma is “too big to fail” (though still debatable). But think about this. Failing in a single R&D program can be a short-term setback for a big pharma but for a biotech start-up it could jeopardise its survival (remember small biotechs only have a few R&D projects, which are usually backed by the same science). Therefore, before hiring big pharma professionals you should ensure that they have rewired their mind-set and realised the impact of a potential failure of R&D programs (and the probability of this is actually really high)
From an organizational standpoint, big pharmas’ organizational structure is highly hierarchical and decisions are made by senior management. Instead, start-ups have flexible organizational processes and scientists as well as other team members are actively involved in the decision-making process (and this is one of the drivers of the high level of innovation observed in biotech start-ups).
Therefore, hiring a big pharma executive is a value-add in terms of experience and network, it can pose risks in terms of establishing organizational and decision-making processes that might be incompatible with a biotech start-up’s culture.
SO, IS THEIR A MAGIC FORMULA FOR BIOTECH HIRING?
Of course there isn’t. However, there are strategies and processes that can reduce the risk of a hire who does not fit culturally or whose team working skills are not as expected. We have over 100 years of research that tell us how to improve our hiring – but how do we actually put that science into work?
Practically, such solution could be the adoption of pre-employment assessment software that evaluates a candidate’s skills, personality traits and cultural fit. A common reaction to this is “we are a team of 5 people; we don’t need this kind of service and we have the capacity to evaluate hires by ourselves”. Typically, the opposite is true – because you are a small team with little or no HR experience, a solution is going to augment your ability to hire well. Every start-up needs a hiring strategy.
There are numerous products in the market that provide this type of pre-employment assessment tests. Having taken multiple pre-employment assessments tests myself, I can say that Bryq clearly stands out. What differentiates Bryq from other providers is that it is backed by robust organizational science and that it is very easy enough for even a small team to generate great results within a few hours – not days or weeks. So, this a great choice for big pharma companies and biotech start-ups seeking to add a layer of robustness in their hiring process.