5 Keys to Recruit and Keep Top Performers In Biotech

By: Kris Hamilton


Biotechnology has hit a growth spurt over the last decade. Steve Jobs rightly said, on his deathbed, “The biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the intersection of biology and technology. A new era is beginning.”

Many companies are struggling in this new era with the growing pains to find top performers who can fit unique and niche positions. According to a 2018 PWC Global CEO Study, just over 50% of CEO’s in biotech said finding, attracting, and keeping the right people was their biggest challenge. Companies are still struggling to keep up with talent shortages.

The engagement struggle is real, too, as it can be frustrating for companies to scale with the wrong people in the wrong seat. The concern of poor performance is often not due to ability but to a lack of fit and team cohesion.

Even so, much has been achieved. Life Sciences has pioneered new treatment options for rare and complex diseases, created genetic tests to better identify inherited diseases, and paved the way for advances in more complex drug platforms. The list could go on and on.

Within the current environment, how do you attract and retain the right people? To answer, let’s first observe what trends are happening so we can choose real solutions given the distinct challenges in the industry.

Trends in Life Sciences:

  • M&A
    2019 was a year for the records. M&A streaks were on a tear as premium acquisitions of companies like Audentes, ArQule, Synthorx, and others single-handedly rescued the industry’s poor earnings report from Q4. Other notable acquisitions were Achillion Pharmaceuticals selling to Alexion for nearly $1 billion, and Celgene getting acquired by Bristol-Myers Squibb, making that buyout 2019’s “Deal of The Year” at $74 billion. That left only Amgen, Biogen, and Gilead as the last three remaining original biotech members to stand independent with two other long-established biotech companies, Regeneron and Verte.
  • Emerging Leadership of Small to Midsized Companies
    The trend also points to a slew of smaller and emerging biotechnology companies now worth between roughly $10 and $20 billion who have their sights to lead out in the industry. Trouble is, RBC Capital Markets analysts estimate about ½ of the 200 public biotechs “lack sufficient funds to carry them through the entire year without tapping investors for more”. Fortunately, these companies are holding their own even as financing rounds have been interrupted during the pandemic, some fortunate to obtain government assistance and other financial support.
  • Blended Skillsets
    Using big data and AI, the shift has been towards tech-savvy employees. And the competition puts them in a head-on collision with the tech giants such as Facebook, Apple, Google, and Amazon.

    • It doesn’t help that there is also a skills gap starting at the university level from the industry that requires people to have a blend of mathematics, life sciences, and advanced computing skills.
  • Bottlenecks
    Slow and long hiring processes cause many biotech firms to miss out on qualified candidates. Interestingly, the Chief Economist at Glassdoor, Dr. Andrew Chamberlain named both the biotech and pharmaceutical industries with the longest interview process in the United States, averaging just over 28 days.


5 Keys to Recruit and Keep Top Performers: 

  • Revamp Your Employer Brand
    Higher salaries, benefits, and stock options only go so far to attract and retain employees. An important step after a merger or acquisition is to revamp your employer brand and transform your entire workforce into brand ambassadors because the research is clear, candidates rank an organization’s current employees as the best source of information about the employer. Defining a higher purpose and mission of the company, your brand identity, often expressed as “Why we exist” is a key factor in retention when the long hours and certain viability of the company can still be in question. Additionally, a clear and compelling employer brand is a powerful tool to use when competing for talent against the larger tech giants of the world.
  • Assess “Fit” In the Interview Process
    Small companies do not have the luxury to make a mistake when it comes to hiring a bad cultural fit. Who cares if the person has amazing skills but they’re disengaged or cancer to the team? According to Daniel Patrick at TayganPoint Consulting Group, “Assessing ‘fit’ by way of specific skill sets and personality traits is imperative given that people will be expected to work very closely and fluidly with others, both inside the firm and with a few selected external partners.”. There is a science behind predicting engagement. We use the Predictive Index, click here and here to learn more about how the PI works.
  • Artificial Intelligence in Recruiting
    Machine-learning and problem solving can far outpace a human when sifting through mounds of data to find the right candidate for a position. For this, biotech companies have turned to automating tasks or streamlining workflows that are high-volume, repetitive, and non-candidate facing.

    • For example, use machine learning to find relevant candidates or guide visitors on your career website to the right open jobs based on their resume. You can even white-label a chatbot to answer candidates’ questions in the hiring process. Although, as a matter of opinion and a word of caution, companies who outsource their voice to a chatbot risk losing a candidate because it can compromise the necessary human connection people need when choosing among employer brands. For a deeper review, click here to see an aggregated and unbiased review of some of the top AI recruiting platforms in the industry.
  • Relocate and Re-Articulate
    Biotech companies have long been used to relocating people from other biotech cluster areas such as Boston/Cambridge, San Fran, NY/NJ, the BioHealth Capital Region, and San Diego, to name a few. Those who are winning at this strategy often partner with their local Chambers or other businesses to effectively position the region as a highly-desirable place to live and work. Pulling from another industry, but for the same purposes, look at the KC Global Design initiative in Kansas City, MO, and the highlight reel in Oklahoma City as a blueprint on attracting talent such as Architects, Engineers, and Technology candidates. The same should be done for your city or biotech cluster.

    • If a healthy relocation package is not in the budget, companies are having to rethink their hiring models and be more open to remote or flexible workers.
  • Remove Obstacles
    Review your hiring process and see if you can remove any unnecessary obstacles that are slowing it down. Perhaps instead of 10 “must-have’s”, reduce those to 5 with the other 5 criteria’s as nice-to-have. And if you’re relying on complex testing or algorithms which also prolong the hiring process, remember that these don’t account for the resourcefulness of a candidate or how environments, bosses, or even different personalities on the team affect a person’s performance.

You might be in a different boat with good quality candidate flow and retention because you have implemented these keys. But if you’re struggling to find the right people or concerned that you won’t scale because you don’t have a grasp on our people strategy around hiring and retention, reach out for a conversation to see how we could help.

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