Jeb Keiper

Talent In The Biotech Gig Economy

Posted January 31st, 2017 by Jeb Keiper, in Capital efficiency, From The Trenches, New business models, Talent

This blog was written by Jeb Keiper, CBO of Nimbus Therapeutics LLC, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC.

Walking the streets of Union Square in mid-January torrential rain, we had the good fortune of sharing the Nimbus story with a number of investors, bankers, and pharma types. All of them were keen to hear what Nimbus was up to next, but some were surprised to hear that Nimbus was still around, as many thought our whole company was bought by Gilead ($GILD) last year. It wasn’t, and here is more on the why / how.

The most common questions to our team were: “How many people do you have?” “Where are your labs?” “What capabilities do you have in-house?” (polite ways to get at understanding a company’s scale, cost structure, expertise) Nimbus’ answer: 25 employees brought a pipeline of 5 programs forward, including one Phase 2-ready in NASH at the time Gilead acquired our program last year — all discovered in-house, without having our own labs. How? Well, we were actually paying for 150+ people, but the vast majority were freelance consultants (Head of Regulatory Affairs, Head of CMC, Head of Stats & Programming, Head of HR) and dozens of scientists at expert CRO collaborators. Such staffing nimbleness is made possible by this burgeoning biotech gig economy we find ourselves in.

A year ago, our CSO, Rosana Kapeller, blogged about the Über disruption coming to biotech. Now, a few years into running Nimbus, several important revelations have come through operating this model:

  • The size of the highly skilled and pharma-experienced talent pool has grown, their ranks swollen by the continued R&D down-sizing and outsourcing at pharma, as covered here (though the sustainability may be in question if the trend continues). For now, there are plenty of hands with very specialized skills available on a consulting or contract basis, across all disciplines of science and operations.
  • Finding the right people, at the right time has always been the trick. While screening and searching have always been reliable tools, most of the savvy players in this space hand-assemble their teams from their own networks. Malcolm Gladwell’s “connectors” are a leadership archetype you need to include on the team. These well-networked individuals have the gift of being able to assemble a quality team, and quickly set culture and deliver execution. They flourish where the networks of biotech talent are richest: Boston and the Bay Area.
  • Demographics are only serving to reinforce the gig economy. As younger talents advance their careers and embrace a much more flexible approach to their jobs, companies need to embrace a more flexible staffing model. Mike Gladstone explored the challenge of youth in biotech leadership positions, but make no mistake, Millennials are pursuing life science degrees – the category of PhDs awarded with both the highest fraction and highest growth rate of any field, according to a recent Nature study.
  • Technology has enabled truly global collaboration. “The sun never sets on a Nimbus project,” we always say, and with fabulous IT tools for sharing information, scientific data can be loaded from anywhere in the globe to the project team, with quality controls capable of due diligence scrutiny. Real-time video and collaboration apps, not just for Microsoft Office files, but also for complex discovery and development data sharing, are available. The CROs and freelance talents know how to use these and are standardizing. Interestingly, much of the raw horsepower for drug development prosecution is found outside of Boston and the Bay Area, and not all of it is commodity. There are some fabulous capabilities and talent located away from the U.S. coasts; a virtual approach to engaging those groups is essential.
  • The quality of science that can be performed outside your labs is unparalleled. At Nimbus, we discover and invent, develop into the clinic and manufacture, all without our own labs. Custom, bespoke assays and models can be developed by your teams and collaborators, perfected, and then replicated and transferred as needed.
  • Velocity of spend can be much more carefully controlled. For the finance leaders out there, the gig economy has enabled them to apply investment capital against projects much more sensitively, limit overhead, and toggle it up and down in a moment’s notice (think flexible spend vs. fixed cost). After Nimbus sold its ACC program to Gilead, the 150+ people we were paying for ratcheted back to the 40 or so needed for our preclinical-stage pipeline, the very next day.
  • Phenomenal project leadership and management is a must. Being the center of the hub-and-spoke model requires exceptional attention to detail, as the wheel turns so much faster at the center. Skilled project and alliance leaders who labored their programs through big pharma bureaucracy will finally be able to have projects advance at their pace, or even faster. This is definitely one of the skills many consider necessary to employ at the center.
  • Your problems will be solved faster. Already today, many firms in various industries have used incentives to large groups to solve complex challenges, such as the X-prize, code writing, math proofs, etc. These all share one thing in common: The crowd approach to problem solving iterates ideas faster and converges on solutions. Biotech can be like this, too. For example, a CMC challenge on one project can easily be farmed out to many groups experienced in the field without seeming threatening to an in-house team (who often would be the gate-keeper, anyway). Dismantling that barrier to action results in better solutions.

As the gig economy picks up, companies have adapted in different ways. On the big pharma side, the gig economy comprises the academic labs, small biotechs, and the partnering professionals that put these agreements in place. Some companies have adapted well to this format; just look at J&J’s JLABs project, Celgene’s prodigious deal making, the Sunrise program at Sanofi, DPAc at GSK, and a few others. Mid-sized pharma have struggled mightily with financial pressures on their bottom lines (hey, R&D budgets are just so easy to trim, right?), or are being gobbled up in M&A (kudos to Actelion for keeping the R&D separate).

Small companies have bifurcated too; many newer ones have assembled a “virtual model” and are prosecuting it successfully. For those pursuing brand new types of products (e.g., modified autologous cells as products), infrastructure and in-house talent have remained necessary, yet even those are showing signs of fracture by areas that scale best beyond one company.

But at the end of the day, whether you hire or contract talent, it is all about the people. Make sure to assemble the A-team of talent, from wherever they reside or hail from, and they will deliver.


I began writing this blog before the protectionist Executive Order on immigration was issued this past weekend.  Amazing how things you take for granted on a Friday morning can be ripped away in 24 hours. The ban is a self-inflicted wound on America.  It does not matter what countries are included, it has a chilling effect on all immigration and is a betrayal of American values. Ours is a country of immigrants, forging ahead together, and we cannot close the doors on this next generation.  The talent brought forward to our industry, to every industry, is essential. At Nimbus, half of our entire company are immigrants, including our CEO, CSO, and CMO.  We come to work every day in the struggle against disease, and we need the best ideas and brightest minds, from anywhere in the world.

The free flow of ideas and people is essential to the concept of the gig economy, and policy and positions that limit or endanger this future must be challenged and righted. The gig economy is about sharing, collaboration, and seamless transitions; in a world full of walls the gig economy falls apart.  All of us have a role to play in shaping this agenda, and I know I can count on millions of others to join me to reverse policies that discriminate.  Together in action, the future can remain bright for our country, our industry, patients, and their families.


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  • John Herrmann

    Jeb – thank you for sharing your perspectives in this really nice article that highlights one approach to achieving better capital efficiency at the front end of drug R&D. Lilly’s Chorus group Lean-to-POC mind-set which inverts some of the traditional R&D processes shares many of these approaches Nimbus is applying to the earlier phases of discovery to IND. It all starts with asking “why are we doing it this way?

  • biotech-investor

    Nimbus is talking it’s book here. The Gig Economy is bad for employees and is a product of companies trying to skirt things like 401ks and health insurance. It would be a disaster applied to researchers, who by the very nature of the complex science requires years concentrating on a subsection of science. Routine assays can be outsourced but innovative science cannot be. Millennials don’t want a Gig Economy it was thrust upon them.

  • Jeb Keiper

    Fair points of pushback, let’s start about the support companies offer to employees vs. freelance. Nimbus is proud that we offer benefits and equity both to employees and qualified consultants consistent with labor laws. That said, the archaic system that somehow links employment with health benefits or savings accounts is long over due to be re-worked. Post-WW2 economic and labor policies are not fit for today, and being able to take your health plan and 401k with you when you change employment is key. Second point is around complex nature of science, we’ve had consulting roles working on particular pathways for almost a decade now – gigs don’t have to be 2 months. Finally, on doing innovative science in an out-sourced environment, it is possible. While we don’t have labs ourselves, our employees and consultants travel to our CRO collaborators and get into the labs and design and perfect novel assays that can then be performed by the CRO after they return home – we just as a company don’t need to own that infrastructure. Finally, your point about what Millennials want and choice. I think you are right, it is about choice. Taking ‘gigs’ and working in a new fashion is not for everybody, but it is for some, and we need a plurality of approaches, as well as policies that support flexible movement and re-organization with minimum disruption. This was never going to be easy, but we share our playbook as best we can to help others that are trying to adjust.

  • Jeb Keiper

    John, very good points. The Chorus group at Lilly might have been the very first group to really chart a new way of working outside the traditional pharma R&D silos. It would be great to see $LLY senior mgmt talk more about that model and successes as part of the industry dialog, but really appreciate you reminding readers about that here. Thanks.

  • Ankita

    Jeb- As a millennial, I look forward to the point in time where I have sufficient contacts and experience to be full-time gig-er. However, I’m not sure it’s the exclusive domain of millennials, nor that all millennials seek a gig lifestyle. Perhaps it has more to do with personality types – some of us like to have our hands in lots of cookie jars, participate in the industry more broadly, and work on defined projects for a defined period of time. We are ok with taking on a bit more risk if that is commensurate with a work and lifestyle that suits us. I’ve seen the model work for CFOs, CBOs, and regulatory affair leaders where they are “CFO/CBO/RAlead” for a day at 5 different companies at any one time. This allows them to be part of the team, contribute meaningfully, and help advance programs. It’s also beneficial to the companies, because sometimes there is a need for a function, but not at a full time level. As product/portfolio strategy professional, I see so many small companies forego new product planning efforts until after phase 2, after which it’s often too late to incorporate key customer feedback into the development process, resulting in suboptimal endpoints, limited data, and eventually challenges in reimbursement. A model by which an individual could be “new product planner” for a day at 5 different small biotechs could help these companies better develop assets for success without over-resourcing.

  • Jeb Keiper

    Ankita, agreed this is not just about one particular generation. To the points biotech-investor made below and my response, there are plenty of Boomers, Gen-Xers, that gravity to that sort of model, and for certain roles and times of there life. The key is flexibility to follow your desired path: easier said than done, look at geography, there are just fewer options for talent outside the coastal hubs; not no options, just fewer. Take medicinal chemistry, over the last decade nearly 10,000 chemists were laid off in the mid-Atlangtic region; lots of talent re-thinking their direction.