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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