Fleece vs Future: How Small Companies Can Help Build Biotech Talent

Posted November 13th, 2018 by Aoife Brennan, in From The Trenches, Talent

This blog was written by Aoife Brennan, CEO of Synlogic, as part of the From The Trenches features of LifeSciVC.

A lot has been written about the biotech talent war in the Boston area including the availability of talent as the major limitation to venture creation and the increasingly lavish perks designed to attract and retain experienced staff. As the leader of an organization attempting to grow within this ecosystem, I am acutely aware of the challenges. I also have an additional vantage point however due to an affiliation with several academic programs and mentoring organizations. I frequently meet with talented and ambitious men and women who are frustrated by attempts to get a foot in the door or to explore career opportunities beyond their current role. I believe that small and mid-size companies can and should do more to contribute to the development of a broad and diverse talent pool.

Creating a bigger pool 

I remember very vividly the first conversation I had with an executive recruiter while I was working in academic medicine. One of the questions he asked me was whether I was more interested in safety, clinical development or medical affairs. I had no idea how to answer. Physicians and scientists find it very difficult to know where to start in industry. Many have spent their careers focused on the academic ladder which, for all its faults, is well defined. From the outside, it can be difficult to understand the industry career structure and rules for success.  On the hiring manager side, recruiters are often too focused on a narrow skill or experience set and hesitant to take risks. Everyone is looking for the magic 2-4 years of industry experience, but my observation is that solid scientific training, learning agility, curiosity and interpersonal skills go a long way in predicting future success across many roles and therapeutic areas.

While the correct starting substrate is critical, setting a new hire on a path to success is also an important consideration. Traditional ‘wisdom’ is that an initial role must be with an established pharma company with transition to smaller biotechs occurring as a mid or late career move. I did not follow this path and I know many individuals who have built successful careers without ever working for a company of > 500 people. True, it is difficult for smaller companies to offer formal training programs in drug development (kudos to the larger companies like Biogen and Takeda who run great programs). This limitation can often be balanced by closer interactions with experienced mentors as well as an opportunity to have a more holistic view at a smaller company. There are also external resources that can help with training courses and networking groups that offer mentoring.

Far more important than the size of the company is the availability, interest and commitment of the hiring manager to help the new recruit learn the ropes until they can function independently. Ideally, there would be a group of individuals who are prepared to invest in new hires’ success. You cannot have a situation where the blind are leading the blind. On the other hand, there are many great people who are very competent individually but do not have the disposition to tolerate another person sitting at the end of their desk/bench, apprentice-style, for 6 months. Given the criticality of building the talent pool, more recognition is required for those who have consistently demonstrated skill in this area.

Developing the current pool

One of the key benefits of working at a small company is the opportunity to broaden exposure across functions that may be siloed at more established companies, stretch into new areas of accountability and to transition to new roles as the company grows. Cross-training can also be a key advantage for the company, providing flexibility and resilience. Instead of free lunches and lavish perks, which are of very transient benefit, a talent development plan could attract new hires and would benefit the overall ecosystem. This does not need to be expensive and should include being on the look-out for skills that could indicate a good fit for an entry level role in a new function. Few things are more satisfying than watching someone thrive in a new career.

The fast pace and overworked nature of biotech companies can create challenges to professional development. One of the most effective development tools is coaching and mentoring yet a minority of startups and biotechs offer formal programs. Managers often also feel underequipped to provide feedback and can ignore it all together or focus on the technical (walk me through your experimental plans) at the cost of other, equally important skills (we need to work on your presentation technique). In smaller companies, leaders are often in player-coach roles where it is quicker to ‘just do it myself’, which has a habit of becoming self-perpetuating. Not everyone is cut out to manage others and even after training and feedback, there are highly valuable individual contributors who will never get there. It is critical to the success of the entire ecosystem that we make sure that the talent builders are in roles where they can have impact and that individual contributors are in roles where they feel valued without 10 direct reports.

At Synlogic, we have transitioned from a private research-based organization to a public company with multiple programs in the clinic within the past 2 years. Our headcount has increased approximately 3-fold in that time and we have added several new functions. We started to focus on development training about 1 year ago. One of the initiatives that has worked out is a weekly, all hands meeting. We use this 30-minute meeting to share company updates, celebrate success and to teach each other. We have close to full attendance each week (there are bagels) but it took about 6 months for us to get the content right and to embed it in our culture. We have also started a formal leadership development training program this year. Our program is designed to accommodate cohorts of 20 per year and takes place over 2 months in 6, half-day sessions. The direct cost of the program is approximately equivalent to the cost of the holiday party.

In addition to development training, we encouraged team members to apply and transition to new roles within the company when a business need arises. We have even pre-empted this need in several cases where we have supported a team member auditing a new function prior to there being an opening. One example is a team member who joined the organization early as a research associate and took on management of lab operations. As we began working on our first IND, she expressed an interest in transitioning to clinical research but we did not need any clinical research associates at the time. Following diligence about the role and, convinced that it was the right move for her, she took some external course work. Earlier this summer, with the increasing complexity of the clinical programs, it was the right time to bring on an in-house CRA and I am delighted to report that she is killing it in her new role. The benefit of having a high-performer who is a great cultural fit and knows the science far outweighs the cost of the external training and mentoring to get her up to speed.

Developing talent and broadening the talent pool is always going to be a journey.  While we are far from having everything figured out at Synlogic, we have started down a road that will increase our capabilities, and the capabilities of the biotech community as a whole.  I encourage others to think about taking the first step, or accelerating progress down the path. Now back to the important task of choosing which lucky fleece gets embroidered with the Synlogic logo this holiday season……




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