The biotech job market is a bit like the suburban housing market—red hot. It’s a buyer’s market, don’t waive your inspection rights!
By Pamela L. Esposito, CBO of Replimune as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC.
It is possibly the tightest biotech labor market of my twenty-year career. I have not seen any recent statistics, but it seems the inflow of capital into our sector, documented by Bruce in several of his recent blogs, is trickling down. Companies are proliferating, and far more jobs are being created than there are warm bodies to fill. In any given week, I get up to five inquiries from recruiters; companies of all stages and sizes are looking for people to fill strategy and business development roles. In this environment, most candidates will have several options; I’d like to opine specifically on how best to choose a CBO job, but this advice can apply to any executive position.
Much has been written about the importance of team and corporate culture. While this is all true and I certainly can’t argue differently, one of things that has recently intrigued me is just how much the pendulum has swung in this direction. At Replimune, we have nearly doubled in size during the pandemic. I have had the pleasure of interviewing up and down our organization and its clear job applicants rightly care about company culture. They ask about team dynamics and potential for professional growth, and business team applicants ask even more specifically about financing and commercial strategy. While these are certainly important things to inquire about, candidates are asking all these questions to such an extent that they neglect to ask deep questions about science or company data.
For any applicant close to accepting a CBO (or any BD) position, I suggest you start with the objectives that you will be measured against in your new role. Presumably, one or more goals will be based on the development of a partnering strategy which means at some point you will be conducting a partnering process, ultimately creating the option to a partnership deal. I strongly recommend that prospective candidates/job seekers walk through the diligence process they would expect from any thorough partner. Put yourself in the partners’ shoes and essentially conduct a mock diligence, then ask those same questions of your prospective employer. Offer to sign a CDA to get the proper answers you need in order to make a decision. Doing this allows for two valuable insights – first, you get a thorough understanding of the level of evidence or data the company has generated. This should enable “belief.” Second, you get to see how your future teammates address what they don’t yet know and how they plan fill in the gaps.
Since a core responsibility in the role is building excitement for the company’s value proposition with external audiences, understanding the utility of the platform and/or future products and the level of evidence generated thus far to support novel scientific claims is critical to doing your job well. And understanding how the team plans to address unanswered questions will dictate both your personal success and the success of the company. So rather than ask the question about professional development, ask about the development of the research plan—that will often reveal more about your personal development opportunities.
Early in my career, I took a job in Seattle, WA working for a newly funded biotech that was essentially planning on putting humans into a metabolic freeze, somewhat like the urban legend of Walt Disney (rumor has always had it that he is frozen until technology allows him to be reanimated!). I took the job, moved to Seattle and then got cold feet; pun intended. Maybe I wasn’t visionary enough to understand the potential, but I realized I had no chance in being successful without understanding the technology enough to believe. And if I didn’t believe, how could I convince others to do so? I resigned before my start date.
I am not trying to imply that one can easily predict the outcome of scientific experiments or that one needs to do this before choosing a new job. If you could, you wouldn’t need to run the experiment. But an understanding of the vision, the platform, the data and a credible plan for generating more data to achieve the vision, allows for real conviction. Deep conviction grows over time with accumulation of data. Deep conviction is very different than blind faith. I urge business colleagues to really try to understand the research—don’t just cede the interpretation to R&D. And it starts in the interview process. Ask to have dinner with the CSO and / or CMO and test their conviction and interpretation of the company’s data. Ultimately no matter how good you are at your job in opening doors, the way these positions interact with their larger brethren peers will be key. In today’s market, I glean that many applicants seem to think whether science “works” will ultimately be a flip of the coin. I don’t happen to believe this but if you do, at the very least, I advise to try to choose a job that seems to use a weighted coin.
A deep understanding of the MOA and data enables me to be unperturbed by the biases of others, be they within pharma or on the buy side. If you don’t have that conviction, how can you be effective and honest in a sales role? You will always be second guessing yourself. So, in what may be the best job seekers market of our careers, take advantage of your options. Do your scientific diligence and don’t waive an inspection! I can promise, if your technology is successful, you will have great career growth, the compensation will follow and you can become an true influencer in the organization.
Thanks to Samantha Truex, Philip Astley-Sparke, Sarah O’Connell for reading drafts of this post.