What Makes a Biotech Executive Stand Out?

June 16, 2021 - 6 minutes

Talented executives are always in demand in the biotech industry. Leaders who stand out in the field demonstrate flexibility to deal with change and failure, as well as a track record of hitting milestones.

Successful biotechs typically progress along similar paths, moving from small scientist-driven enterprises eager to test their ideas, to established companies with many employees and a focus on delivering products to patients. As such, their needs change along the way, says Jemma Challinor, co-founder and Managing Partner for biotech executive recruiter Precision BioSearch. The best executives for an early-stage biotech are adaptable, capable of bringing a “certain level of energy” to a company while operating with limited resources, she says.

By definition, early-stage biotechs are completely unique, says Pierre Vercher, Recruitment Manager at ‎Approach People Recruitment – they’re developing new scientific niches, exploiting novel technologies, or discovering new kinds of products. “It’s not like in pharma, where you have expertise in one subject, and sometimes you can go straightforward and find the person in another company doing the same thing,” he says. Instead, biotechs value people who demonstrate flexibility. “You need people with great ability to work with ambiguity.”

Standouts at more mature companies need to have a steady hand, says Malcolm Silander, Precision BioSearch’s other co-founder and Managing Partner. “In late stages, you don’t necessarily want someone who’s going to go rogue.”

At every stage, track record matters, says Challinor. A Nasdaq listing is great, but not the only sign of success; companies are “looking for people who’ve driven strategic decision-making to reach those certain value inflection points at any stage.” That can mean anything from selecting assets to building a great team, she added.

But as biotech companies grow, their needs change. That can drive recruitment of leaders with more broadly applicable skill sets. Vaccitech CEO Bill Enright says that when the company was searching for a chief financial officer, it was as important to find someone with experience with an IPO as it was to have someone experienced in knowledge-based and technical accounting. “It was less than a year before we were going to go public. We wanted to have somebody who had that experience either on the company side or on the banking side, that was familiar with the process.” The company went on to close a €91M ($110M) IPO in May.

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The transition from a scrappy preclinical startup to a seasoned company knee-deep in clinical trials can be tricky, as the needs of the company don’t always match the skill set of the founders. “Not all people who are strong at building a company are good at managing a publicly listed company,” Enright says. Founders tend to be strong scientists, he says, but not all have an appetite for team building or fundraising. According to Enright, “the average founder lasts about two and a half years,” depending on how fast a company grows. When the person is out of their depth –– either in terms of company growth or the limits of their scientific background – it’s a sign to move on, he says.

But founders and less experienced executives don’t always know that their time is likely limited by the business cycle, says Silander, which can complicate the transition.

According to Challinor, companies need to always look ahead to the next milestone when the company is about to grow, and plan for the right team to take the company through that point. That can mean adding executives with the right business expertise to weather an acquisition or merger, or the medical expertise to move a therapy onto a new stage in the pipeline, she says.

 Though different stages may require different kinds of leadership, a few global characteristics make a great biotech leader at every step of the way. For one, executives have to maintain an appetite for risk. In a biotech company “everything is constantly moving,” says Silander. “You can be weeks away from actually having any money in the bank; the whole thing could fall over.” Companies are looking for people who can handle that stress.

“In a biotech, you have to be really straightforward,” says Silander, and great biotech leaders maintain focus on their area of development. “There’s no space for fluff.”

“There are biotechs and small pharmas that go through the whole cycle and never see a product that goes to market,” says Enright. Perseverance is a key attribute for an executive who can get a product across the finish line, he says.

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Standout executives also foster a functioning company culture, Enright says. “The highest performing companies are the ones that have corporate values and [where] everyone’s on the same page.” This means recruiting talent with similar values, especially executives who prioritize transparency, in part to prevent siloing.

People skills are an obvious plus, both for internal and external company building. “You won’t get a biotech off the ground with just yourself,” says Challinor. “You need people who are well connected, who go out of their way to build good relationships across the sector, across the globe.”

Enright looks for executives with different vantage points, he says, as diversity of thought improves problem solving.

Psychometric profiling has shown that thought diversity comes from experience diversity, says Silander. Some early stage biotechs struggle with diversity and inclusiveness, in part because venture capitalists who back young companies are risk averse and prefer known quantities for their executive and board positions. Still, the next crop of great executives will likely have a lot more gender and racial diversity than in the past, he says. “Doing the right thing is cool now.”

But it isn’t a marketing ploy. “Diverse thinking makes more money,” says Challinor, and that’s only one piece of the urgency. The growth rate of the biotech industry means there aren’t enough people with specific experience to go around, and improving gender and racial representation is a clear opportunity to bring in talented, fresh perspectives who have not had a chance to contribute at the executive level.

“The pressure is becoming greater than ever,” she added. Biotechs need to be more proactive about identifying individuals with potential outside of the existing stable of seasoned executives. “It’s becoming increasingly clear we need to increase the talent pool, and not just recycle the old ones.”

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