Hiring practices are shifting as biotech goes digital

August 22, 2022 - 5 minutes
Image/Elena Resko

Cloud computing is becoming increasingly prevalent as demand for global collaborations grows. Sajith Wickramasekara, founder and CEO of the cloud lab software provider Benchling, explains how this shift is affecting the labor market in the biotech industry.

The biotech industry is becoming increasingly enmeshed with the world of digital technology, as companies search for ways to streamline and automate their research. This trend was especially spurred on by lockdowns resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID-19 required a lot of global collaboration and you can’t really do that without technology,” said Sajith Wickramasekara, founder and CEO of the U.S. cloud computing platform Benchling. “It also put a huge selective pressure on who could be in the lab and who couldn’t. So we’ve seen modernization really pick up in some of the larger biotech companies.”

Wickramasekara began his career in computer science, and spent some time in molecular biology doing wet lab research in the late 2000s. What he noticed in these positions was the dependence of many biology labs on the use of pen and paper notebooks.

“I felt like it was like being in the stone age,” reflected Wickramasekara. “People would leave the lab and you wouldn’t know where their samples were and what they did.”

In contrast, software engineers tend to have a pool of online tools that improve productivity and foster innovation. In an effort to recapture this culture in the biotech industry, Wickramasekara set up Benchling in 2012. Benchling provides a cloud platform that makes collaboration easier between scientists by helping them design experiments and analyze results in a group.

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“When we started the company, things like CRISPR and gene editing were taking off,” said Wickramasekara. “We had DNA sequencing getting cheaper and new methodologies coming out. There was more automation happening. And we were right at the beginning of that.”

With around 1,000 clients in the bioscience space, Benchling is one of the leaders of a growing group of cloud-based life sciences companies including Synthace and Transcriptic. To fuel the expansion of its business around the globe, Benchling raised $200 million in Series E funding in 2021.

According to Wickramasekara, the growth of cloud computing has been a natural progression for the life sciences as it becomes ever more pervasive in other industries, and this trend can already be seen in biotech hubs in Boston and the Bay Area.

“The beauty is that the rest of people’s lives outside of their scientific work is becoming more and more cloud native, such as the tools people use for their personal life or other professions,” said Wickramasekara. “It’s definitely a global trend independent of biotech.”

This shift is also impacting the labor market in the biotech industry. Wickramasekara sees Benchling’s own clients adopting more robotics and next-generation techniques such as single-cell sequencing. This means they have magnitudes more data to handle and analyze, and are increasingly seeking people with skill sets that are related to data handling.

“We’re seeing more and more of our customers prioritize hiring software engineers and data scientists,” said Wickramasekara. He added that some of Benchling’s clients such as Recursion Pharmaceuticals and Sana Biotechnology have been investing in people with computational backgrounds “since day one of their company — sometimes in the first 10 hires — because it’s in equal part as important as the traditional wet lab science.”

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In addition, more life sciences graduate students are leaving universities with coding knowledge, and even experience in machine learning. This means they will be able to fill a lot of gaps in the demand for digital and life sciences talent.  

“You’re competing for this talent with tech companies as well and other folks who really prioritize and hone the recruiting machine to pluck [graduates] out of school,” said Wickramasekara. “I think it’s going to create some selective pressure on the industry of who can and can’t do this effectively.”

This competition with tech companies is also contributing to a tight labor market where it’s very difficult to source talented candidates with software engineering experience.

“The last 10 years have obviously seen an incredible growth in technology and software,” explained Wickramasekara. “Demand has far, far outstripped supply. As a result, wages have gone up significantly.”

“It’s going to cause the industry to have to adapt some of the recruiting tactics of bigger tech companies in addition to driving up wages.”

Benchling plans to play a major role in the growing demand for tech-savvy talent in biology labs.

“Many organizations hire these teams, but then if those teams don’t have access to good data, what are they doing?” commented Wickramasekara. “We help to close that gap.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is hastening the shift towards global collaborations, with one of the most well-known being the Covid vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech. Additionally, the growing complexity of lots of life sciences R&D is making it harder to keep all expertise under one roof. This is also opening up the talent pool with remote working employees outside of major biotech hubs that were previously not considered.

“I’m not saying it’s easier to collaborate,” said Wickramasekara. “Actually collaboration gets trickier, which is where organizations like Benchling have to be really good at supporting customers in doing this.”

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