Ever wondered what it takes to get a biotech start-up off the ground? In this post-event summary, we revisit a webinar hosted by BCS on 23rd September 2020, featuring Bianca Coulter, Martin Grindrod and Neha Rajdev of Coulter Partners, a global Life Science board and senior level executive search firm. The webinar discussed the importance of effective leadership, hiring a talented team to build a start-up and trends that affect the hiring process.
A typical biotech entrepreneur’s journey begins with the pursuit of a technological idea with potential commercial value. This is followed by tasks such as prototype building, patent filing, fund raising, preclinical and clinical testing, overcoming regulatory hurdles, bringing the product to market, before finally taking the best exit strategy available. To make all of these happen, it is important to have a solid founding team and the constant addition of talented individuals who can make critical contributions to help the company grow.
A key factor that determines the success of a life science’s business is having the right leadership. Successful start-up leaders are historically charismatic (although there are examples of more introverted character-types being successful leaders), strong communicators who are open to innovation, embrace change, and take a hands-on approach to leadership. More importantly, a good leader has the ability to build and work with a competent team, thus attracting investors who would want their money to be in safe hands.
Building an executive management team
The needs of a biotech start-up change depending on which developmental stage it is at, which means that different skillsets are needed to tackle a variety of challenges. Therefore, the leadership of a start-up company is never static, and leadership roles of members in the founding team can be changed or evolved to make way for more suitable people. To find out more about the usual leadership roles of a start-up, you can refer to our previous BCS article (https://www.biotechconnection-sg.org/a-brief-guide-to-the-chiefs-of-a-start-up-management-team/).
Besides the usual positions in the management team, the webinar discussed the indispensable and unique role of Chief Medical Officer (CMO) in biotech start-ups. A CMO provides clinical subject matter expertise, directs the clinical development of the biotech product, helps with navigating the regulatory landscape, and plays a role in the sales and marketing of the product. A full-time CMO may be rather expensive for a start-up and should only be hired at the right time.
Board memberships are also key in bringing success to a start-up company. Start-up founders should recruit experienced and supportive board members in the early stages of the company, so that they can mentor the inexperienced CEO and the leadership team. Such practices are common in biotech start-up companies in Singapore. However, as the start-up matures, the board chairman’s priorities would shift to corporate governance and looking after shareholder interests. Non-executive directors or independent board members may also be brought in, based on their ability to help the company enter different markets or find investors in different countries.
Hiring and managing talent
Besides getting the right people in key positions, it is important for a start-up to hire people who are hands-on, committed, accountable, and can fit into the culture of the small team. Due to limited resources, spotting mistakes in the hiring process and dismissing personnel who do not meet expectations become critical. To retain good people, it is important to reward high performing staff with bonuses or equity to incentivise them to stay. Organisation of staff engagement activities can promote team bonding and create a fun and light-hearted environment within the company.
In hiring and managing their team, start-ups should also be aware of the following trends in the wider biotech ecosystem:
Support from experienced industry talents
Experience and connections are vital for growing a biotech start-up. One reason why the biotech start-up ecosystems in the US and Europe have been relatively successful is because some of the brightest technical talents and leadership from big companies have left their comfort zone and chosen to work with top academics to build biotech start-ups. This mobility brings a large wealth of experience into start-up companies, especially when it comes to refining the product development process and navigating the business world.
While Singapore has world-class academic institutions, highly trained scientists, great hospitals, manufacturing capabilities and a supportive government, she lacks in large corporate research and development (R&D) centres. However, this has been changing in recent years, where a limited number of large biotech companies have started to set up corporate R&D centres, with the aim of expanding their footprint in Asia. With a small number of experienced global leaders coming into Singapore, the next generation of biotech and medtech leaders can be mentored to join the small but emerging ranks of local leadership.
Accessing global markets and talent
There are a number of considerations when choosing the base of operations for a biotech start-up. Moving to a major biotech hub is an attractive decision as the proximity to universities, incubators, venture capital firms, big pharmaceutical companies and hospitals makes for a conducive environment for an aspiring start-up. Conversely, some disadvantages that start-ups might face would be the inflated salaries and competition for lab and office space. Hiring multiple teams in different geographical locations or relocating team members could be some of the decisions that start-ups might make in order to get a business advantage.
The United States is still very much viewed as the best place for the growth a biotech start-up. Entering the US market gives start-ups access to the local talent pool, its huge investor pool and capital; the opportunity to set high product price points, and the prospect of a receiving a relatively high valuation at the exit stage. These benefits have attracted some European start-ups to seek Series B and C funding from US venture capital firms, with others looking to enter the Nasdaq Stock Market. Another way for start-up companies to enter the US market would be to hire key personnel who belong to the country of interest. For example, Singapore-based start-ups Medisix Therapeutics and Tessa Therapeutics have hired US-based CEOs, while maintaining their R&D and manufacturing operations in Singapore.
Hiring and managing talent during the COVID-19 pandemic
COVID-19 has been a good reminder to everyone about the importance of having a strong biotech scene in Singapore and around the world. This period has resulted in collaboration between large pharmaceutical companies, universities and start-ups on relevant technologies such as for vaccine development, as can be seen from the development of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford–AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to many changes in the hiring and managing of personnel as well. Instead of physical interviews, online interviews on video conferencing platforms have become the new normal, and start-ups need a new way to remotely assess a potential candidate’s suitability for a role and ability to fit within the organisation. The pandemic has also forced many companies to embrace and adapt work from home, with less consideration given to staff relocation. Staff development has definitely taken a backseat, due to the difficulty of conducting training in a virtual environment. Likewise, the demands of a leader and criteria for assessing their performance have changed during this pandemic. Leaders will need to tweak their management approaches to communicate their vision, and to engage with staff through online platforms.
To conclude, it is important for start-ups to ensure that they have the right people in key leadership positions and within the team. As resources are usually limited in a start-up, it is essential to make decisive moves to hire, remove and transfer personnel to avoid wasting talent costs. When in doubt, start-ups could consult executive search experts to guide their hiring strategies through the different stages of their growth.
We would like to thank the speakers, our moderator – Dr. Marianne Sheila and all participants for engaging in an informative discussion about the need for strong leadership, and good hiring and management habits in biotech start-ups.
By Brendan Sieow on behalf of BCS