Attracting High Quality Talent

Attracting High Quality Talent in an emerging Life Sciences Company (the role of the evangelical CEO)

Earlier this month, I was asked to participate in the panel discussion at the April OBN BioTuesday event, “What does it take for a biotech company to reach mid-size?” I joined Peter Nolan (CBO, Oxford BioMedica), who also hosted the event, as well as John Harris (CEO at OBN), Bill Fleming (CFO at Oxitec Ltd.) and Julian Golec (former SVP Research at Vertex), where we discussed the growth issues in building a mid-sized biotech company. There was, obviously, a lot of discussion about financing that growth, and I was able to share my experiences from both Genzyme and GeneMedix plc. My main focus, however, was the issue of attracting and retaining high quality talent into such companies. I suggested that some of the key triggers or selling points for persuading people to join an early-stage company may be as follows,

  • A key role within a company with exciting science / technology
  • Well financed with “big name” and long-term investors
  • A charismatic (and well known) CEO who has already attracted experienced people into the organisation
  • An understandable and well defined business plan
  • Located in one of the main bioscience clusters (e.g. Oxford, Cambridge, London etc.)
  • International outlook
  • Good reputation as an employer (where appropriate)
  • Good rewards and long-term incentives

This is all well and good if a company can tick the majority of these boxes, but for a company at the early stage of its development, it may well be that they need to attract high calibre people in order to attract the investment; sometimes they may even be looking for someone to work partially for “sweat equity”. Under these circumstances, the company has very few levers; it will all be about what the future might bring. Clearly the company has to have a credible business plan, built around some advantageous technology or know-how and a believable route to market or funding event. They must also have the potential to raise the required finance, but most of all must have someone who can sell the vision with real enthusiasm. Enter the Evangelical CEO. In almost all cases, it will be the CEO’s vision, energy, and sheer determination that will “sell” the role to a potential new senior employee – he/she might need some help from the scientific founder and/or early investors, but unless the CEO comes over as a true evangelist, who has been prepared to take a personal and, probably, a financial risk, then it is unlikely that other people will feel inclined to join the venture. In a nutshell, the CEO is the vital component in the recruitment process, particularly for a young company, and probably needs the following attributes,

  • Visionary
  • Enthusiast
  • Knowledge Provider
  • Cheer-leader
  • Business Planner
  • Super Sales person

As I write this article, my mind travels back to the mid-eighties, when Geoffrey Cox, then the Managing Director of Genzyme in the UK, was trying to persuade me to join the company (which was still in its early stage of development). As he showed me around the rather faded and under-invested Koch-Light Chemicals facility in Haverhill (which Genzyme had just acquired), he implored me, “not to see it as it is today, but how it will look in the future”. He then introduced me to Henri Termeer, then the new CEO of Genzyme, and I was sold. I quickly bought into his vision, resigned from my “safe” job with Beecham Pharmaceuticals and spent the next 11 years on a very exciting and fulfilling journey.

So yes, the evangelic and visionary CEO is the organisation’s key asset when it comes to recruiting into an emerging life sciences company.