How Biotech Startups Can Defy the Recruiting Odds

February 13, 2015

9:00 am

Finding qualified candidates to fill any startup position is tough. But for emerging biotechnology companies, securing experienced candidates with the right expertise can feel like an empty pursuit.

In highly technical fields like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, employees need a certain knowledge base and skill set before jumping aboard. Managers simply can’t justify the expense or time it would take to educate an inexperienced hire.

To make matters more complex, biotech entrepreneurs desperate for talent must also work against the clock. The average length of job openings in STEM fields is more than twice as long as other fields.

As more blue-collar, craft, and other professions begin to recognize the advantage of these highly technical skills, the supply of STEM talent has also become scant relative to the exploding demand. This has only inflated pay levels for STEM employees, putting them further out of reach.

For biotech startups with modest hiring budgets, competing against behemoths in a range of industries makes the recruiting game a nightmare. But even with the elements working so adamantly against you, there are a few tricks that can help simplify the search.

1. Know who you’re looking for. Qualified candidates aren’t easy to come by in STEM fields. To narrow the search, ask: Do I need an employee who will stay for a specific stage of development or for the long term? Am I looking for someone who’s data-driven or a more creative mind? What is the ideal skill set this specific employee will possess?

Even if certain roles don’t relate to technical areas of the business, candidates need a basic understanding of your product or process. Most biotech companies have a core technology that will eventually become the center of the company and its mission. By understanding this first, the candidate will have a faster learning curve and a much easier time acclimating.

Although biotech startups need technologically savvy talent, that’s not the only important mark of a great hire. You also want well-rounded candidates who can think logically and problem solve on the spot. Most importantly, look for hires who have faith in your company or at least hope for a bright future. Faith and loyalty are two of the most important traits I look for in potential hires.

2. Get in touch with universities. Connect with alumni networks and other programs affiliated with universities and technical institutes to scoop up recent graduates. These individuals have likely learned about the most recent technologies and theories on the market. This new blood will provide fresh eyes and renewed energy to your team.

3. Explore unconventional recruiting avenues. Incorporating outside opinions will help you create and execute a more robust hiring strategy. Attend exhibitions or conventions that cater to the position you’re hiring for. An alternative is to find a staffing agency that specializes in the position you need or one that can keep an eye out for candidates with a narrow skills gap.

4. Monitor project lifecycles at similar companies. Products inevitably fail, and projects come to an end, so watch for shifting dynamics at companies in similar fields. Once a biotech project has finished, the product moves on to the manufacturing stage, and there may be fantastic candidates up for grabs. Monitor project statuses at other companies so you can take advantage of any lulls.

The greatest lesson I’ve learned from hiring in the biotech industry is that choosing an employee based on popularity is too superficial for STEM fields. Great employees are key to any company’s success, but biotech companies simply can’t survive without qualified hires. By looking for the right mix of technical skills, commitment, and passion, you can bypass the recruiting obstacles and build a team that makes your vision a reality.

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Kevin Xu is the CEO of MEBO International, a California- and Beijing-based intellectual property management company specializing in applied health systems. He also leads Skingenix, which specializes in skin organ regeneration and the research and development of botanical drug products. Skingenix is listed in the 2014 Empact100 Showcase.

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