Life Sciences Industry Emphasizes Growth, Purpose in Fight for Talent

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Two years ago, almost without warning, a global pandemic shook the world, and in an instant, made its citizens reconsider and reassess what is most important to us. Fear and forced isolation put family, friends and work-life balance at the top of this reassessment, and corporations now have some reevaluating of their own to do if they hope to compete for top talent. 

This talent crunch might be especially noticeable in the life sciences industry, which, thanks to the ingenuity shown in the creation of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics, is experiencing something of a renaissance.

Shoreline CEO Kleanthis Xanthopolous_company"Clearly, there is a talent war,” Kleanthis Xanthopoulos, co-founder, chairman & CEO of Shoreline Biosciences told BioSpace. “Our industry has been expanding and growing because of our successes, the maturation of our industry, more capital coming into it, more companies having access to that capital, and expanding as they put the capital to work. So, a lot of biotech companies continue to expand at a very rapid pace.”

On top of this recent investment, Xanthopoulos highlighted fewer people graduating with a STEM focus, and “restrictions of the past administration to accessing talent outside of the United States,” all of which, he said, has created an additional level of pressure on the system. 

For Maria Martinez, chief human resources officer at Axogen, the current reality is more of a “Great Reshuffle” than a “Great Resignation” because “I don't think people are just resigning and sitting on a beach. I think most people are making different decisions about how they want to live their lives, where they want to live their lives, how they want to work and where they want to work,” she told BioSpace while, unfortunately, not sitting on a beach. 

The Alachua, Florida-based company, which is focused on developing surgical solutions for peripheral nerve repair, has also seen an uptick in attrition over the past year. Martinez said the drivers for this are varied and include offers of higher salaries, sign-on bonuses and fully flexible or remote work schedules. The number one reason, though? “Honestly, the thing that I see as the biggest contributor to people moving is the fact that there are just a lot more opportunities right now,” she said.

Axogen CHRO Maria Martinez_company courtesyAccording to a recent BioSpace report, the top three motivators for employees to look for a new job are, in order: growth opportunities, greater compensation and the desire for a new challenge. Other variables include being unhappy with company leadership and culture and the desire for greater flexibility.

For Shoreline, which began operations in 2020 during the early days of the pandemic and in Xanthopoulos’s words, “went from zero to sixty in one second”, the key has been to look beyond just dollars and cents. 

“Time and time again, academic studies have shown that people leave a company or join a company not because of relative salaries, but rather the work environment, the excitement, the vision that the company has, and their own capabilities of developing and growing within the organization,” he said. “We provide an environment for individuals to flourish, to develop, to contribute, to feel respected, and to contribute and fulfill a huge mission that we have.”

As a start-up, the onus has been on Shoreline to communicate this effectively, and so far, the talent seems to be responding. After just two years in existence, Shoreline is approaching the 60-employee mark, and Xanthopoulos said it plans to double that within the next nine to 12 months.

Shoreline is leveraging natural killer (NK) cells and macrophage cellular immunotherapies in order to achieve greater potency and persistence over early cell therapies in both oncology and regenerative medicine. Cell therapy may be one of the most challenging spaces to compete for talent, particularly when it comes to manufacturing.

“We can’t easily outsource cell therapy manufacturing because it involves a lot of science, secret sauce technology and know-how,” Xanthopoulos said. “Manufacturing is unique, it’s almost bespoke. The CMC aspects and the analytical aspects are very highly specialized, and for now, it is a bottleneck for not just Shoreline, but every company in the space.”

For an established company, flexibility and a willingness to pivot is vital to retaining high performers. Axogen is doing this by involving Employee Engagement Champions – employees who have stepped up to represent their ranks – listening to their feedback and making changes accordingly. 

Of course, compensation – the number two motivator in the aforementioned BioSpace survey – cannot be overlooked. “Last year, we did an across-the-board comp [competitive] analysis of the external market and ended up doing a number of internal adjustments where we felt that it was necessary,” Martinez shared, adding that Axogen has “significantly increased the development channels that we have available to our employees.” 

The realization, driven home by the pandemic, that we only have one life to live and want it to matter, could even drive which segment of the industry is more attractive.

KKNA SVP HR Britt Byers_company courtesyNew Jersey-based Kyowa Kirin, Inc. (KKNA) is a mid-sized specialty pharmaceutical company with a pipeline spanning inflammatory disease, autoimmune disease, oncology and CNS. Britt Byers, SVP, HR North America, told BioSpace, “I don't see a lot of people going to Big Pharma, but I see a lot of people when they're leaving, staying in that zone of a smaller-size company or startup. People really like that environment where they feel like they can grow and create and develop things.”

Byers shared that KKNA finds itself much in the same position with its workforce as just prior to the pandemic’s start in March 2020.

“Like many companies, we had a quieter period of time where people were sitting tight, holding on. I would say second half of last year, we started to see some uptick in turnover,” she said. 

As society begins to move onto safer ground, people are “looking to grow capabilities at such a fast pace, and there's been some change that the market is wide open. There is now an appetite and a level of risk to finally go for that, so to speak,” Byers offered. “So it's really on us to continue to make sure that the environment we have is one where people feel they can thrive and develop and grow.” 

In order to meet this voracious appetite, KKNA has implemented an Emerging Leader program to fully invest in both the new leaders the company has hired and those it has promoted from within. KKNA has also set up an executive coaching program that pairs high potential talent with executive coaches. 

Ultimately, Byers said, the decision will come down to “the business and the pipeline… the opportunities for development and the culture. When people make that connection, they're not willing to go somewhere else for just a $10,000 - $20,000 thousand difference." 

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