Opinion: 7 Ways Leveraging Fractional Executives Can Grow Your Biotech Startup

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Biotech funding is not great right now. If you’re trying to grow a startup, it’s essential to find ways to keep marching forward while keeping costs low.

Some founders are lucky enough to land in a resource-rich incubator ecosystem, where they get the freedom to flesh out their great scientific idea without also having to flesh out a business. Venture capital firm Flagship Pioneering has created a robust incubator ecosystem to support and nurture the companies they fund. Over the years, I and my colleagues at Recruitomics Consulting have observed and learned from Flagship and similar startup environments.

“Founders are more likely to succeed if they have a support system around them,” Leslie Martin, VP of talent acquisition at Flagship, told me. “The secret of any truly efficient environment is having everyone focused on the thing that is their true talent and passion."

So how do founders outside of an ecosystem like Flagship’s keep the company lean while still getting the support they need? This might sound strange coming from a recruiter, but we often counsel our clients not to hire. Although startups do need seasoned experts, that pricey expertise often comes at the expense of the tactical, boots-on-the-ground needs of growing companies.

To get around this, we recommend hiring fractional experts or consultants with deep knowledge of the strategic needs in their verticals, allowing startups to conserve headcount for doers. Fractional experts are professionals hired on a part-time basis to fill specific roles within a company, often at the executive level, offering a cost-effective way to access senior-level expertise. Companies generally find these external experts through networking and word-of-mouth, and we often make specific recommendations to our clients based on the knowledge gap(s) we observe.

Here are seven business areas that can be outsourced to leverage executive-level strategic experience without causing organizational bloat:

  1. Finance: Hiring a full-time chief financial officer can be costly for a startup, but their expertise is absolutely critical. Fractional CFOs provide on-demand financial support without the hefty price tag, allowing startups to save money while still getting the oversight they need. An experienced CFO can help with fundraising, operational efficiency, forecasting and more. Similarly, a solid CPA to provide bookkeeping support can free up a lot of time for founders. They usually work in tandem with the fractional CFO so that the CEO always has a complete financial picture of the business.
  2. Research and Development: Having the insight of a veteran chief scientific officer, chief technology officer or R&D strategist to provide guidance during target selection or platform development is essential. We often hear from fractional R&D-focused experts that they wish startups would bring them in earlier to avoid costly mistakes. Diligence, research design, technology selection and investor relations are a few functions we’ve seen clients successfully hand off to strategists in this vertical.
  3. Operations: Experienced operators can create efficiency you wouldn’t normally associate with startups in both business operations and lab and facility operations. Organizations such as Boston Lab Services provide operators on a fractional basis so that as the lab grows, its scientists are well-supported and properly resourced. This allows startups to focus on hiring scientific talent, not training operational personnel. And with the group-buying power that these organizations lend to small companies, you might even save more than you spend on their services.
  4. Marketing and Branding: Marketing help, in the form of a fractional chief marketing officer, eases the process of creating compelling messaging for websites and pitch decks, which are essential for fundraising. Employer branding is also key to the hiring process, where differentiating your startup from all of the others is key to attracting great talent, but it shouldn’t be a drain on the company’s finances.
  5. Human Resources: We beg our clients to get HR help very early, and there are wonderful fractional experts with deep experience helping small biotechs with their unique challenges. For just a few hours per week, a fractional HR professional can set the stage for building a healthy company with a fantastic culture. They can advise on compensation, benefits, systems, onboarding, professional development and performance management.
  6. Talent Strategy: Building a comprehensive talent strategy, backed by data, market research and competitive intelligence gives companies a roadmap for intelligent, sustainable growth. The actual recruiting piece, including all of the systems, technology and legally compliant know-how, can and should be handled externally until companies reach about 50 employees. Unfortunately, recruiting is a job often handled by the founder and the early scientists on the team. Considering the hourly cost of your team, leveraging external help is usually much cheaper and more efficient.
  7. Legal: There’s no way around it: All companies need legal support. Hiring full-time general counsel is usually unnecessary for a startup, and there are great biotech-focused firms that can help. Similarly, intellectual property work can and should be outsourced. The research involved, as well as the technical nature of the processes, is best left to an IP expert.

Biotech is expensive, and in the current funding climate, startups that stay lean will have a better chance of surviving and thriving. In our post-pandemic world, the shift to hybrid and remote work is excellent for startups willing to get creative with their talent needs, positioning them to benefit from experts regardless of their location. Fractional executives can provide valuable strategic support while allowing companies to stretch their budgets by hiring tactical employees who can focus on getting things done.

Carina Clingman is the founder and CEO of Recruitomics Consulting, which specializes in Talent Acquisition and Talent Strategy for startup biotechs. See her website for a curated list of vendors that she and her clients love.

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