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Should You Join a Biotech Start-Up?

You’ve probably heard the much-loved Google start-up story, that the internet behemoth was originally born in a garage in California. Silicon Valley is full of these sorts of stories, and the start-up movement is spreading around the globe. You’ll see it in every industry now: exciting small companies built around a unique idea, each re-inventing how we do…well, everything. Or trying to, at least.

And it’s that last part that makes some candidates nervous about joining start-ups in any industry: great risk can deliver great reward, but it’s also, well, risk. Still, there’s no denying the power shift that’s taking place in every industry, including life sciences!

A Shift in Pharma

People love the idea of a driven underdog beating the odds and rising to the top on the basis of a passionate vision. Even the life-sciences industry is getting in on the act. Once exclusively dominated by large pharmaceutical companies, more recently the power has been shifting toward small, new start-ups doing cool research—which is, of course, happening in actual labs and (hopefully) not in people’s garages!

There is no denying that small, new pharma/biotech/medical-device companies and niche CROs are creating and developing some amazingly cool pharmaceutical products and medical devices. One example is TheraSolve, which is creating self-adhesive and fully automatic dermal patches to remind people to take their medication—a very unique reminder system.

Many biotech companies are start-ups or small, if already successful, enterprises. Small or not, biotech companies have grown enormously in presence and influence over the last ten years. There has also been an explosion in the number CROs.

Yet, despite the promising outlook of new pharma/biotechnology companies and CROs, not to mention the appeal of really cool, cutting-edge scientific ideas and modern clinical research methods, many life-sciences candidates are afraid to join start-ups. Why?

Why Worry? 

In our experience in pharma recruitment, many candidates (especially experienced ones) say they want to join start-ups, but when opportunity comes, they pass. They say that they want to be part of an interesting organization engaging in trail-blazing science, and that they are tired of working for large, bureaucratic organizations where change is slow and cumbersome. That they want to work for a company where they can have more impact, where their experience is well utilized (and recognized) and their voice is heard. But then the doubts creep in…

While the chance to take bigger, more leading roles and work with cool technology is appealing, candidates worry about:

  • The stability of company: It’s no secret that 50% of new companies fail within 5 years. New pharma and biotech start-ups are especially at risk as they are heavily dependent on outside funding. It’s a bit scary to leave the safer-seeming waters of a larger multinational and dive into a smaller pond where you can be a bigger fish…as long as that pond doesn’t dry up.
  • Salary: It’s equally difficult to walk away from a meaty salary for the often more meager financial offerings a start-up can afford to give. Smaller biotech companies often just don’t have the deep pockets the traditional, longstanding firms do. On the other hand, as you’re certain to take a more leading role at a smaller company, with real decision-making power, as that company and its revenues grow, so will your compensation. If all goes well, you’ll be richly rewarded for taking the risk of joining in the beginning.
  • Industry risk: It can all come to a grinding halt based on the results of a clinical trial or a single regulatory decision. This is true for all pharma/biotech and medical-device companies, but this can be even more devastating in a small company with only 1-2 products in the pipeline. That being said, in the modern era there’s no such thing as a “job for life,” no matter how established the company. Again, this is especially true in the volatile life-sciences industry
  • A new brand: A fresh company enters the scene with a fresh brand—but this lack of a name can be a hindrance in attracting new clients. At least that’s the thinking among some potential candidates who hesitate to make the switch to a company they’ve never heard of. Such a company will need to pay extra attention to improving their branding. If they do this well, though, then that fresh brand can indeed be an asset as it implies fresh ideas.

Risk Rewards?

We won’t deny it: working for a biotech start-up comes with inherent risk, sometimes great risk. However, the rewards are great as well.

For one, there’s a lot more growth potential at a company that is itself growing. With a smaller team, you can take on more responsibility, trying your hand at opportunities you’d never get in a more established company, learning new things and bulking up your CV skills in the process. So that even if the venture you’ve chosen does fail, you’ve got a new set of skills to take into your next job. Not to mention the new insight that working at such a company provides.

Basically, whether it succeeds or not, joining a start-up can jump-start your career. This is especially true in biotech, where companies need the agility to respond to quickly changing technology, and their employees need to keep themselves educated about all the industry’s constant developments.

Furthermore, it’s simply satisfying to build something from the ground up. To have your voice heard and make a noticeable impact on the company while building new innovations and working with the creative personalities such a venture attracts. Start-ups offer an exciting, fast-paced working environment where the team is fueled by real passion and a usually inspiring company purpose (see LinkedIn’s start-up beginnings, for example).

That being said, it’s natural and okay to hesitate to make the leap. Indeed, start-ups aren’t for everyone as not all pharma professionals will feel comfortable in the company’s generally quite different culture.Plus, managing staff in a start-up environment can be just plain difficult.

Just make sure when you’re making this decision for yourself you’re not being influenced by outdated career models. The industry is changing, whether you decide to be one of the leaders of these changes yourself or not.

The best advice might come from Google itself: Eric Schmidt (who ran Google from 2001 to 2011) once said, “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat. You just get on.”

Does your biotech company need support in attracting talented and motivated life sciences professionals to join your team? Call Seuss at +31(0) 20 29 00 016 for a chat about our recruitment processes or send us a message via email: