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Recruiting Biopharma Leaders As The Talent Pool Shrinks And Diversifies



The biopharmaceutical industry has been so good at forming new companies that it's created a looming leadership challenge: as today's CEOs and board members near retirement age, there aren't enough experienced executives behind them to fill all of the soon-to-be empty seats.

Baby boomers will be between the ages of 60 to 78 in 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but as they flood into retirement, Generation X and millennials will only trickle into the workforce, because growth in the labor force is slowing. Companies will have to wade into a smaller, more diverse labor pool and figure out how to recruit, train and retain the next generation of biopharma talent, which will include more women and people of color than ever before.

Scrip spoke with Sabrina Johnson, CEO of Daré Bioscience Inc.; Mike Grey, executive chairman of the Amplyx Pharmaceuticals Inc. board of directors and a venture partner at Pappas Ventures; Robin Toft, president and CEO of the life science executive recruiting Toft Group; and Rowan Chapman, head of the Johnson & Johnson Innovation Center in California, in a roundtable interview about the challenges and opportunities ahead in recruiting new talent now and in the future. It took place in January during the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco

Roundtable Panel
Sabrina Johnson is CEO of Dare Bioscience Inc., a biotechnology firm dedicated to women's reproductive health that became a public company in a 2017 reverse merger with Cerulean Pharma Inc. (Also see "Cerulean Shifts From Ovarian Cancer To Contraceptives In Reverse Merger With Daré" - Scrip, 23 Mar, 2017.) Johnson, a first-time CEO, previously was president of WomanCare Global Trading, a specialty pharmaceutical company, and before that was chief operating officer and chief financial officer at Cypress Bioscience Inc.

Mike Grey, executive chairman of Amplyx Pharmaceuticals Inc., is a member of several other biopharma boards of directors and a venture partner at Pappas Ventures. He is an advocate and mentor for young CEOs. Grey previously was president and CEO of Lumena Pharmaceuticals Inc. until its acquisition by Shire PLC in 2014. (Also see "Shire buys repurposed Pfizer/Sanofi drugs through $260m Lumena acquisition" - Scrip, 12 May, 2014.) Before that, he was president and CEO at Auspex Pharmaceuticals Inc., SGX Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Trega Biosciences Inc. He also spent 20 years with Glaxo Inc. and Glaxo Holdings PLC.

Robin Toft is president and CEO of Toft Group, an executive recruiter for the life science industry with a reputation for recruiting women and minorities into key roles, and helping hiring executives overcome unconscious bias. Toft previously was managing director at the life science executive recruiting firm Sanford Rose Associates.

Rowan Chapman, head of the Johnson & Johnson Innovation Center in California, leads the team that manages and builds the big pharma's portfolio of co-investments with biopharma, medical device and consumer health firms across the state. Chapman also spearheads the division's diversity efforts. She previously was head of health care investing at GE Ventures, head of precision diagnostics at GE Healthcare, and a partner at Mohr Davidow Ventures. (Also see "Finance 101 as VCs clue in startups at J&J's San Diego incubator" - Scrip, 29 Jun, 2012.)

Scrip: What are the biggest challenges that you see right now in terms of recruiting and nurturing and bringing up new leadership as we get to the point where some folks might like to retire and hand over the reins?



Daré Biosciences Inc.

Sabrina Johnson: We’re a women’s health-focused company, and we purposely decided that we wanted to make sure we had a lot of women on our team, so [we have] diversity from that perspective. And on our board, we’re publicly traded and wanted a majority female board.

We’ve seen it’s not so much a challenge in finding really talented women – we’ve been able to very easily find very talented women, and I’m very committed to mentoring talented women. But it’s more [about] being flexible around how we think about work hours and time and how we structure it.

We’ve ended up leveraging, for some women who want the ability to be with their families and young children, real flexibility in terms of their hours and schedules and whether we dictate that they need to be full-time employee versus a consultant.

We’ve got some millennials on our team, and I know it’s kind of a cliché, but they like to work out, go surf when they want to go surf, and come to work when they want to work, and we’ve allowed them the flexibility so that we can attract that talent.

Mike Grey: Will you hire me? I want to go surfing.

Johnson: One of the people we really were attracted to was a woman at a great company, and we really wanted to attract her to our start-up. Part of that was to say, "Hey, you don’t have to be here at 8 a.m. You can go do the morning surf and get here at 10, as long as you get the work done."

I think it’s [about] finding a way to make it an attractive workplace. The talent is out there.



Amplyx Pharmaceuticals Inc.

Grey: I think it’s hard to find. I primarily work in start-ups, and you think about three components of a start-up: technology or the science, the money and the people. The money is the easiest, technology is the next easiest, and the people is the hardest. You could have the most thorough recruitment process and in my opinion it’s about a 50-50 success rate in really getting the people that fit. And the tragedy is, you can spend hours and hours doing it, and you know in the first week whether you made the right decision or not.
I think finding those people is really hard and the only way we’ve been able to do it successfully is working with people we know. And the challenge of that is, it potentially confines the gene pool, as it were, but we've had success in putting great teams together.

And picking up on some of Sabrina’s points as well, Lumena, which we sold three years ago to Shire, had 17 people; 12 women, five men. It wasn’t by design. All the other companies have been pretty much 50-50, I suppose, and not just 50% as the lower level employees. It’s across the board.

The biggest thing was that flexibility, because the world isn’t fair and typically women have more responsibilities outside the workplace than men, and [you have to be] flexible to accommodate those. Surfing was not the problem, but picking up the kids from school or dropping them off at school, and being flexible around that. So people go home at 3:30 and then get back online at 8:30 or nine or whatever.

That flexibility was really good, and having that environment, it was by far and away the most efficient company I’ve ever been associated with. It achieved incredible things, and it was so successful, because it was so collaborative and rather competitive, and people did what needed to be done, and that was important to make it a success.

Johnson: I think that culture kind of fosters that. When you have that flexibility, I honestly feel like people feel more committed and more dedicated.

"They will walk across water for you if you just give them flexibility in their day," executive recruiter Toft said.



Toft Group

Robin Toft: They will walk across water for you if you just give them flexibility in their day, right? It’s the number one thing I talk to CEOs about as a search professional, and nobody wants to give it to them.

Grey: It’s probably because it establishes trust. We’re not going to say you have to be here from nine to five or eight to five or whatever, but here’s your task. I trust you to go and do your job, however you think best to do it.

Toft: Yes, performance-based goals. I think a lot of managers don’t know how to lead with performance-based goals. You hit your goals; that’s all I care about. I don’t want to watch where you are. I’m not going to count cars in the parking lot. I don’t care – just get it done, and let me know if you’re having trouble. I think that sort of leadership is rare, actually.

Grey: So, that’s a lot easier in a 17-person company than it is in 117,000-person company or whatever J&J is. [Chapman noted J&J is about 130,000.]

Rowan Chapman: When I think about this, I think about it in three different aspects, which connect to what you’re saying. I think the workplace of the future is around being diverse, being porous, and [defining your] culture. Everything you were just talking about is culture – are you setting the right culture? It’s different for different companies. I’m not going to argue one culture is the right thing for one company or another, they’re just different, as long as there is a culture and people connect to that culture.


Johnson & Johnson

J&J, for example, has a very strong culture. It’s a creative-based culture and whoever you meet, you can connect in that way, even if they’re a completely different person. A start-up might have a different culture. I personally have been in academia, I’ve been in start-ups, I’ve been in venture capital, I’ve been in a bigger company than J&J. And within different companies, different pockets of the company have different cultures.

But the two areas which I am becoming fascinated by are these concepts of diversity and porosity. So diversity, maybe you think about it as a women’s thing. I don’t really think about it as a women’s thing. I just want to make sure that there’s a different set of perspectives at the table, whoever those perspectives come from.

We can certainly talk about diversity at great length, but porosity is something that’s new. And by porosity, I mean people working in big companies or small companies, because when I was growing up in my career you were either a start-up person or a big company person. And on the venture capital side, there’d be almost an arrogant, "Oh, these big company people, they don’t know how to be in a start-up, because they’re so in their box, they can’t do it." And you talk to the big company people, "Oh, those start-up people. You know, we’re just not a cultural mix."

"You want them to hire people from big companies to calm them down a bit. And in a big company, you actually want some of those crazy entrepreneurs, or you can become very complacent." – J&J's Chapman

I think the most interesting is when you get people who have different experiences in their careers [together]. And when we’re trying to, at J&J, partner with start-ups, you want that drive [that start-ups have], but you also want to make sure that they’re actually doing the right thing from the development standpoint in a way that, if they get acquired by a large company, the whole thing doesn’t have to be repeated.

You want them to hire people from big companies to calm them down a bit. And in a big company, you actually want some of those crazy entrepreneurs, or you can become very complacent. I think that part is opening up.

Johnson: That is true. It is really helpful to have [both perspectives]. I think of our team – built at Cypress Bioscience for about 13 years, and at Daré building that team – in both circumstances they very much looked for people that had both sets of experiences, had been on both sides of the table.

I had a great mentor, Jay Kranzler at Cypress, who helped and championed me, pulled me up, but also had very strong views about certain things that I carried with me. One was about diversity of perspective and he wanted everyone to be smarter than him.

Grey: Well, it’s tough to be smarter than Jay, actually.

Johnson: Yeah, I know, but [smarter] in their own functional areas. It definitely helps to have the perspective of people who have been at the big companies and the smaller companies, particularly if you’re in a mode where you have to partner, and know what the big pharma is going to want or appreciate in your program.

Scrip: Since you tried to hire from both of those perspectives, do you find it is really hard to pull the big pharma person in? It seems like right now there’s an interest in pharma people moving over to biotech and start-ups.

Johnson: There is. I think people get to a kind of point in their career where they want something different or sometimes those cultures in the large organizations aren’t as flexible. They struggle sometimes with the flexibility. So sometimes it’s not like I don’t want to be in a big company, it’s just that, "Gosh, I need a job where I can do X, Y and Z, and I can’t do it there." Or it’s, "I’m ready to do something different, or have a bigger role." Someone might say, "I’m in a very siloed role in a big organization, and I want a little more breadth."

Grey: I think the biggest challenges is – I spent 20 years in Glaxo and then 20-plus in small organizations – and I think that diversity of experience is right. In important key positions, then we do want people who have had that big company experience, because you don’t really need to do it quickly, you need to do it right. But the advantage that small companies have is speed of decision-making. They don’t need three committees to decide to change protocol or whatever happens in the regulation of larger companies. We can make that decision the same day. But it still has to be the right decision, and it still has to be executed correctly. The challenge is that you want to hire senior people, and senior people in big companies don’t usually do things. They tell other people to do things. And that’s the biggest challenge, because you need to have doers. In a small company, in a 10, 15, 20, 25-person one, everybody "does." They don’t just "tell."

Toft: It is my experience that most large pharma company people would jump at the chance to work for a start-up, but most of them are unproven in start-ups, so they have a very hard time even interviewing. Everyone wants big company/small company people. And if you’re a big company-only person, they say, "They’re unproven in a start-up." And we say, "That is true, but we believe they’re going to fit in." So, for instance, they’re a Rowan person that we think, maybe they can do this. They’re very frustrated; they’re not getting to be able to do what they need to do. So, it’s a lot of convincing someone to entertain someone for the first time in a start-up. Someone has got to test pilot them. But usually there are some people that can do both, go back and forth.

Chapman: I’ve hired people from start-ups and from big companies into both different environments. In big companies, I’ve hired people from start-ups, and at start-ups I’ve hired people from big companies. And I think there’s a big difference in the way people are compensated and measured in big companies and small companies. And I know that’s one of the big challenges in trying to do that crossover.

Toft: It’s very differential. So when you want to make that move from a big company to a start-up, you have to be okay with risk, because they’re going to ask you to trade cash for equity. One, they have to be able to wear all the hats and work hands-on and be willing to do so. Then, two, they have to be risk-tolerant. That’s important, because now we’re going to trade the way that you get paid – and all this money left on the table, you’re going to have to trade that for something else, the upside in this company.

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