Developing and Managing Talent in Life Science Start-Ups

Julie Anne Smith, Chief Commercial Officer for Enobia Pharma, Inc., manages teams focused on developing therapies for serious genetic bone disorders for which there are no approved treatments.

According to Julie, work in this area is completely unmapped because no one has yet navigated the market. “You can’t purchase syndicated reports that give market specifics such as the number of patients or other drugs available. We literally have to build the market from the ground-up.”

Due to her unique position, Julie has learned a few lessons about how to best manage talent in these types of life-science start-ups. Whether you’re seeking a position in a start-up or you’re an aspiring employee in one, you’ll benefit from Julie’s hard-earned wisdom.

Susan Hodgkinson: Julie, how is talent recruited for a life-science start-up like yours and how is this different from a more established life-science company?

Julie Anne Smith: This is a very good question and before I answer it, I have to give a glimpse into a life-science start-up such as Enobia. When you pull the curtain aside, you see a chaotic and fast-paced environment that constantly changes.

Because we’re in uncharted waters, it takes a special type of person willing to work in this type of environment. Blueprints don’t exist. You need a double dose of self-motivation and curiosity to operate in a life-science start-up. Introverted people who want to sit and mull things over won’t survive.

And, because start-ups run on shoestring staffs, job descriptions can be very loose and fluid. One day you may find yourself doing something you did four or five jobs ago – and the next you’re pitching an idea that can move the company forward. People who want a steady career progression won’t find it in a start-up.

So to answer your question, we recruit talent using standard recruiting methods but we look for people who have spent time building their careers on the outside track. Working in a start-up, you have to be comfortable with a little rubble and mess here or there. You need people who combine the grace to operate in chaos with the strength to execute on their own.

SH: It sounds like you need very special people who combine many characteristics, skills and talents.

JAS: Exactly. Because the growth opportunities are so huge in a start-up, you need people who can move things forward and get stuff done. If you’re not doing this, you won’t get funded. And if you are VC-funded, investors demand results. Working in a life-science start-up is not for the faint of heart.

As I said, you have to be comfortable with doing your day job plus identifying business drivers that haven’t yet been explored. You can’t wait for someone to tell you do this – you either bring the opportunity to the attention of management or you drive it yourself.

SH: Given your experience, what are some of the best ways life science start-ups can manage and develop talent in the early-stage environment – especially when you may not have a formal HR function?

JAS: Start-ups can do themselves a service by recruiting an executive team who has thought about managing people and talent – versus hiring people who have never developed people management skills.

Second, investors need to focus on succession planning by considering who is hired for the tier directly beneath the management team. Executives need to be focused on this as well, especially because, as you pointed out, the HR function may not yet exist.

Developing talent starts with hiring the right people in the first place. I want to hire people who are very aware of the reason they’re coming to work for me. For example, I want to hear from a candidate, “I want to learn the nuances of getting a strategic alliance done” versus someone who simply wants to come in and run Business Development.

For people reading this who are hiring, I recommend that you listen to the signals people are giving you and then make sure you can provide what people are asking for. This is where I’ve made mistakes in the past; I wasn’t sensitive in matching what the candidate wanted with what I, or the company, could provide.

And finally, you need to define annual objectives with each person on the team. We use status updates and attach annual objectives to them. We’re constantly tracking career objectives.

SH: Julie, thank you for your insight. If you have questions for Julie, please leave them in the comments below and I’ll be sure to forward them to her.