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Competing for top talent as a small biotechnology company

Andy Haywood our consultant managing the role
Andy Haywood our consultant managing the role

Taking calculated risks has led to some of the ground-breaking developments within biotechnology, particularly amongst younger businesses. From bringing a new orphan to market, to delivering solutions that reduce suffering for patients; the growing rise in emerging biotechnology solutions is transforming healthcare and the life sciences industry.

Despite making waves across the industry, many of the merging biotechnology companies that come to us highlight the difficulty they have in securing quality candidates. With investors needing timely results and budgets often tight, having qualified employees on the team is key, but how can these lesser-known companies compete with the global pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies that are also vying for exceptional candidates?

What motivates life scientist to take a job?

To attract the best talent within the industry, it is important to understand what encourages life sciences professionals to take a new job. We asked over 1,280 life sciences professionals what was their key motivator for changing job, and the top three results were:

  • Career progression (24%)
  • Flexibility and work-life balance (23%)
  • Ability to work on an exciting project (23%)

Interestingly, only 2% ranked company reputation as their main motivator in selecting a new job, suggesting the focus appears to be more on career opportunity and the vision of the company, rather than the infancy of the business itself. Now if this were truly the case, lesser-known enterprising biotechnology companies wouldn’t struggle to compete for top talent against established, internationally renowned biopharma.

Ultimately, numerous factors, beyond company reputation, encourage professionals to work a for a company, but it is promising to see that size and infancy of the company are have less influence than may be expected.

Competing as a smaller biotechnology company

The biotechnology industry is continuing to grow. As greater investment and improved accessibility to resources evolves, more advancements and breakthroughs keeps small, independent and start-up biotechnology companies in competition with big pharma. Talented life sciences professionals are regularly headhunted by global pharma companies and rarely stay out of a job for long.

There are numerous reasons for candidates to consider joining a smaller company at a junior or senior level:

  • Greater exposure to processes
  • Exciting projects to work in a ground-breaking industry sector
  • Potential fast-track to leadership positions
  • A more targeted benefits package relevant to their lifestyle
  • More flexible working hours and less rigid internal policies
  • Potential investment of shares

Despite these exciting career opportunities, there are still roadblocks making it more difficult for a smaller company to attract experienced and skilled candidates:

Vacancy Visibility

Limited budget and minimal experience hiring within the life sciences industry can make it difficult for start-up and small biotechnology businesses to promote their vacancies. Even with a competitive salary and desirable career development opportunities, if the job advertisement is not visible to the relevant candidates, it is unlikely to draw in applications.

The biotechnology employment market is seeing a greater demand for professionals with niche specialist knowledge. Often these skillsets are limited and without the ability to promote vacancies to a broader audience, particularly on an international level, this creates a higher risk for frustrating and costly hiring delays.


Without an established internal talent acquisition or dedicated HR function, the role of hiring within smaller businesses can often fall onto senior leadership. This can be problematic in the early stages of a company’s development as these leaders’ time is sparse.

Even with a dedicated team to aid in internal recruitment, smaller companies are short on budget, time and will be unlikely to have the same resources available at a blue-chip pharmaceutical company to attract top talent.

Without candidate sourcing tools, headhunting processes and an interview planning and execution process, hiring can become a tedious and draining project, alongside the various other important tasks of establishing a new lab and developing new business.


Despite only 2% listing it as their main motivation, it is naive to assume that candidates will not be interested in previous success and the future stability of their prospective new employer. Arguably less of a prominent issue within the contract employment market, professionals looking to move into their next permanent position will be cautious of moving to a company they may not have heard of before.

The best candidates that will bring efficiency and innovation to a small company are likely also being headhunted and offered positions at businesses with extensive teams, proven history of development and a global reputation. It can be very intimidating trying to source candidates against such competition, especially when resources and visibility are limited.

Attracting the top talent

Although some candidates may consider a small business or start-up as a risky move in their career, a smaller, less established brand allows for many opportunities to grow in a role and take a lead on projects. There are various ways in which leaders in small biotechs can attract top talent to consider joining their teams.


The adage still stands true today; “it’s not necessarily what you know, but who you know”. Attending corporate events is a useful way to engage more in the industry as well as widen your network of professional contacts.

Talented professionals tend to know other talented professionals so the wider your network, the greater your chance of business and vacancies being communicated to relevant and skilled people. Social forums such as LinkedIn can be a useful way to engage with industry professionals and builds international bridges across the sector. A few moments a day contributing to discussions within groups, expanding your networking and communicating with relevant professionals can have a large impact.

Outsource your recruitment

If time resources are limited, it is worth looking into utilising a recruitment agency to remove the pressure of sourcing candidates, arranging interviews and managing candidate feedback and communication.

A recruitment agency will also enable you to quickly and effectively widen the scope of your candidate search, with pre-built, global networks of experienced life sciences professionals. Working on your behalf, they will engage the industry and ensure that you have access to a diverse selection of talented and skilled individuals who can bring value to your business.

Clear career development progression, company benefits and flexible working, achievements and goals for the company’s future, a strong and inspiring mission statement; all of these can help your small business stand out against larger pharmaceutical companies, where company culture and employee value can be difficult to demonstrate or more rigid.

However your small business operates, highlighting your forward-thinking and unique company culture is a great advantage, particularly when engaging candidates who are fed up with some of the difficulties and restrictions of working as part of a global enterprise.

Size doesn't matter

There are numerous advantages in joining a smaller team, including more influence and experience, faster access to leadership roles and potentially greater flexibility to offer better working benefits.

Understanding and actively promoting the benefits of your business and its culture, you are in a much stronger position to attract top talent. We work closely with our clients to ensure that the candidates in the interview process are aware of the numerous benefits of company life as well as the opportunity within the role.

It can be difficult to compete for talented scientists and specialists against globally established businesses. Often, the issue is not convincing candidates in taking the risk to join a newer or smaller company, but rather, getting access to them in the first place. By outsourcing recruitment and continuing to network within the industry, your reputation and visibility will continue to expand, allowing your headhunting efforts and headcount to grow as your business continues to develop and establish itself within the market.

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