Building the Dream Team: How Life Science Startups Can Attract Top Talent

Nishta Rao, Managing Director, Life Science, First Republic Bank
August 22, 2022

  • Today's life science startups are facing an increasingly competitive labor market.
  • Finding the right talent requires a hiring strategy: writing inclusive job descriptions, refining the interview process and curating a competitive compensation package.
  • With help from trusted partners, founders can streamline the hiring process and connect with talent more quickly.  

For a growing startup, the right team can make the difference between bringing your products to market and meeting your business objectives — or lagging behind your competitors. For many life science founders, competing for talent remains a challenge. 

Scientists-turned-entrepreneurs Elizabeth Wu and Danika Khong, PhD, experienced this struggle firsthand through their work in academia and in industry.

“We started our careers in science and noticed a gap between job seekers and biotechs when it comes to hiring,” Wu explains. “Many biotechs, especially startups, have a hard time finding talent with the specific scientific skill sets they need, while scientists often struggle to understand their options and how their skills can be applied in an industry setting.”

To bridge this gap, they founded Scismic, a hiring platform that specializes in connecting life sciences companies to the talent they need to thrive.

“Our mission is to propel scientific innovation by helping companies grow the right teams and get the right resources so that they can move their products to market,” Wu says. “We want to make it more efficient for job seekers and companies to find each other, so that they can focus on working toward creating solutions that make a real impact on people’s lives .”

First Republic interviewed Wu, Scismic’s COO, on how startups can strategize for a successful search, identify qualified candidates and make a compelling offer to attract top talent. 

Stage 1: Laying the groundwork with a hiring strategy

Any successful talent search starts with a strategy, but planning ahead is especially important in life sciences, where hiring moves quickly and top talent often field multiple offers. 

“If you try to hire without a hiring strategy, you're going in blind. You actually don't know what you need,” Wu says. “For founders, this often means that no one will be good enough: you will always see what candidates are lacking because you have not set specific criteria on which to base your hiring decision.”

Best Practice: Founders should hone their strategy by creating a roadmap outlining their key business objectives, the milestones they’ll achieve along the way, and the skills and expertise required to meet those goals, advises Wu.

From there, founders should reflect on the existing team’s strengths, identify gaps that must be filled by new hires and then use this insight to guide their talent search. 

Stage 2: Crafting an effective and inclusive job description

An inclusive job description strikes a delicate balance, signaling which skills the startup truly needs without creating barriers that might keep valuable talent from applying. 

“Often, first-time or early-stage founders try to get a candidate that can do it all. But that’s very, very hard to find,” says Wu.

Including too many requirements in your job description can prompt otherwise-qualified applicants, especially women, to self-select out of applying if they don’t tick every box.

Best Practice: Wu recommends narrowing your requirements to just three to five “must-have” skills that candidates will need to hit the ground running and relegating skills that candidates may need in the future to “nice-to-haves.” 

When it comes to requirements around candidates’ backgrounds, be flexible. “A lot of first-time founders want talent with industry experience, but capable academics can pick up skills quickly,” says Wu. “If you already have industry experience on your team, you may not need another person who comes from industry unless it’s required for the role.”

Tip: Write job descriptions with inclusivity in mind to attract talent from all walks of life. Use gender-neutral language to describe the core skills and expertise you require, and avoid industry-specific or cultural terms that may not resonate with all candidates, Wu says.

Stage 3: Understanding your metrics in screening and interviewing candidates

Sifting through applicants to find the right hire is often a group effort, and founders must have a plan to ensure everyone is on the same page.

“Everyone has preferences for who they may want to socialize with, but that shouldn’t be the criteria,” Wu advises. “Be wary of using proxies — age as a proxy for enthusiasm, or educational degree as a proxy for skill.”

Best Practice: Wu recommends creating a metric or guide for candidate evaluation, both to ensure fairness during the hiring process and to keep your team focused on the skills and qualities that matter most. 

Use your metric as a compass to prepare interview questions in advance. “Many startups conduct interviews on the fly,” Wu says. “But if you develop questions that give you insight into different aspects of the candidate, each question will have a purpose.” As much as possible, ask each candidate the same set of questions, and focus on open-ended prompts that evaluate at least one aspect of the candidate’s suitability for the role, such as their technical skills, values and ability to communicate, she suggests. 

Tip: Know your company’s strengths and use the interview process as an opportunity to showcase those strengths. Ask candidates what they’re looking for from their employer, so you can make a more attractive offer.

Stage 4: Structuring a competitive compensation package

A competitive labor market calls for an aggressive compensation strategy, and employees in life sciences expect cash compensation, equity and benefits, says Wu. Still, startups have an opportunity to stand out and attract talent over larger competitors who may have more cash resources on hand. 

Best Practice: Once salary expectations are met, top talent often focuses on opportunities for career development. “Growth opportunities are the number one reason people stay in their jobs,” says Wu. “If people can move laterally or learn new skills working with a different department, they may value that more than a salary increase.”

Startups may also gain an advantage by offering more compelling benefits. “Often, smaller companies are able to offer better health insurance packages than bigger companies, because bigger companies have to offer it for more people,” explains Wu.

What’s more, founders may use the information gleaned during interviews to tailor benefits offerings to candidates’ preferences and needs. Some simpler perks to add or tailor include flexible schedule, or commuting and wellness allowances. 

Finally, life sciences startups can compete for talent by offering equity in the organization. “Candidates can see the growth opportunity in the equity, and it incentivizes employees to achieve your mission because they have skin in the game,” explains Wu. Founders can also create vesting schedules, which set minimum time limits for staff to remain at the organization in order to exercise their options. 

Seeking out support when you need it

For many founders, creating and executing a hiring strategy may feel intimidating, and seeking support outside the organization can help.

Best Practice: A trusted partner can help founders identify the gaps they need to fill with new hires, and highlight valuable candidates that they may not have otherwise considered.  “It's always good to have an outside perspective, because everyone has their own blind spots,” says Wu.

Tip: First Republic has also partnered with Scismic to offer life sciences clients exclusive discounts as part of the Life Sciences Toolkit. Contact us for personalized support in meeting your startup’s needs.

The views of the interviewee of this article do not necessarily represent the views of First Republic Bank. This information is governed by our Terms and Conditions of Use