How can Big Pharma attract top tech talent? Investment Monitor


Embracing emerging technologies has long been seen as the answer to many of the challenges facing the life sciences industry. These include declining profit margins, the cost of testing and research, and the pressure to come up with new products, while meeting strict regulatory and legislative requirements, according to a thematic study by GlobalData.

Big Pharma, in particular, has a reputation for being slow to innovate. However, the Covid-19 crisis has not only shown how quickly the sector can adapt under pressure, but has also highlighted the need for accelerated digitalisation.

According to 2021 Global Data Report on Digital Transformation and Emerging Technologies in Healthcare81% of healthcare professionals surveyed said their organization has a digital transformation strategy in place or is working on it, up from 73% in 2020 and 68% in 2019. However, as the life sciences industry embraces technologies emerging, the expertise required in the field is superimposed on that of the tech sector and the problem of attracting and retaining talent becomes in a way an existential challenge.

The growing role of artificial intelligence (AI) and big data analytics have created a requirement for a broader skill set. This has put the sector in direct competition with the tech industry, according to Amy Flynn, global head of life sciences at professional services firm Grant Thornton. “There’s now a huge technology component in functions that maybe traditionally didn’t have one,” she says.

This is reflected in topical research from GlobalData, which found that the number of AI-related job openings in the pharmaceutical sector saw a marked increase in 2021, underscoring the industry’s interest in the technology. . Big data-related job postings showed a similar trend to AI-related jobs, highlighting the reciprocal relationship between these two technologies.

How Covid gave Big Pharma an image makeover

Therein lies the challenge: why would a highly skilled worker in AI or Big Data accept a job at a life sciences company rather than the attractive compensation and company culture offered by Google or Microsoftfor example?

Flynn says the favorable light Covid has cast on the life sciences is an advantage in terms of attracting talent over the historic negative connotations of Big Pharma. “Big pharma is pushing some of the biggest and boldest ESG targets,” he says.

It is widely recognized that millennials favor employers aligned with their values. By embracing ideas such as global patient access and new technologies to give lower income brackets increased access to diagnostic tools and better medical care, Flynn says Big Pharma now has a “compelling story “.

In addition to competing for a broader skill set, the life sciences industry has a growing need for people. Grant Thornton’s bi-annual international business survey of mid-market companies shows that the percentage of healthcare and life sciences business leaders (CEOs, managing directors and other senior executives) who anticipate an increase in their needs in the next 12 months increased dramatically between 2017 and 2021, with the largest increase between the first quarter of 2020 and the first quarter of 2021.

With an increased need for technically qualified personnel, attracting individuals to the sector alone is unlikely to solve this problem. Strategic partnerships with technology companies are a way to add capabilities and acquire the necessary technology-focused workforce. For example, in January 2020, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) renewed its strategic partnership with Silicon Valley23andMe, a New York-based consumer genetics company, for a fifth year. The collaborative immuno-oncology antibody program leverages 23andMe’s valuable database to identify targets and advance new drugs based on human genetics.

Likewise, competition for technology leaders in the life sciences sector is high. In 2017, Hal Barron, then president of research and development at Calico, Google’s anti-aging company, was hired by GSK as chief scientific officer and chief research officer. Barron will be leaving GSK in August 2022, but the appointment of a high-level technology leader at a pharmaceutical company was a big blow for GSK and a clear demonstration of how the business is doing. Barron’s compensation was rumored to match that of the company’s CEO, Emma Walmsley.

Big Pharma’s talent war differs by region

According to Tej Panesar, chief investment officer for life sciences at venture capital firm British Patient Capital, there’s a lot of talk in the US about accelerating labor costs in the life sciences industry. life.

“The field has high barriers to entry in terms of technical skills and qualifications, and this will only increase as emphasis is placed on new areas, such as the application of learning techniques in depth to the life sciences,” he said. Panesar is primarily focused on European and UK life science investments and as an investor sees increased demand in the UK and Europe within individual biotechnology companies for these cross-skills sets. However, he adds that “it will take some time to see how it fares in the UK and Europe compared to the US in terms of rising costs.”

Eric Greveson, chief technology officer of Oxford University spin-out Brainomix, says that in the war on talent, the life sciences sector has the advantage of being more rewarding work. Brainomix is ​​developing AI-assisted tools for rapid stroke assessment, and the technology is being rolled out to hospitals across Europe. It can be difficult to compete on salary alone with some fields, he says, especially financial services and investment banking, which often hire the best scientists and developers. However, “we can offer an interesting and rewarding field of work and the opportunity to work for the good of society”, he adds.

The effects of Covid-19 crisis and Brexit mean that Brainomix has a hybrid working model, with some employees working overseas. “We have developers and researchers from France, Argentina, Germany, Spain, Finland, India and all over the world, and sometimes we have to sponsor visas to attract the right people,” says Greveson. He adds that he prefers to hire from the UK, but with the kind of specific skills he needs – machine learning, AI and specialist knowledge of medical imaging – that’s not always possible.

This hybrid work This approach can help with talent acquisition, according to Deloitte’s 2022 Global Life Sciences Outlook report. Lab work cannot be done remotely, but many other pharmaceutical processes can. The report says nearly half of workers and the majority of millennials say they would give up some benefits for a more flexible workspace. As the workforce shrinks, attracting and retaining young talent by providing work style choice can be a competitive advantage, the report says. However, companies should be aware of geographic differences that can complicate global remote work strategies, such as tax compliance risk and visa requirements.

Life sciences and pharmaceutical companies need skilled workers who can cope with (and drive) the accelerating digitalization in the sector. While the competition for these workers is clearly high, a flexible attitude towards remote work and highlighting the good that pharmaceutical companies can do could go a long way in steering this talent away from the more illustrious names to which it has so far tended to gravitate.

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