29 Aug An Update from the West Coast
Interview with Linda Sierra
You work in two of the three top biotech markets in the U.S.; what trends are you seeing in San Diego and San Francisco?
There is no debate it is a turbulent time in life science. Most CEOs are afraid they won’t be able to raise money in this market, so they default to retaining cash. That means reduced headcounts and a focus on lead programs only.
San Francisco inherently has more money and activity, so I’ve observed less of a slowdown in that market in life sciences. From a recruitment standpoint, there is a great deal of opportunity in both markets. The Bay Area has more talent to choose from, especially with the recent layoffs within the tech sector from companies such as Twitter, Tesla, StubHub, Facebook and PayPal. Ironically, these layoffs may actually benefit life science companies – and the tech workers themselves – as we see an evolving transition to the digitization of healthcare. I have people from the tech sector reach out to me because they have been trying to move into biotech for years. Now, the life science industry needs deep technical/analytical skill sets to foster this digitization, but more on that later.
From a diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) standpoint, I see increased awareness and changing hiring patterns in both markets. The Bay Area currently has more diversity within their life science companies. With San Diego’s 44% Hispanic population, we are working hard to build awareness and create opportunities for those individuals to enter the life science industry. And diversity within the C-Suite is increasingly demonstrating tangible, bottom-line benefits and therefore gaining importance from a recruitment standpoint.
How are Life Science HR Managers holding up with the tumult over the past three years?
They are exhausted. They helped navigate their companies through COVID, and the testing, disinfecting and airflow issues, as well as the transition to a dynamic work environment. Next was George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Black Lives Matter, followed by Roe vs. Wade. HR is responsible for taking care of their people, which includes managing the messaging, and the emotional fallout from these issues. Consequently, more than a few HR execs are retiring, and some are taking extended leave to decompress. However, this isn’t only impacting HR. The remote work has paradoxically shifted executives’ and workers’ availability to 24/7 with the resultant burnout.
You’re extremely active on boards. Tell me about your many advisory roles.
I’m a Latina, spent 18 years in biotech and was typically the only minority in the company. Even though San Diego is a border town, there are very few Hispanics in biotech. So, I’m trying to build that bridge to greater diversity.
And it needs to start with the kids. We need to expose them early on to biotech, make the case for an education that includes related disciplines like science, finance, human resources, regulatory and business. When we mentor our 7th through 12th grade girls at Mana de San Diego, they want to be teachers, doctors, and lawyers. Biotech is as foreign to them as learning a new language, yet they are missing a huge opportunity.
I serve on the board of the Biocom Institute because they focus on people of color through internships and partnering. In addition, I have a board seat on Life HR, which focuses 100% on life sciences HR in San Diego. It connects the life science HR community to share relevant data, innovative ideas, and HR best practices. So that is especially important to me.
I’m also on the Chancellor’s Community Advisory Board for the University of California San Diego. This is rewarding because UCSD is the number two employer in San Diego, just below the military. They have 35,000 employees. And it is important to the Chancellor to foster and strengthen positive relationships on the campus and in the communities and stay connected to all the ethnic and diverse groups in the region. Related are two other advisory boards for Life Science Cares San Diego and Life Science Cares Bay Area. These focus on partnering with local life science companies to improve both human health and human poverty.
I also serve on the advisory board of the Ocean Discovery Institute, which has a wonderful partnership with San Diego Unified School District and offers after school programs such as marine microbiology, STEM and science projects as potential avenues for kids of color to enter biotech.
What do you see for biotech’s future in the coming year?
Well, I can’t repeat what Paul Hastings, BIO’s colorful Board Chair, said in an interview with Endpoint’s John Carroll during BIO in San Diego, but I certainly agree. Our industry is facing a lot of challenges in the next couple years. Financing is going to remain difficult as investment is not flowing as freely as in the recent past. Soaring interest rates, the war in Ukraine, rising inflation, and a stock market that’s not a bear or bull, are causing companies to hunker down for the foreseeable future. In addition, the Inflation Reduction Act, if passed, could impair drug pricing and ultimately innovation.
From a candidate perspective, I think that we will see less movement and churn. We are seeing candidates hunkering down without a whole lot of other options currently. And so they’re thinking, ‘I’ll just stay put, and weather the recession’.
On a positive note, we are seeing a rapid adoption of digital technology first hand. In fact, Bench recently launched a practice area – Bench International Technology Team (BITT) – to provide counsel and recruitment expertise to our life science companies as they build a next generation C-suite and board to compete in this burgeoning field.
Any parting thoughts?
As I reflect on my 2 years at Bench and the Company’s 45+ years as a Life Science and Healthcare Executive Search firm, I am very proud of what we have accomplished. It’s rewarding to be recognized individually and firm-wide for our advocacy for people of color and women in executive leadership and on boards. Despite tangible benefits, as an industry, we still have a ways to go with DE&I adoption. We’ve helped turn the corner, and I personally look forward to continuing to be an agent of change and improvement in the coming years.