Insights from a Biotech CEO

A conversation with Jo Viney, serial bio-entrepreneur and company leader, about fostering culture for growth

Founders and CEOs of emerging biotech companies face numerous challenges, from attracting and retaining top talent to raising capital to making critical decisions that will impact drug development goals.

Danforth’s Ann Darda, Managing Director of the firm’s HR consulting practice, hosted a LabCentral session with Jo Viney, Ph.D., Co-Founder and CEO of Seismic Therapeutic, who shared the following insights and lessons learned from launching and scaling life science organizations.

1.   Embrace Uncertainty

Biotech companies operate in a highly uncertain environment due to the nature of their work and the complexity of scientific research. However, successful CEOs understand the importance of fostering a culture that actually embraces uncertainty, encouraging group ownership of risk-taking decisions. Creating a mindset of “collective responsibility” is an example of how to leverage a team approach, lessening the burden of risk-taking on a single individual.

“Bringing people with different areas of expertise and backgrounds together and owning whatever the decisions are, I think that’s really important.” Jo Viney

2. Develop a Decision-Making Framework

To navigate the many steps and challenges of drug discovery and development, biotech CEOs must establish a decision-making framework that allows them to make informed choices even when faced with limited information. This framework should include scenario planning and a clear “Plan B” for key decisions, which can be implemented if the initial choice proves to be incorrect. By having backup plans, CEOs can feel more confident in making decisions and adapt quickly if necessary.

3. Build a Cohesive Leadership Team

As the organization grows, assembling a strong and cohesive leadership team becomes essential. This team should consist of individuals with diverse backgrounds and expertise who are aligned with the company’s mission and vision. CEOs should embrace a leadership style and regular communication that actively involves their leadership team in important decisions, ensuring collective ownership of the organization’s direction.

“Startups should focus on non-financial hooks to attract talent; showcasing the company’s energy, excitement, and impact can motivate candidates beyond monetary compensation.” Jo Viney

4. Empower and Develop Managers

With growth, biotech companies often need to promote new managers to lead various teams. CEOs should create an organization that empowers and develops these managers to handle their roles effectively. Providing leadership training programs and support can help managers transition smoothly from individual contributors to effective leaders.

5.   Prioritize Company Culture and Values

Defining and communicating the company’s culture and values is critical in scaling a biotech business. CEOs should involve employees in the process to ensure the values resonate with everyone. Company culture should foster collaboration, innovation, and a sense of shared purpose among team members.

“CEOs should lead by example and avoid hierarchical barriers. Sitting amongst team members and showing genuine interest in their work creates a sense of camaraderie and equality, encouraging open communication and idea-sharing.” Jo Viney

6.   Sustaining Motivation

In a fast-paced startup environment, employees can easily find themselves at points where they lack sustained motivation, often due to overworking and experiencing burnout. Biotech CEOs acknowledge the challenge of intense work environments and recognize the possibility of burnout in their passionate team members. To address this issue, open communication, regular check-ins, and encouraging a culture of work-life balance are essential. Spot-checking and actively engaging with team members can help identify signs of overworking and burnout before it becomes detrimental to the overall team morale.

7.   Attracting and Retaining Top Talent

As a biotech company expands, attracting and retaining top talent becomes a crucial aspect of scaling. While financial incentives are important, biotech CEOs should focus on creating a compelling vision and mission that resonates with potential employees. Offering equity or stock options can also be an effective way to incentivize and align employees with the company’s long-term success.

“I don’t want people who are only working for money; I want people who I like and are passionate about.” Jo Viney

8.   Incentivizing an Innovation Culture

In many start-up companies, a culture of innovation cannot be dictated from the top down; it evolves organically through the collective behaviors and values of the team. To nurture an innovation culture, the company should focus on incentivizing collaborative growth rather than individual competition. Rewarding employees for supporting one another and fostering a positive work environment can create a culture of innovation and teamwork.

9.   Invest in Employee Development

Continuous learning and professional development are essential for building a skilled and motivated team. Biotech CEOs should invest in training programs, workshops, and mentorship opportunities to help employees grow both personally and professionally.

10.   Create a Communication Framework

Maintaining effective communication throughout the organization becomes more challenging as it grows. Biotech CEOs should establish a robust communication framework that ensures information flows smoothly and transparently across different levels and departments.

Scaling a biotech business is a complex journey that demands adaptability, strategic decision-making, and a strong team effort. By embracing uncertainty, empowering employees, and making informed decisions, biotech CEOs can effectively scale their businesses and contribute to advancements in the industry. Nurturing a culture of collaboration, mutual support, and open communication can help sustain motivation and encourage a sense of collective growth within the organization. While it may be challenging, creating and maintaining a positive culture that fosters innovation can ultimately lead to the success of the company and its employees.

Learn more about how Danforth’s HR consulting practice can help emerging biotech companies meet these challenges head-on.  Click here.