a product of Scientific American Custom Media
Biotechnology's Crucial Question

Biotechnology's Crucial Question

In this industry, what matters the most: technology or people?

The reflexive answer to this question is most likely: the technology. Without a new method, cure, device or something that makes a difference in the lives of people or communities, there has been no progress. As true as that rings, there is at the very least a codependence of the underlying technology and the people who turn it into reality. Some might argue—myself included—that the biotechnology industry is entirely people driven and enabled. The very definition and realization of a product needs definers and builders who know how to find and marshal the necessary intellectual, managerial and financial capital to make things happen.

The human resources biotechnology demands fall into four broad categories:

Scientific and technical.
This includes the Ph.D.s and other graduates in the life and medical sciences, whether they be recently minted or with decades of experience in the industry. The production of life and medical Ph.D. scientists has largely been addressed in most countries throughout the world. Whether there are an adequate number of academic or industrial positions for these scientists is a question that is beyond the scope of this article.

Managerial & administrative.
This category consists of the people educated or experienced as strategic thinkers, organizers and coordinators of either academic or commercial enterprises. In biotechnology, many of the people in this category were trained as scientists and moved from the bench to the boardroom. While there are some forward-thinking academic programs that combine Ph.D. studies in the life sciences with MBA studies, managers in biotechnology usually emerge either from the marketing side of the bio-pharma industry or from the laboratory where they have accrued successive responsibilities in research management. These managers are necessary for the success of an existing organization, but insufficient to drive the “new.”

Entrepreneurial founders.
Although these people make up a subset of scientists, managers or a combination of the two, it is best to break them out into a separate category, because the risk affinity—or tolerance—of the entrepreneur is typically the starting point of new venture creation in this industry and all others. Entrepreneurs possess a combination of native skills, education, experience and personality traits that put them in a category of their own. Some are aware early in their careers that entrepreneurship is their career destiny. Others discover their inner-entrepreneurship tendencies after years of commercial responsibilities that build their confidence and hone their skills.

Entrepreneurial enablers.
The entrepreneurial academic literature implies, but seldom studies, this category. Entrepreneurial enablers are the experienced managers of functional areas—such as technology and information management, strategy and marketing, finance and operations—who have the risk tolerance and drive to make something new happen, but who might not independently have the vision for a new business. They know a talented founder and leader when they see one and a sound idea when they examine one, but they see themselves as team players and experts in their respective fields. Without the enablers, there would still be entrepreneurs, but not many of them would be successful.


What, then, does the biotechnology industry need in the way of human resources? To answer that, we can look at the census of biotechnology companies. According to a 2011 OECD (Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development) study, the United States had the largest number of biotechnology firms—6,213—with the 18 reporting countries from the European Union having a total of 5,398. That’s about 11,500 firms before we start counting Japan, Australia, New Zealand or the emerging markets. For round numbers, let’s stipulate that there are 15,000 companies globally in the industry.

How does that census translate into people with entrepreneurial leanings? It means there must be 15,000 entrepreneurial founders. If each company needs, say, six entrepreneurial enablers, that would compute to a total of 90,000 of them worldwide. So, overall, the industry requires 105,000 bio-entrepreneurs.

Beyond the numbers, these leaders have to possess many capabilities:

Leadership: formulate human resource needs and manage the hiring and development of teams.

Strategic thinking: make choices based on alternatives and options.

Tactical planning: organize resources to achieve strategic ends.

Technology assessment: manage a team that can review scientific opportunities and select those that justify a commercial strategy and allocate resources proportional to the opportunity.

Market assessment: recognize and measure the potential of a technology-driven product to meet unmet customer and commercial needs, compete with alternatives, achieve a level of pricing that justifies the investment and assures sustainability, and that can be promoted with a clear, distinct, ethical and persuasive message.

Regulatory development: define and manage the process through which the products must be assessed.

Intellectual property management: form, maintain and maximize intellectual property assets internationally and domestically through a variety of strategies, including licensing and partnering.

Capital formation, replenishment and stabilization: define capital requirements and sources over long time periods, and accumulate the financial resources necessary to meet the development and commercial objectives of the company.

Communication management: encapsulate the mission and methods of the company into a succinct and persuasive message in order to attract human resources, build internal consensus, drive strategy and operations in an organized fashion, assure stake holders that the company is mindful of the totality of challenges and obtain needed financing.

Impact management: marshal the assets and resources of the company towards defined needs in an ethical manner that delivers the greatest good to the greatest number of people.

This knowledge comes from formal training and experience. Although it is unreasonable to expect that an intensive approach to imparting the associated insights would ever compete with disciplined study over years or the lessons associated with making day-to-day and strategic choices, teaching can be developed to provide new entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial enablers with a toolbox for orienting their thinking and laying a groundwork for immediate action as well as long-term study. Achieving that, however, requires a conscious, deliberate effort aimed at identifying the needs of the industry vis-à-vis the talents and experiences of people willing to dedicate their careers to the field. Those needs will change over time, but like biology itself, education and training will adapt. What matters most in this industry is, therefore, its people.



Stephen M. Sammut is a senior fellow, health care management at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and developer of the Biotechnology Entrepreneurship Boot Camp.


Illustration by Keith Negley

  • A Guided Tour

    Enhanced with a new guidebook and region-specific ratings, the 2016 Scorecard ventures deeper than ever to track down the latest in biotech innovation