In the past year or so, we've completed a significant number of assignments in clinical sciences, both in big and small companies. Demand continues to be quite high. Roles include very early-stage, translational clinical development experts to late-stage, monitoring and medical affairs profiles. I have a (rather simplistic) theory about why we’ve seen such high demand in recent years.
Back in 2008, when the bottom fell out of the overall economy, early-stage life sciences were not spared the axe. Many companies with very risky technology propositions, or with shaky or unproven management teams, were not able to find funding of any kind to advance their plans. In economic downturns, or what many like to glibly call “a correction,” the purging of entrepreneurs with less than compelling stories is often viewed as a necessary (and welcome) consequence of the belt tightening. But in 2008, even established, development-stage companies felt the impact. Companies with robust clinical plans and pipelines were suddenly finding it very difficult to raise supplemental funding to advance their nascent programs, even those that were backed by leading life sciences investors.
If you’re the CEO of a technology company, the last thing you want to do is cut R&D. So in the face of the spigot turning off, and the need to make cuts, you will be much more likely to leave R&D (relatively) intact and cut the more commercial functions. I propose that this is what happened in the wake of the economic crisis. Over the following years, the R&D engines in these companies kept chugging along albeit, perhaps, at a slightly throttled back pace. Many clinical programs that had been in early development, and in anticipation of additional support, were mothballed.
Fast forward to today. While many are currently sounding the death knell of the most recent of the biotech booms, one can’t argue that over the past few years, venture rounds and IPOs for life sciences companies have become routine, almost mundane, announcements in the trade press. Whether or not it’s the end of the run, a lot of money has flowed into the sector in the past recent years. Those mothballed projects? And the output of the R&D engines? Well somebody has to now take them into the clinic.
We’ve been seeing demand in both big companies and small. Big companies, which had made significant reductions in clinical staff during the recession, are now eager to restock the pond. Since most big pharmas are looking over their shoulders with envy at the others with advanced programs in immuno-oncology, the demand in that disease area is by far the strongest. However, since many small companies are also chasing that grail, and are drawing experienced drug developers out of big companies, it leaves pharma with a gaping talent vacuum. But big companies are far better places to learn the trade – maybe not with formal training programs, but simply being part of an organization with multiple clinical development programs, all at various stages of registration. Thus, they are more willing to take medics out of academia, without direct industry experience, but with knowledge of the process through participation as a trial site. Small companies don’t have that luxury. They need to recruit people who have already experienced the range of possibilities one sees in big companies, and who have seen some failures as well as successes.
My prediction is that the next wave will be for more commercial roles. We’re already starting to see this, but the demand for great medics is still quite high. Whether or not you think the end of the world has come in terms of life sciences funding, there’s no question that financings and public offerings have slowed. In the coming years, I expect to see a return to a more rational funding environment, and a consequent tapering of investment in clinical programs, but an increase in demand for people experienced at taking those products to market. In any case, it has been great fun being part of the latest biotech boom. Those of us with some grey hair have been through a number of these periods of financing booms and busts, so we’re girding for the ebbing that is sure to come. But while we’re in the relative boom, it’s exhilarating to be part of the building of the next generation of great companies.