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Executive Search Firms: A Good Bioinformatics Leader Is Hard to Find


WASHINGTON--As an increasing number of large pharmaceutical companies and tiny biotech firms introduce bioinformatics to their drug discovery pipeline, operations managers are encountering a significant hurdle: a serious shortage of qualified, experienced managers and directors to run their bioinformatics groups. BioInform recently interviewed several executive recruiters involved with searches to fill senior-level bioinformatics positions to learn more about the strategies that are being used to address the problem.

At the moment, the trend is for large pharmaceutical companies to team up with smaller bioinformatics organizations, which may work on specific bioinformatics problems on a contractual or collaborative basis. Therefore, the type of manager or director required to run bioinformatics efforts either in startup or corporate organizations may depend on the nature and outcome of these collaborative arrangements.

"The difficulty is finding qualified people who have done bioinformatics for more than three years," said Amy Lurier, who runs Techfind, a search firm based in Natick, Mass. At present only a handful of scientists fall into that category. For senior-level positions, drug companies not only want a scientist with a background in computers, but they want a director that they can trust with their valuable resources "and who has a dynamic personality," she added.

People with that particular combination of technical expertise and leadership savvy are not easy to find, Lurier said. A client recently asked her to locate a senior-level scientist who not only was an expert in high-throughput screening, but also had a background in peptide synthesis and knew how to use the Oracle database system. "There's no such animal!" she exclaimed, turning to her experience from the six senior-level bioinformatics searches she has run in the past two years. (Lurier has been a technical executive recruiter for 13 years.) The growing technical and decision-making demands of the biotech industry are forcing companies to look for more seasoned leaders, she explained.

Charlene Ledbetter, another veteran search executive, agreed. She said that as the biopharmaceutical industry has become increasingly information- and database-driven, executive searches, particularly in bioinformatics, have become harder. The question isn't whether there is enough technical talent around, she said, "but whether these people are mature enough to provide the leadership to set up a department or a strategic alliance."

Although she believes it's no more difficult to find talent in bioinformatics than in any other technology-reliant sector, she said that the youth of the typical bioinformatics specialist makes searches more difficult.

"Superstars are certainly not easy to find, or we'd all be out of business," she commented.

The managing partner of Ledbetter/Davidson International, a New York-based search firm that specializes in the pharmaceutical and biotech industry, Ledbetter has found that, "regardless of the mandate, there are always certain characteristics that the client is looking for," such as team-building skills, leadership, and the ability to motivate. For many operational- and executive-level bioinformatics positions, she said, candidates will emerge from management information systems or other corporate systems positions, where they will have acquired substantial experience with large, complex systems. For top-level jobs, she believes many director- and CEO-level positions will be filled using the "homegrown talent" of individuals who have risen through the ranks.

While many technically-focused scientists are qualified to run bioinformatics departments or rise to vice-president-level positions in R&D, Ledbetter said many scientists with strong academic backgrounds may not necessarily have the skills to manage and lead members of senior management. She also felt strongly that the industry should look outside for well-developed management talent.

Bill Domann, principal of the San Francisco-based Domann Organization, suggested that many bioinformatics companies may end up recruiting outside talent once the market for bioinformatics tools and software "heats up further." A prime source for candidates with strong technical backgrounds and proven leadership skills would be the software industry, he predicted, which produces managers who can survive and even thrive in the breakneck pace mandated by rapid technological obsolescence and fierce competition.

Compensation Issues

When asked about types of compensation that top bioinformatics directors have been awarded, Ledbetter responded that salaries for manager/director positions in bioinformatics have not been as competitive as for CEO or vice-president-level positions. However, compensation packages in the pharmaceutical industry in general have increased over the past few years, paralleling increases in overall demand for talent, she noted.

But Domann, who has recruited for the biopharmaceutical industry for 15 years, observed that the bioinformatics industry is less than two years old, which means that most bioinformatics-dedicated companies are privately held. With small, privately held companies the tendency is for key personnel to wait until the company goes public so they can exercise stock options before moving to another company. Or if they're more motivated by specific goals, such as pushing a new standard in genomic analysis tools, they will try to achieve those objectives before leaving. This means compensation and personnel changes may become increasingly linked to key milestones in a company's development, such as initial public offerings or new produce releases, he postulated.

With a dearth of mature bioinformatics talent, companies often choose to develop in-house informatics talent. This is a wise move, Lurier claimed, but with the business-wide surge in demand for informatics skills, companies should be aware of the extent of the investments they may have to make. In addition to being "one of the most difficult programs out there," Oracle, along with other database systems, can be quite costly to learn. Lurier commented that demand for database-trained professionals has increased to the extent that there are biologists who are willing to go out and learn database programming, with employers paying as much as $25,000 for key personnel to be trained. The investment of time is also fairly substantial, with comprehensive training taking months. And companies often find that it can take an additional 12 months for staff to integrate the new skills with their bioinformatics group's activities, she added.

"It's a risk the companies take," Lurier said, because they need sophisticated database users. She also admitted that companies risk losing highly trained personnel to other business sectors, because informatics skills are very marketable and are in high demand.

As the culture of biotech has matured, it has become better defined and identified, according to Domann, making it easier for scientists and managers to decide what type of environment they're most comfortable with, whether it's entrepreneurial, midsize, or corporate. This suggests that as bioinformatics companies mature, they will find it easier to recruit and retain individuals for more tightly defined roles. Ledbetter sees a continuing role for strategic planning in driving bioinformatics organizations. From the large biopharmaceutical companies' point of view, the dilemma is still whether to acquire a technology outright, license the rights to it, or develop it in-house.

"Bioinformatics has actually been there all along" albeit in different guises, she added. "But now it's driven more by outcomes and results."

--Wendy Yee

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