Differences in recruiting for a big pharma and a small biotech

By 22nd June 2020 January 27th, 2021 No Comments

Across the healthcare industry, there are varied companies ensuing an array of new creative ways of attracting talent. What are the main differences and how do these lead to successful recruitment? How do we target the right profiles for a smaller biotech versus a large pharmaceutical? What makes them differ? Why would they want to join that specific kind of company?

Elephant Bees

Before being able to differentiate between recruiting approach for a big pharma versus small biotech, it is important to mention the size of the company is one of the key factors as to why people would want to join it. There is still is a tendency to find people who wish to join the ultimate big-pharma triumph and/or to remain working in “a stable and comfortable environment”.

However, at the same time, others are starting to consider stepping out of a typical larger pharma setting and instead choose to join smaller biotechs and a smaller team. Why does this happen? By defining what people are prioritising in their job hunt, it will make the approach to recruitment clearer.

Across the healthcare industry, there are varied companies ensuing an array of new creative ways of attracting talent. What are the main differences and how do these lead to successful recruitment? How do we target the right profiles for a smaller biotech versus a large pharmaceutical? What makes them differ? Why would they want to join that specific kind of company?

I will aim to tackle this multi-layered reasoning across a few key areas:


The environment

In a biotech, the attractive factors transmit into the impact of the role, the smaller-type work setting, the subsequent multi-faceted functions requiring a person who will be comfortable rolling-up their sleeves and being involved in all the areas (wearing different hats).

These advocate an environment, which is proactive, agile and exciting, though in the same time it can come with anxiety, pressure, uncertainty and overload.

In a biotech, there are expanded scopes of responsibility due to the ownership of the function and the expectation of delivery. This is simply often due to limited workforce and resources/funding.

Lastly, the inviting and fast decision-making processes are also something that resonate when thinking of small biotechs.

Evidently, many of these aspects can actually also be present in a larger organisation, which present an equally exciting opportunity. We find that bigger companies have taken this biotech-approach and have effectively set-up “units” within the bigger frame, sharing, or at least aiming to share, the similar biotech-spirit within.  That said, a bigger pharmaceutical company can additionally offer the right financial muscle, stability, investment, resources and future professional development.

The risk

The concept of risk can be a fundamental caveat for some people. They will either relate risk with smaller biotechs (understandably), or feel the thrill of it and see its true and growing potential.  At times, it can be assumed that the “big” pharmaceutical industry, for the most part, is considered the more “stable in the industry” or the “safe option” for apparent reasons. However, it only takes a quick google search to construe that there have been more and more strategic shifts, M&As or clinical refocuses, directly affecting headcount at all levels, across small, medium and large sized companies in the healthcare sector. Therefore, “stability” is juxtaposed “risk”, and in the end, there is risk everywhere regardless of the company size.  This shift in thinking seems to continue to gradually undermine the concept of risk as a deterrent leading to a growing number of professionals opting for the change into smaller settings.

The perfect opportunity to develop or leverage on your experience

Just this morning, I spoke to three candidates who saw a senior position in a small biotech as the perfect opportunity; a dynamic new challenge, the perfect next step in their career and personal life. The key points were that they felt that they were now looking to leverage on their senior capabilities, and help a smaller company to build functions and teams from scratch, being willing to roll-up their sleeves and make things happen.

There is an energizing element to joining an ambitious, busy and exciting company that is in its growing phase. Their motivation came from the drive and opportunity to introduce an infrastructure and shape the culture and vision of the company. Usually this cascaded into the ideas of impact, pioneering and flexibility

Many others see it as a smaller and nimbler environment and pioneering the best next thing. “Biotechs present the opportunity to work in a dynamic organisation that’s trying to develop something that is new and novel… seeing on a day-to-day basis how your efforts can impact the organisation.” David Lowe (Managing Director of AllosteRx Capital – a VC firm).


When recruiting for big pharma, it may seem easier when it comes to selling-points of the company. Merely to say the name and expect the candidate to know the company is already a step ahead many biotechs. This is because large pharma is mostly followed by an exciting reputation and feeling of accomplishment. Big pharma brings its successful track-record, global-remit, financial muscle, professional development and compensation advantages. In short, selling points of large pharma and robust roles typically equate interest.

On the other hand, recruiting for small biotechs represents a significant change in tactic for Line Managers and recruiters.  Hiring for smaller companies may mean that they are not yet well-known, often with a focus on one platform or one candidate, which also translates into resources, capital and timelines. They have much to offer in terms of working styles, potential, winnings, science and much more.

When recruiting, small biotechs really have to capitalize on all of their tools to promote their companies and potential. A major one of them is the job description. This entails sharp and exciting company introduction, background-of the role and expectations, though most importantly – the opportunity. What is in it for them? Profit if the company quickly becomes successful? Size of the role/level? Impact? Future potential?

Direct line to the management team

Another difference is also the collaboration between the Line Managers, the C-Suite and HR. At companies with the biotech-like spirit the upper management and HR are usually easy to reach, highly approachable and fast to act, as they are able to have a quick turn-around and are less process-driven. That said, processes in large-pharma are not necessarily negative, as they can also provide rigour and structure. However, the bigger the company, the more likely it is to have a larger interviewing panel, many interview stages, check-points, waiting for feedback and slower decision making. Due to the nature of smaller companies, there is usually more visibility to the Hiring Manager which can create a smooth, straightforward, faster and focused recruitment process.

Last but not least, in a small biotech, since most of the time they are closer to the R&D, or are focused on research (still developing initial products), they are often closer to prominent research universities and academic centres. This can also be a highly exciting aspect to candidates who would like to remain closer to the science and fully represent the company in an academic setting.

Personality fit

For senior professionals, their technical requirements and proficiency in their field are a given for both small biotech and big pharma. Therefore, if the profiles we are targeting already show a mastery of hard-skills, the more eminent focus when recruiting in a small biotech will be their soft-skillset and attributes around attitude, willingness, agility and resourcefulness.

Big Pharma can also require professionals with similar core values and calibre. However, more times than not, they will need a slightly different soft-skillset i.e. agility to navigate decision-making process, layers, timelines, stakeholder management and politics.

In contrast, we find that smaller biotechs tend to be nimbler, as a result of having a smaller team and less layered processes, bigger impact, require people who can be reactive and show ownership and an entrepreneurial-mind-set.. In addition, we also need agility, the ability to work under pressure, and hands-on, resourceful, yet able to keep a holistic strategic view.  The candidates must be comfortable working in a structure that may be missing that infrastructure, be remote, work across different functions or even be able to work from a blank page. At times, biotechs may need more scientific-focused background, particularly as they work in earlier pre-clinical or clinical development. In essence, they often look for the full package, because that individual will be doing a bit of everything.

Regardless of the differences, the most important point is to show the opportunities from both types of companies, finding the best and complimentary talent, not only hard-skills, though also company-cultural fit.  Big pharma and small biotechs all have their outstanding advantages, depending on what the company is looking for and what the candidate can bring and gain.

Ana Delgado, Executive Search Consultant