How to Find Good Company on Your Life Science Career Journey

Tony Jones, CEO & Jasmin Bannister, Events & Communications Administrator - One Nucleus

“Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter”

The above quote by English writer Izaak Walton could have been crafted for those deciding on where to develop their career in Life Sciences. The East of England’s standing as one of the premier innovation ecosystems in the world is rarely, if ever, questioned. Generating a long history of great minds assembling to address global challenges, the creation of new companies and the magnetic effect to established corporate and financial means the region has earned it status. Continued growth means an ever increasing need to meet both the skills and people demand challenges. 

Innovative Collisions:

Ambitious and highly innovative, talented people are born, raised and educated all around the globe, yet there is often a desire to cluster with their like-minded peers. Knowledge intensive industries such as Life Sciences are driven by innovation. Moreover, innovation is a contact sport working best through human collisions. Many will have been concerned about the detrimental impact the long-term social distancing of a pandemic could have caused when the coffee machine chats were stopped. Furthermore, if you are going to collide with others, then choosing to do that in locations where you are surrounded by smart and successful others with whom to collide makes great sense. Mobility for such people is usually a given, so the choice then becomes a two-step process. First developing a list of such places where you can succeed. Second selecting from that list of destinations where you would like to succeed.

Cambridge at the centre of a world leading ecosystem:

A question posed by Cambridge& and others is ‘Why Cambridge?’ when they consider the next steps in their research, career or company’s growth. The depth and track-record of innovation across multiple science and technology sectors certainly enables innovation. Ideas converging from different disciplines stimulate an evolving pipeline of intellectual assets. Those assets sitting in organisations of all shapes and sizes collectively represent an opportunity portfolio attracting investment for R&D, infrastructure, real estate and that all-important passion of the individuals.

Looking from a global perspective, the ecosystem increasingly represented by the word ‘Cambridge’ includes the city’s neighbours. Centres of excellence in fields such as the microbiome; agri-tech; cell & gene therapy; health technologies; data science and advanced manufacturing spread across the region make the East of England a high growth, high opportunity diverse ecosystem for innovators. A relative stone’s throw away are the ecosystems of London and Oxford, two further world-renowned premier innovation locations. Working across and within the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’ is poised to get easier with the development of the Oxford-Cambridge Arc infrastructure.

Investment is driving career opportunities:

The year 2021 was a record-breaking £4.5Bn year for the UK Life Sciences sector (cf: BIA & Clarivate, Jan 2022). Cash has always been king, so releasing the drip-feeding brake long associated with the UK compared to the US biotechs is stimulating unprecedented demand for laboratory space and talent. Around the Cambridge science parks we see occupancy rates of >97% reported with pipeline demand well in excess of 0.5M sq.ft. The recruitment demands created by companies needing to build teams that fill that space have never been higher.

Reflecting on 2021, the investment growth as matched by recruitment growth in terms of breaking records (cf: Cpl Life Sciences & Vacancysoft). Tracking advertised vacancies in Life Sciences, in 2021 the UK saw 72% growth compared to 2020 and even more impressive 136% growth compared to 2019. The South of England accounted for over half of these vacancies with London and Cambridge dominating. That may be the tip of the iceberg if a recent LinkedIn Poll we ran is reflective of normal practice when in an SME-leaning recruiting portfolio. Posing the question What do you feel is the most effective recruitment route to secure the applicants/opportunities in the current climate?” there was an overwhelming sense that using one’s network was the route of choice. This has prompted One Nucleus to launch a Members Jobs LinkedIn Group to complement the web-site postings of job vacancies to support our members.


A destination to develop and thrive:

The UK Government’s UK Life Science Strategy (2020), and its people and culture aspirations in particular, at one of the One Nucleus events addressing the need to grow the region’s talent pool was crystalised into three required strategies; ‘Buy, Borrow or Grow Your Own’. A region as successful as this needs all three. Investing in staff development through apprenticeships, mentoring and placements are required for the latter option. One Nucleus deliver a broad portfolio of training courses for all companies active in Life Sciences. What better way to invest in your recruited team than to support them in gaining new skills to climb the career ladder.  Borrowing talent by outsourcing is very much an adopted strategy in Life Sciences. Buying human capital, attracting the best from anywhere in the world will remain successful. The region is home to some of the most innovative fee-for-service providers the sector has to offer. Again, benefiting from being able to attract and train the brightest in synergy with their Academic, primary R&D and large corporate collaborators.


Diversity has never been more important

Rendering the region sufficiently magnetic and sticky to not only attract the best but to retain them goes beyond advertising. It means we have to individually and collectively be an employer of choice. Life Sciences has a good start given the purpose our companies can bring to the table – addressing unmet medical needs and improving patient lives is attractive. Increasingly meaningful is the need to align the values and culture in an organisation with the personal values of their workforce. Increasingly ED&I (Equality, Inclusion & Diversity) are motivators to join and develop with an employer. Collectively, the regions Life Science businesses are progressive in these aspects. We see this by the passion with which members engage in our Employer of Choice sessions that discuss such topics such as February’s Creating a Diverse and Inclusive Workplace’. Equally, considering how we all strive for carbon efficiency in how we work and live is of great importance to the people we are looking to attract. 

“Sometimes it's the journey that teaches you a lot about your destination” (cf: Drake)

Recruitment is an investment. Employers need to then ensure they nurture, develop and reward their staff to see the reward long term. Formal training, company mentoring, company culture and aligning values play vital roles for both employee and employer. How to articulate and implement good practice will all be discussed throughout the One Nucleus Building Life Science Adventures (#ONBLSA2022) online conference on 1-2 March 2022.  A forum to discuss how to create great careers not just great jobs. The conference is not a jobs fair, rather a series of panels to discuss good practice and trends in creating great careers. A number of the region’s employers are sponsoring in order to showcase their credentials. Collectively it enables One Nucleus to showcase why the Life Sciences sector, our region and our member organisations are committed to being the most attractive place to work that we can be.

Ecosystems don’t happen by accident

One Nucleus will always aim to support its members in every aspect of their success. That includes in building their teams, now and into the future.  How we can play our role in attracting the best people to our region to join our members drives the One Nucleus people activities. Future Place Leadership (FPL), experts advising regions on talent attraction, suggest there are five main pillars for success. In addition to the need to attract talent, they highlight the importance of considering how that talent is welcomed and integrated. Branding of the cluster and its reputation along with recruitment practices start the journey. Our strength as the regional network, the open and inclusive nature of the ecosystem enabling new entrants to explore their opportunities and the strong cluster effect bringing human collisions with peers adds to meeting those FPL criteria. But what could we do better to create the natural home for ambitious life science innovators?

Here are some potential activities that may help and may already be happening but not promoted but could really help our young and high growth companies who have limited bandwidth:

  • A soft-landing opportunity that inward recruits and their new employers could benefit from. Centralised support on immigration compliance, temporary accommodation and integration to the ecosystem
  • Funding learning & development. Whilst the phrase ‘life-long learning’ appears in nearly all regional skills strategies, there is an apparent lack of available funding to support professional development beyond degree level, whether for lab or non-lab roles. Short courses, whilst less formally examined can provide employees with the knowledge to lead commercial R&D processes or see career shifting opportunities as they transition to management and then leadership. Such courses would support growth of the middle and senior management pools required for the sector to scale and create more entry level jobs.
  • Increase apprenticeship engagement. These can be hard for small, sometimes less stable, employers in the knowledge intensive industries like Life Sciences. Greater awareness of the growing number of higher apprenticeship standards, more flexibility in the apprenticeship levy transfer tool and innovative apprenticeship-sharing models could be welcomed.
  • Work-based learning. It seems universally accepted that experience and work-based leaning are extremely advantageous. The barriers are manifold, however. Costs to the company or the trainee, commuting accessibility, physical laboratory space and supervision capacity are impactful. Grant funded placements, greater university-SME connectivity, subsidised travel and perhaps business incentives may be beneficial to economic development and scale-up success.