The Biotech Culture Problem

Author: Eric Celidonio

Tips for Interviewers in Biotechnology Companies

do as I say not as I do

Let’s talk Biotech Culture.  Biopharma* start-ups often tout the noble aspiration of curing all that ails the world. And in many instances, they have been successful. Advances in drugs and vaccines are a huge contributing factor to our ability to live longer and lead more active and productive lives.  

Many biopharma companies, however, have systematic cultural & values issues that are far from apparent when reading their well-groomed press releases and perusing their flashy websites. Many of these illustrious, high-flying organizations are in fact perpetuating ‘mistruths’; their claims of a virtuous, meritorious, transparent and science based approach are often misleading or outright untrue. Careful observation reveals some serious rifts, cultural divides, and outright lies beneath the surface.

Interviewers beware! Here are some clues there might be a more complicated truth beneath a company’s attractive exterior:

Interviewers beware- here are some clues :

  • No one is willing to talk about why previous employees have left the company.
  • The interview feels like an interrogation, and no one thanks you for coming in.
  • No one at the company seems to be smiling or making eye contact.
  • You were left waiting with no apology, or there were hasty last minute cancellations.
  • The leaders have elaborate offices while everyone else is in micro cubicles.
  • You weren’t offered parking or expense reimbursement.
  • The interviewer focused on your weaknesses and lack of experience.

Read between the lines and observe the body language of your interviewers. Much of the time, interviewers won’t be forthcoming about problems within the company, so it’s important to pay special attention to visual cues and behaviors. Many rely on employer rating sites like Glassdoor for honest reviews of a company directly from employees, but these are hard to trust and tend to attract fringe reviews, both the good and the bad.

The problem often starts with executives that don’t truly live the values they espouse, because they feel that they are above them. This can create a downward cultural spiral as cynical employees observe the disconnect, or, worse yet, they may emulate and spread this negative behavior until it feeds into the general population.

Biotech Interviewing tips for getting the right applicant

          beware biotech interviewers

It’s important to first differentiate culture from values. Culture can be defined as the personality of a company, which establishes the climate of the environment. Corporate values can be defined as philosophies or principles which guide an organization’s internal conduct as well as its relationship with its customers, partners, and shareholders. The two are different, yet closely intertwined.

For sure, biopharma can’t be completely singled out for its empty corporate values and cultural insincerity. Most every biotech or pharmaceutical industry has its share of guilty companies, but biopharma is a special case.

To be fair, there are many well managed, promising biotechs run by executives who truly care, and who adhere to respectable values while building healthy, robust company cultures. The typical biopharma values list has good intentions of trying to conjure a harmonious environment, where people work as a team and have each other’s back in finding a cure for a particular disease area. However, many would be more appreciative of honest statements about a current culture, rather than a phony, contrived or even aspired one. Just admit that you are incomplete, that there are gaps but opportunities. Be real. Be sincere. Confess that you intend to monetize your technology/drug/vaccine. Don’t partake in the charade of a selfless, philanthropic institution just to attract talent. Employees will resent it if they discover the truth is not what was advertised. It’s ok to be for profit, and in this business with less than 10% of drug programs succeeding to commercialization, there has to be a prospect of high profitability or few would partake.

integrity word cloud

an illusion at many places

The fact is, for many pre-commercial biotechs, the corporate values may come across well, but are often disingenuous. The issue is, once this hi-po person has landed s/he quickly realizes the truth and has buyer’s remorse. This partially explains the high turnover rate of biotechs.  Of course, the volatility of proof of concept and the fact that you need a mountain of cash to succeed are major factors as well.

culture problems of biotech and pharmaceutical companies can be avoided

quitting a start-up biotech

There are other high-beta industries that churn and burn people as well. High-tech is similar in this respect. Biotech is probably a more egregious offender, though, because of its stark stages and higher regulatory hurdles. These companies often grow in ways that management hadn’t anticipated or expected. Example: most ‘platform technology’ biotech companies re-brand themselves as ‘drug companies or Pharmas’ as they show progress clinically. Drug Development companies in turn may quickly change therapeutic focus after a clinical failure or competition. They are often bought by bigger companies, after which their brand and values will change yet again. Ultimately, these companies can change into very different entities at these inflective junctions, and it can all happen in a very compressed period of time: often only a couple of years.

The talent base, of course, changes too. A pre-clinical discovery company will rotate out early research-based talent in its clinical stage, focusing primarily on development, medical and regulatory staff. Then it will refocus dramatically as it approaches commercialization, bringing on sales and marketing teams. The skills needed change rapidly, as well as the personality types, and many of the individuals who seeded the company, the ones who set the tone of the company’s values, will be long gone by the time you get to the commercial stage.

So how did the set of core values by which a company operates become so important, and in turn become so often misleading?

It seems to have gained popularity after the Jim Collins and Jerry Porras business classic Built to Last, was published in 1994.   This book offers evidence that the “best” companies follow a set of principles or core values,  and that created a sort of cultish blueprint that every company feels compelled to now follow. This book offers evidence that the “best” companies follow a set of principles or core values, and that created a sort of cultish blueprint that every company feels compelled to now follow. To quote Patrick Lencioni in the July 2002 Harvard Business Review: “The values fad swept through corporate America like chicken pox through a kindergarten class. Today, 80% of the Fortune 100 tout their values publicly—values that too often stand for nothing but a desire to be au courant or, worse still, politically correct.  Organizations follow the lead and behavior of their CEO, and this establishes a company’s culture. This culture is perpetuated, for better or worse, by corporate values that either ring hollow and or are eschewed, or truly mean something and therefore are adhered to. Because of the industry’s expansion, it’s been harder to find experienced, talented leaders who possess the necessary qualities of leadership, integrity, and sincerity along with the experience and competence necessary to lead biotech start-ups.

In the end, culture can be a moot point for biotechs because of the very business of drug development. You can have a culture and values system that enriches the corporate environment, but if your drug flunks a Phase IIb that fantastic culture won’t guarantee a buyer. Just the same, even if a company has clinical success but keeps bleeding talent because employees are unhappy within the company culture, things can unravel quickly that way. Company culture and values do matter, and can either drive organizational success or hasten systemic failure.

Ultimately, it’s best for companies to say what they mean and mean what they say. It’s okay if your culture needs work, but transparency about this goes a long way; just admit that the culture is evolving and you’re building towards a set of core values. Don’t use hollow words just because you think they will resonate; they won’t if your leadership doesn’t embody and adhere to them. For CEOs: don’t commit yourself to a carved-in-stone system of values that is likely to change. The nature of the life-cycle in this business is not simple, and cannot easily be mapped-out ahead of time. It isn’t realistic to pretend that you’ve summed up all the outcomes, values, and necessary competencies before you begin the journey. Start by acting with integrity and sincerity, and realistically describing the current state of your team, and where you strive to improve. Honesty is crucial; your employees will thank you for it.

values of biotech and pharmaceutical companies

say it like you mean it


  1. *Differentiating: biotech(nology) and biopharma (pharmaceutical) companies. Both produce medicine. Biotechnology companies produce medicines which have a biological basis, and pharmaceutical companies’ produce those with a chemical basis. Biotechnology companies use live organisms or parts of living organisms, such as bacteria or enzymes, to manufacture their drugs. In this use of the word, we refer to any pre-commercial biotech or pharma company.
  2. Recruiting has its own set of corporate values, but we are not developing drugs.

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