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The Challenge Of Scaling Talent - Lessons Learned From The Pharmaceutical Industry Through A Global Pandemic

By Momodou Balajo - 6 Min read

Momodou Balajo

Talent Partner

Once in a generation is perhaps not an overstatement when referring to the challenge posed to scientists working in pharmaceutical research at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. They had the hopes of the world resting on their shoulders as they raced to develop suitable vaccines to stop the pandemic.

Winston Churchill’s infamous quote of “Never... was so much owed by so many to so few” seems apt for the scientists who responded fantastically with the expedient development of multiple safe and effective vaccines, hopefully marking the beginning of the end of the global pandemic.

Of the various vaccines developed against Covid-19, two developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are a completely new class of vaccine based on novel mRNA technology. The validation of mRNA technology as a potent vaccine platform has the potential to transform the way we treat a host of diseases ranging from infectious diseases to cancer. The innovation has excited scientists in pharmaceutical research and investors alike as in 2020, over $5.2 billion was invested in companies working on mRNA therapies, and over 150 potential drug candidates are in the pipeline, with 30 in human trials. So far, the Covid-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer- BioNTech and Moderna are the only approved mRNA medical products on the market.

Pharmaceutical companies are looking to capitalise on the mRNA platform by hiring experts and building out research teams. Larger firms are looking to partner with or acquire stakes in smaller firms with mRNA expertise. Sanofi has recently acquired Translate Bio, a clinical-stage mRNA therapeutics company in an effort to strengthen its capabilities in the area and develop new therapeutics to address unmet clinical needs. Similarly, GSK has acquired a £130m stake in CureVac and AstraZeneca has acquired a £142m stake in VaxEquity, which specialises in developing self-amplifying RNA therapeutics

The challenge with scaling up research in mRNA technology is that it is a relatively new technology and there is a very small pool of talent. There is now intense competition for these experts as well-funded pharmaceutical firms seek to bring them on board to develop new mRNA products. Firms who will have a competitive advantage to win this talent war are those that are able to get insights into the talent landscape and firms who best engage the upcoming pipeline of mRNA experts.

mRNA – The latest generation of vaccines

mRNA vaccines against Covid-19 are an entirely new class of medical products, the first of their kind to be used in humans. They can be constructed relatively quickly compared to other vaccine technologies, and fewer side effects have been observed.

The mRNA vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech have brought a paradigm shift in vaccinology and in areas of pharmaceutical research, including infectious diseases, cancer therapeutics, cystic fibrosis, malaria and tuberculosis.

Before the pandemic broke out, only a few companies, including Moderna, BioNTech and CureVac, were working on mRNA technology to address various unmet medical conditions.

However, the agility of the mRNA platform meant they were able to pivot and focus their efforts on the novel coronavirus as soon as they were sent the genetic sequence in January 2020. It took Moderna only 42 days to design a vaccine that was ready to enter clinical trials. That kind of speed is unprecedented in drug discovery.

Post-pandemic, mRNA pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies will refocus their efforts on using their platforms to address other unmet medical needs, and this potential is attracting investment.

How mRNA Vaccines Work

Investment is pouring into mRNA companies.

The potential of the mRNA technology platform to treat other diseases which until now, we have not had any solutions for, is reflected in the valuations of the mRNA companies.

Biogen has ten approved neuroscience therapies that generated over $13 billion in revenue last year and is valued at just $40 billion. Yet Moderna, founded in 2010 with revenues of $803 million last year, has had a 600% surge in its stock price since the pandemic and is currently valued at over $70 billion.

According to Roots Analysis, over $5.2 billion was invested in companies working on mRNA therapies in 2020 compared to $596 million in 2019. Over 150 vaccines are currently in development, with most in early-stage animal testing, but about 30 mRNA drug and vaccine candidates are currently in human trials.

In order to get more mRNA vaccines and drugs to market, to treat other illnesses, significant amounts of investment and talent are required. The pandemic and huge interest in mRNA technology has seen companies’ stock prices rocket; however, the crucial aspect of talent has been overlooked and is set to be one of the main blockers to success.

Image Source: Financial Times

Scaling up mRNA technology is trickier than you might think.

Before the pandemic, the development and manufacture of mRNA therapies had been somewhat of a cottage industry within pharmaceutical research. Only a handful of people working for early and clinical stage companies had the necessary skills and knowledge to develop and manufacture drugs and vaccines at an industrial scale.

The pandemic has turbocharged financial investment in new mRNA drugs however, very deep expertise is required to develop and formulate the drugs for other unmet medical needs. There isn’t currently a lot of that expertise available.

You can’t just switch over to producing vaccines instead of aspirin or cough syrup. The process requires years of expertise and the appropriate structural and technological equipment. Uğur Şahin - BioNTech CEO

As others in the industry seek to capitalise on the successes of the Covid mRNA vaccines by investing in the technology, they will also seek to court and attract the few experts in the industry. According to research by Armstrong Craven, the ‘War for talent’ is most intense in the mRNA space, with more companies competing to attract very few experts.

39% of professionals working for mRNA companies changed jobs within 12 months compared to an 11% average for the pharmaceutical industry.

Smaller biotechs are winning over their larger pharma competitors with 83% of job changes being people transitioning from large pharma companies to small biotechs.

The bottleneck right now is people. Stéphane Bancel - Moderna CEO

The success of the Covid mRNA vaccines is likely to attract young and developing talent; however, it will be a few years until this cohort of talent is productive. A proactive approach to talent attraction is required, as firms that invest in identifying, developing and engaging with talent will gain the competitive advantage when it is time to bring them on board.

What can we do about the talent bottleneck?

The challenges of rapidly scaling talent are commonly overlooked, despite being a crucial aspect of talent strategy in every industry.

As we have seen the impact of new technology in the pharmaceutical industry, the challenge of scaling talent has been a great hurdle. Scaling talent impacts organisations across all industries, whether this is technology advancement or changes.

The key to scaling talent is in preparation. Forward planning based on detailed talent insight will give your organisation the tools to confidently implement talent investment decisions. Using talent intelligence will not only provide you with analysis and information about the talent landscape it will also assess competitor activity and elevate your existing HR and Talent data.

Taking a future-focused view on talent and introducing a comprehensive workforce plan modelled around potential risks and opportunities, allows plans to be put in place to mitigate against not having the talent you need, when you need it.

If your business had to scale talent in order to adapt to changes within your industry, do you have plans in place?

How can Armstrong Craven help?

At Armstrong Craven, we have worked with 3 of the top 10 pharmaceutical companies on mRNA talent strategies.

We take a consultative approach to addressing clients’ needs. For 30 years, we’ve helped clients across all industries gather the data they need to make effective business decisions.

Our team of highly experienced consultants and researchers will build a bespoke insight programme tailored to your workforce planning goals and give you the data to make informed talent decisions.

We do this for clients who want to benchmark their business in regional or global markets by utilising primary and secondary research including conducting detailed insight interviews to bring the data to life.

Using all this information, we can accurately assess the structures, opportunities, trends, and prospects in each location, sector or specific competitor organisation.

Having the most relevant information helps our clients solve their critical business problems by making data-driven talent decisions.

Plan today to secure the people you’ll need tomorrow.

Alongside our insight capabilities, we work with business leaders to help design talent pipelining solutions to address both succession and growth. From initial contact to the point of hire, we build relationships with talent in the industry on your behalf. We nurture strong bonds so that you have a qualified list of ‘ready now’ and ‘ready later’ talent for immediate and future hiring. What are your thoughts? We’d love to hear your feedback about our latest review. Alternatively, if you have any questions or require further information, please contact us today.

Want to know more? Speak to Momodou Balajo