Those of us working in Life Sciences see how digital health is transforming the global life sciences sector—and we understand that for the companies who are able to navigate the transformation, the rewards will be significant. In California, life sciences companies are uniquely positioned to benefit from this trend and can offer us a window into this opportunity for companies around the world.
California is ranked No.1 for venture capital investment in life sciences, with US$3.9 billion funding the sector in 2018. Combined with its cutting-edge research universities and Silicon Valley-based innovation, the California life sciences industry is on course to drive future change in this space. But in order to fully capitalize on the growth in digital health, significant challenges to talent, technology and the workforce need to be addressed.
2019 Digital Health Trends Report
I was proud to be part of California's first-ever study on digital health trends. Working with the California Life Sciences Association (CLSA) to better understand the challenges and opportunities presented by digital health for life sciences companies, we published our findings in the 2019 Digital Health Trends Report.
The study showed that 74 percent of respondents expect the future disruptive impact of digital health to be high or very high. The California life sciences sector is rethinking the therapies and treatments it develops—and how it provides them with a patient-centric focus, combining technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, big data and robotics, with the best in science—all of which we call New Science—and is expected to drive 54 percent of sales through 2022. It's an exciting time in our industry and in order to fully capitalize on this merging of technology and science, California life sciences companies will need to address the number one challenge from our survey: attracting and retraining a highly skilled workforce to support it.
"New Skilling": Attracting and Retaining an Innovative Workforce
With its Silicon Valley-based resources and leading research university programs, California is famous for its innovative Tech workforce. For years, companies like Apple, Google and Facebook have been a draw for talent equipped with the skillsets required to drive and support the growth in tech—which has been seen as an exciting and rewarding sector to work within. Life sciences, on the other hand, hasn’t traditionally been the first place highly skilled tech talent looks toward for opportunities. And with only a small pool of digital health professionals graduating from universities, demand for skills in life science far exceeds supply. In fact, 62 percent of respondents identified the acquisition and retention of digital health talent as the primary obstacle they face.
The first step for traditional Pharmaceutical, Biotech, Medical Device and Diagnostic players is to foster their inner discovery "core" and create digital literacy, at scale, with existing talents. One approach is to identify the existing and future digital skillset needs, gaps and develop training (and sometimes certification) programs accordingly. A number of internal resources (e.g. sponsored by the Chief Information Officer, Chief Digital Officer or/and Chief Analytics Office) or external programs (e.g. Academia or private partners like Accenture University) are readily available to help "new skill" the existing workforce.
There are several realities and misconceptions that contribute to the talent acquisition challenge in life sciences. One of the biggest is the lure large Silicon Valley tech companies have to emerging talent. Facebook, Apple and Google are thought to be innovative and fast-paced in the digital space, which is counter to life science companies that may be seen as more reserved and slower-paced. But the perception is misguided. Fifty-six percent of respondents in our survey ranked new technologies, such as machine learning (ML), artificial intelligence (AI), genomics, and robotics as the top factors supporting the surge in digital health—all of which are at the forefront of technological innovation.
Partnering with Academia
Life science companies are trying to find ways to make the sector more relevant by collaborating with academia to groom new talent. By developing innovative partnerships within the education system, we can establish a deeper understanding of the opportunities for innovative, exciting careers in the sector while building meaningful connections with emerging talent. At the University of California, this is being done through an incubator program called QB3, which fosters biotech entrepreneurship, and includes partnerships in industry with companies like Bayer. By working with start-ups at the early stage of development, QB3 accelerates life science innovation while building relationships with skilled tech talent.
It is this kind of collaboration with academia that will promote a deeper understanding of the opportunities a career in life sciences provides. Our study showed that the limited availability of skilled talent is a challenge facing most digital health players. Partnerships between life sciences organizations, incubators like QB3 and academic institutions throughout California help endorse education in digital health, generating a larger supply of skilled workers. Rotational internships, or co-op programs, are another route through which life sciences organizations can introduce high-potential students to their sector before completing their degrees—giving them an opportunity to explore their interest in digital health and presenting an alternative to the programs already being used by the larger technology companies to attract top young professionals.
Reshaping Culture for Retention
By 2025, 70 percent of the California workforce will be millennial and with that comes different expectations and definitions of a career path. In a recent panel discussion, David Purdie, VP of Medical Affairs and Clinical Development at Proteus Digital Health Care, illustrated the challenge in combining technology and life sciences cultures, saying, "I'm in meetings with semiconductor and software people all day long. They speak a different language to life scientists. I've had to learn their language … it's different worlds that collide."
Creating a culture that anticipates and understands the demands of a new workforce requires strong leadership. By developing operating models and cultures that not only support innovation at scale but also resonate with a new workforce generation, companies have a better chance of attracting and retaining talent.
An example of a shift in cultural approach is Genentech, who made agility and culture a key priority. Building organizational agility through their "Kinesis" initiative, leaders have begun to reimagine how to work in more agile ways and unlock creativity, leading to a culture of experimentation across the enterprise in which smaller "squads" made up of individuals with different skill sets work collaboratively to solve problems. This culture of experimentation and agility balances speed, stability and flexibility, helping promote a dynamic work environment that attracts talent.
Additionally, millennials have been shown to be more purpose-driven than previous generations, with an expectation that the work they are doing will have real-world impact. Life sciences companies have a great alignment with this motive, since the work done in the sector leads to the development of life-saving drugs and therapies.
Investing in Diversity
By embracing and promoting diversity in the life sciences sector, we have an additional opportunity to attract talent and foster innovation. Accenture's Getting to Equal 2019: Creating a Culture That Drives Innovation shows that teams that are diverse across gender, age and cultural backgrounds throughout the organization have an innovation mindset 11 times greater than in the least-equal and diverse workplace cultures.
By promoting diversity as driver, life sciences companies can help attract talent to the industry—especially when it comes to gender diversity. In contrast to the proportion of women working in the tech sector, whose representation has risen just 1 percent in the past year—and remains just 12 percent in leadership roles—California life sciences is significantly better when it comes to gender balance. In fact, research from the California Life Sciences Institute (CLSI) showed that among life sciences start-ups in the Bay Area, women represented 47 percent of the C-suite. From the standpoint of attracting a more diverse talent pool, the sector can be positioned as being a leader in fostering gender equality.
By tackling workforce challenges, life sciences companies have a better chance of attracting the top talent required to navigate the huge growth in digital health—and it will be those workers who help foster success, through partnerships and highly valued skill sets. In my next post, we will examine how California companies are investing in the ecosystem, establishing partnerships between start-ups and more advanced biopharmaceutical, medical device and technology companies, research institutions, regulatory partners and payers—all of which is leading to increased innovation and a world-class life sciences sector.