Benefits and Considerations of Careers at Biotech Startups

6 minutes

Biotech is at the forefront of scientific innovation, contributing to groundbreaking healthcare, agriculture, and environmental sustainability advancements. The COVID-19 pandemic brought the sector into the mainstream, with companies such as Pfizer and Moderna being instrumental in producing life-saving vaccines to combat the pandemic. 

Aside from the headline names, there has been a rise in investment and the number of Biotech startups making groundbreaking discoveries. With the biotech industry predicted to grow to $775.2 billion by 2024, more than a 100% increase from 2015, these new ventures are hoping to take advantage of a growing market. 

However, for many executives and senior leaders, particularly those working for significant biotech businesses looking for a change in their career, the initial prospect of working at a startup is fraught with potential risk, no matter how intriguing the business is. But with biotech startups becoming an increasing trend and vital to the future of the sector, is it time for senior talent to be more open to considering new career opportunities at biotech start ups?

In this guide, we will help biotech professionals understand the structures of biotech businesses, from culture to funding to benefits. We will explore some of the standout Biotech startups and the innovative breakthroughs and research they have conducted. Finally, we will provide crucial benefits and challenges of working at a startup so you can decide if it is suitable for your next career move. 

How do Biotech Startups Grow? 

Biotech startups are dedicated to the groundbreaking research, development, and manufacturing of a range of products, such as medical devices, pharmaceuticals, biomedical technologies, nutraceuticals, and cosmeceuticals, to enhance the well-being of various organisms. 

Biotech startups can exist at different points in their development. Some may be in the early stages with no customers or a finalised product, while others could be in later stages, demonstrating a level of viability and positive cash flows. Gaining funding is a vital part of the success of a biotech startup. 

Where Does Biotech Funding Come from for Startups?

Startups gain crucial biotech funding to drive their future success from a variety of sources, including:

  • Government Grants and Public Funding - Government-sponsored initiatives spanning from local to national levels offer a crucial avenue for Life Science startups. For example, this year, the UK government has committed £650 million to life sciences, some of which will be used to fund biotech startups within the sector. 
  • Non-Government Grants - This category encompasses grants from patient advocacy groups, family foundations, and major corporations, providing targeted financial support.
  • Partnerships - These collaborations often entail the exchange of technology or knowledge from the startup to an established company, reciprocated with funding or support. Beyond the financial aspect, partnerships offer biotech startups access to invaluable resources and expertise, catalysing advancements in research and development efforts.
  • Academic Funding - Collaborating with academic institutions for research-oriented financial support.
  • Crowdfunding and Peer-to-Peer Funding - Platforms that harness the collective support of numerous individuals, each contributing modest amounts to fund a project.

Increase in Venture Capital Investment 

Another major source of Biotech funding for startups has been venture capital (VC). In exchange for capital infusion, VC firms acquire an ownership stake in the startup, with investments spanning various developmental stages, from seed funding to later-stage rounds. 

Over the past few years, there has been a surge in VC funding within the biotech sector. Research indicates that in 2016, VC companies invested in 2,200 biotech startups globally; by 2021, this number had jumped to 3,100. Moreover, the global funding for biotech businesses exceeded $34 billion in 2021, more than doubling the 2020 total of $16 billion.

In the biotech industry, VC funding peaked in the first quarter of 2021, experiencing a slight dip since then. Despite recent fluctuations in the valuations of newly public companies and a minor decline in VC funding over the past four quarters, VC companies persist in injecting capital into biotech ventures. 

The enthusiasm displayed by these seasoned early-stage investors signals their anticipation of substantial breakthroughs in how drugs are discovered, targeted, and delivered. Notably, startups wielding cutting-edge platform technologies—forming a foundational infrastructure for developing other therapies—have reaped the most benefits from this trend.

Benefits of Working for Biotech Startups 

With Governments and VC companies, in particular, seeing the potential of biotech startups, executives and senior leaders should see working at a startup as a viable and potentially highly rewarding career path. Here are a few of the benefits of working at a startup. 

Purpose and Fulfilment

Biotech startups are driven by a core mission - to address problems in healthcare and life sciences. Biotech startups aim to contribute meaningfully to the well-being of individuals, society, and the natural world through the development of groundbreaking technologies and treatments, from anti-ageing to personalised genomic medicine.  

By joining a biotech startup, you’ll have the chance to be part of something meaningful and make a difference that will impact lives worldwide. To highlight the potential significance of startups, here are just a few examples of global biotech startups that have made vital breakthroughs:

Cellarity - They left a notable imprint on drug discovery by adopting a distinctive approach. Instead of focusing on individual proteins, they target cell behaviour directly. This innovative approach to medicine is rooted in comprehending how diseases influence cell behaviour, departing from conventional methods that primarily target the illness itself.

Bionaut Labs - Has transformed the treatment landscape for brain disorders with precision-targeted medicine. Their innovative approach employs remote-controlled micro-robots, termed 'Bionauts,' presenting the potential to reshape the treatment paradigm for central nervous system disorders.

Passage Bio - Their primary focus is on bringing about positive changes in the lives of patients grappling with central nervous system disorders. The overarching goal of Passage Bio is to create a portfolio comprising five AAV-delivered therapeutics that have the transformative power to enhance and uplift lives.

Atomwise - Leverages the power of artificial intelligence to transform drug discovery. Their approach involves utilising deep learning algorithms to analyse vast datasets, enabling the identification of new drug candidates with greater speed and precision compared to conventional methods.

Organovo - Is a bioprinting company specialising in creating functional human tissues for both medical research and therapeutic applications. Their cutting-edge technology holds the promise to revolutionise our approach to addressing diseases and injuries while also contributing to reducing reliance on animal testing.

A Culture of Collaboration 

While not all startup cultures are the same, they are sure to be significantly different than what you’ll find in larger life science companies, where a stronger process, established governance, and relatively predictable working hours might be engrained. 

Biotech startups frequently foster a collaborative and innovative culture, distinct from the often more structured environment of larger, established organisations. The smaller team size and reduced bureaucracy in startups create an atmosphere conducive to flexibility, teamwork, and an openness to new ideas. This kind of environment can be rewarding and energising to work in. It appeals to individuals seeking a more entrepreneurial and innovative workplace where their contributions can directly and immediately impact.

The culture of a startup mirrors the vision set by its founder and/or CEO. In smaller startups, this influence is even more pronounced, as the leader's personality, values, and vision play a significant role in setting the tone of the culture. 

Before joining a startup, you must gauge the individuals you'll work for and alongside. It is crucial to grasp their motivations, draw from past experiences, understand the culture they prioritise, and discern what lessons you can glean from them. Ensuring their values, vision, and expectations align with yours is vital.

Potential for Faster Career Advancement

The opportunity for development and fast-tracked progression are facilitated by participation by early involvement in decision-making and the chance to build substantial experience in a short time span. This can potentially enable individuals to reach more senior positions faster than compared to large biotech organisations. 

Biotech startups that have effective succession planning in place proactively develop and mentor talented individuals who can step into senior roles, ensuring a seamless transition in organisational leadership.

Potential for Long-Term Reward

While joining a Biotech startup does come with a certain level of risk, they also have the potential for significant returns if the business is successful. As startups are often resource-constrained in their early years, they may not be able to compete with larger companies on base salary. To compensate, a feature of many early-stage and competitive biotech startups is the inclusion of stock options in the compensation package. 

This option represents a unique opportunity for employees to become stakeholders in the company’s success. If the startup goes public or is acquired, these stock options can translate into a substantial financial windfall. This setup aligns your financial interests with the biotech startup's overall success and growth trajectory, fostering a shared commitment to achieving milestones. 

Factors to Consider when Moving to a Biotech Startup

Due to the nature of biotech startups and their infancy as a business, several challenges and considerations come when deciding whether to work for a startup. Here are some key considerations professionals make when assessing a biotech startup as a career option. 

1. Job Security

Job security is arguably the biggest challenge professionals face when deciding whether to move to a Biotech startup. Whilst certainly not uncommon for larger and more established businesses to lay off employees (in fact, 115 biotech businesses announced layoffs this year), there is generally more security when working for major national and international organisations.  

It is easy to understand the concern when the failure rate for biotech startups is high, at around 90%. Biotech startups fail for several reasons, but here are the most common reasons:

  • Poor financial strategy - biotech startups require significant capital and, therefore, must carefully manage their finances to survive the long development and research timelines common with work in the sector. 
  • Misaligned goals and lack of experience - Inexperienced leadership, disagreements among management, and misalignment between the board and management can damage the success of biotech startups
  • Lack of market understanding and poor timing - Failure to understand the market or launching products at the wrong time. 

While the failure rate is high for biotech startups, it shouldn't spell the end of a potential career path of joining one. Addressing these challenges requires a holistic approach that combines meticulous financial planning, scientific expertise, strategic leadership, market intelligence, and a resilient mindset. Successful biotech startups often demonstrate the ability to integrate these elements, learning and evolving as they navigate the complexities of bringing innovative biotechnological products to market.

Therefore, when considering a biotech startup, ensure you heavily research to understand if the startup in question has the structure and people in place to drive its success. Alternatively, are you the leader the business needs to overcome these challenges and make a substantial impact on the biotech industry? As we saw in our examples of successful biotech startups, these businesses can succeed and achieve groundbreaking discoveries, products, and research. 

2. The Quality of Onboarding can Vary

For individuals with a background in corporate roles, the idea of joining a company without undergoing extensive training might seem unimaginable. The truth about startups is that the onboarding process and initial support can vary significantly. In certain situations, it may feel as if you're being thrown into the deep end, expected to teach yourself how to navigate the waters.

People differ in their comfort levels with this reality, so it's crucial to grasp the startup's unique onboarding approach and assess how well it aligns with your personality.

To form an understanding of the onboarding process, when interviewing for a role at a biotech startup, questions to ask include:

  • What is the balance between on-the-job and formal training programs?
  • Who are the professionals within the business that will be most effective in my development?
  • What has been the recent trajectory of individuals in this type of role? 

3. Salary Package may be Lower than a Major Biotech Business 

Startup salaries typically lag behind those offered by more established companies. Studies indicate that over a decade, startup employees earned approximately $27,000 less than their counterparts in established firms. This aligns with the advice given to early-stage startups, suggesting that employees should anticipate a salary between 30% and 40% lower than larger corporations.

However, as we mentioned earlier in our guide, many startup firms give stock options that can be financially rewarding in the long term and make up for lower base salaries. There is also the benefit of working at a startup when you have the opportunity to make a more significant difference in the advancement of biotech than perhaps you would working for a large multinational, where even as a senior member of the organisation, your participation may seem not as vital due to the size of the company. 

Final Word on Careers at Biotech Startups

Biotech startups offer a promising and fascinating opportunity for senior professionals seeking impactful careers. As the industry continues to drive scientific innovation across a number of specialisms, including healthcare and sustainability, the surge in investment and the rise of biotech startups contribute significantly. Projected to reach $775.2 billion by 2024, the biotech industry presents a growing market for these ventures.

The prospect of joining a startup may initially seem daunting for experienced executives and leaders contemplating a shift in their biotech careers. However, this comprehensive guide has delved into the structures, funding sources, and the many benefits and considerations of working for biotech startups to support you in making that decision. 

The decision to embark on a career in a biotech startup is a nuanced one. It involves embracing the uncertainties, recognising the potential for growth and impact, and aligning personal values with the startup's mission. As the biotech industry continues to evolve, those who venture into working at a startup stand at the forefront of shaping the future of scientific innovation and its profound implications for the well-being of individuals, society, and the natural world.

Experts in Life Science Executive Search

Whether you decide on a career at a promising biotech startup or global multinational, our life science recruitment team are here to support you. We have an exceptional track record of placing senior-level talent across Europe, the US, MENA, and APAC.

Contact us for more information about how we can empower your life science career or speak with our Life Science recruitment experts to find out more market insights, executive search and recruitment needs or talent strategy services