The competition for talent in biotech is always fierce — especially in biopharma, which often has to compete with flashy tech companies for the brightest scientific minds. And despite recent downturns in the biotech market, job openings are still robust.
BioSpace, a site devoted to biopharma news that features a platform for job vacancies in the industry, currently has over 3,000 open jobs listed in biotech, over 2,000 in pharma and hundreds more in other sectors of the industry.
How can companies stand out from the pack and secure a fresh pipeline of talent? It’s a question Kevin Parker, CEO of Cartography Biosciences, contemplated as he grew the company from stealth to its official launch last year. In 2021, the Bay-area startup, which is aiming to develop an improved class of precision immunotherapies, grew from a few employees to a staff of 10. By the start of 2023, its ranks had grown to about 40.
Along the way, Parker, who landed on Forbes “30 under 30” list last year, set out to build a diverse team of next-generation scientists who were also eager to mature in their roles.
“We wanted to build a group of hands-on experts who could go into the lab, but (could) also lead teams and grow as leaders,” Parker said.
And while younger generations of talent have long been stereotyped as needing quirky perks to be attracted to companies, Parker has relied on refined approaches to tried-and-true strategies to build his team. Here’s how he put together his ideal workforce aimed at ushering the startup toward its next critical phase of growth.
Ask targeted interview questions
Finding the right fit is always a central focus of the hiring process. To a certain extent, employers rely on their gut to lead them in the right direction. But thinking about what your team needs from a cultural perspective and then carefully crafting interview questions can reveal if the job-seeker hits that mark.
“We were often looking for someone who understands when it makes sense to delegate but who’s not opposed to getting in the weeds,” Parker said.
With that goal in mind, Parker said he asks interviewees how they’ve addressed problems in the past to get a sense of whether or not the person is willing to roll up their sleeves and do “what needs to be done.” The question can also show if the candidate externalizes blame in tough situations, which Parker said is “less indicative of potential success” at Cartography.
“We wanted to build a group of hands-on experts who could go into the lab, but (could) also lead teams and grow as leaders.”
CEO, Cartography Biosciences
To get a sense of how well the person would fit in at the company over the long haul, Parker also asks about long-term goals.
“What stands out to me is when somebody talks about being better at whatever their job is — whether it’s a scientist or an accountant,” he explained. “If their goal is to be the best they can, be the best player and contribute to the science, then they’ll ask for and accept feedback. But if their goal is just to climb a career ladder, then it might not be in line with us.”
Use your network
After earning his undergraduate degree from Harvard University, Kevin headed to Stanford University for his Ph.D. in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine. Naturally, when he looked to build the Cartography team, he relied on his network from Stanford for recruits. As the team grew, he then leveraged the connections of new hires to branch out across the country.
“It’s been a big mix of networking and making sure as we build the team, we’re building out new networks,” he said. “And networks have a way of communicating. This all brings a richer environment to the team.”
Like for many companies, LinkedIn has played a major role in Cartography’s hiring strategy as a platform the company uses to hunt for candidates with the right background.
Build the company you want to see in the world
At Stanford, Parker said he was lucky enough to work in Chang Lab — a positive environment he was happy to be in every day. It’s a feeling he’s tried to recreate at Cartography.
For recruiting, Parker has leveraged being a younger CEO to attract up-and-coming scientists while striving toward a broader goal of creating a welcoming, inclusive and diverse workplace.
“I can connect with people in a way maybe some others can’t. That has been an advantage,” he said.
As the company has grown, Parker has also relied on feedback from employees to identify blind spots in his leadership. In particular, he’s learned that execs get the best feedback when they don’t ask open-ended questions and instead zero in on specific aspects of life at work.
“Ask specifically about moments in time — for example, how a policy landed — not just in general, ‘How am I doing?’” he advised. “That’s been really helpful for me.”
For retention, Cartography offers a robust wellness package and appeals to those who are excited by the science. All told, the efforts have paid off.
Earlier this year, the San Francisco Business Times gave Cartography a “Best Places to Work in the Bay Area” award.
“I hope everyone is here because of the science, but another big reason people join a company is because they want to work with the people at that company — where they can learn but also teach something,” Parker said. “So we want to make sure everyone fits that mold, which strengthens us as an organization.”