Recruiting: Winning the War for Biopharma Talent

In the red hot but risky biopharma industry, talent can make all the difference. Recruiting managing partner Eric Celidonio and executive search leader Leslie Lazarus discuss how their firm’s focus on RPO, contingent talent solutions and executive search services are helping start-ups and other life science businesses scale and otherwise get the edge on their competition.

December 16, 2020 – One of the hallmarks of companies that are thriving in these challenging days of not only a pandemic but rapidly shifting talent needs is the ability to meet change with speed and agility. That’s why on-demand services and interim staffing are emerging as forces to be reckoned with in the “new normal” that is taking shape across the economy. And nowhere is that capacity to pivot more critical than across the red hot life sciences sector, and biopharma in particular.

One recruitment firm, Recruiting in Rockland, MA, outside of Boston, knows this better than most. Its three-pronged talent offerings—recruitment process outsourcing (RPO), contingent talent solutions, and executive search—have been proving invaluable to the firm’s devoted, and growing, client base, whether the services are deployed alone or in tandem. “The bio-pharma segment is a very risky area,” said Eric Celidonio,’s founder and managing partner. “It’s filled with lots of starts and stops. It is very capital intensive, and fraught with regulatory hurdles, and what works in the lab, frequently will not work in human trials. When you get a green-light to hire, you need to hire quickly.” These three variables often lend themselves very well to business – and talent – outsourcing.

“What’s unique about our model is that we’re built of both agency and corporate recruiters. That allows us to go in consultatively to help build these companies strategically, creating best practices along the way.”

Agile Capabilities

It was that kind of thinking that recently led Mr. Celidonio to bring in recruitment veteran Leslie Lazarus as a managing partner and consultant to build out the firm’s executive search platform, where both saw the potential for tremendous growth. Thus far, Ms. Lazarus has helped with marketing and introducing Mr. Celidonio to others who might be a fit for the team. In time, she expects to carve out her own practice, revolving around PE and HR.

“Leslie has a very different background from me, and I thought that her experience and background complemented me and the rest of the team,” said Mr. Celidonio. “I like the fact that she’s worked with some well-known executive search firms, she is entrepreneurial, and she has agile capabilities. We have good chemistry.”

In the past, when clients had an executive role that required a more in-depth search than Mr. Celidonio’s team could handle, he would refer them to an outside recruiter and split the fee. Ultimately, he was dissatisfied with that approach. “I really wanted to do better than that,” he said. “Independent recruiters simply are not going to pay as much attention to the search as if they were primary stakeholders. It is much more advantageous for both the recruiter and the company being served to have a team that is vested in the process and who ultimately want to win for themselves and the client. So that’s why we decided to build out this new executive search vertical. We care about being holistic talent solution providers.” But competition looms in the highly rivalrous – and ambitious – field of life sciences and biotechnology.

In Recruiting’s field of play, competition for talent is merciless. “These are ‘wanted’ candidates and there’s a small pool of them that fit the bill for what are deemed very specific, niche roles. That makes this work that we do so much more uber competitive,” said Ms. Lazarus, whose resume includes recruiting stints with Korn Ferry, global talent mapping firm Armstrong Craven, and her own firm, L2 Search Partners. She was also senior director of global executive recruiting, talent acquisition, for Sutherland Global Services, a digital transformation company. “The market has changed a little bit due to COVID-19, but it is still competitive for finding strong candidates,” she noted.

Filling Any Role

“A number of organizations opt for talent with a specific, apples-to-apples kind of experience, but what’s needed in biotech technical roles is flexibility,” she added. “Some therapies are so new that there’s not a big enough pool to draw from. That adds to the complexity of the work we do as recruiters.”

Ms. Lazarus said there is virtually no limit to the types of positions that the firm can fill. “We can handle really every role within an emerging biopharma company with few exceptions, from early discovery through commercialization,” she said. “That’s how we’re built. That’s the reason for our existence.”

“We’re concentrated on the bio-therapeutics space which is probably the hottest segment and the one that I know best,” said Mr. Celidonio. “But overall, our focus is in life science.”

One need only look at today’s headlines or watch the evening news—or the commercials alone—to understand why life sciences and biopharma, in particular, are paying some of the highest premiums for search work of any industry. “What do you take more seriously than your health?” asked Mr. Celidonio. “The fact of the matter is that we shouldn’t have to settle for compromised health, and this sometimes means that we need to turn to therapeutic modalities to have the quality of life we desire. Furthermore, there are so many rare diseases without any primary treatment, and so that means we just need to keep working on new advances in medicine. And new medical advances require top-tier talent.”

Rent the Function

All this makes Recruiting an attractive option for its clients and prospective ones, many of whom are start-ups and for whom the path forward is still uncertain. The three options that the firm offers negate the need for an in-house corporate talent team, for starters, and allow clients to pivot effortlessly as they grow or as modifications emerge. “This industry changes by the second,” said Mr. Celidonio. “The reason why what we offer is especially well suited to this industry is the binary starts and stops of biopharma itself. These businesses are beheld to heavy regulatory processes that could literally sink a program on a moment’s notice. A company can literally go from boom to bust by one FDA decree. They could say, ‘Hey, this didn’t demonstrate efficacy.’ And that can cause a stock to go from 100 to zero, and it’s happened.”

He also said that funding – the lifeblood of most organizations in this sector – is volatile. “Companies are often backed by VC and PE firms that have fickle needs and interests. You can take any great success story and any one of these companies could have gone the other way. The truth is there is a big element of luck here and even the smartest minds in the room aren’t going to be able to take it all into consideration,” he said.

“Unless you’re a big company that’s going to continually expand, it really doesn’t make sense to have a full-time talent acquisition staff in many respects,” said Mr. Celidonio. “It’s a point in time. And you are going to need to add on 100 people, and you’ve got to get through your clinical trials, and there’s no sense adding on more people until you show success there. So rent the function until you know you need to buy it.” Recruiting’s roots date back to 1999, to the days of, when Mr. Celidonio started a scientist job board, which he ran as a side business to his work as a biotechnology recruiting consultant. He had previously worked in biologics research and development for companies such as Bayer and Pfizer before transitioning into staffing and executive search. Over the years, he held corporate talent acquisition leadership roles at Merck KgAA, Novartis and Moderna, but in 2016 he decided to go in a different direction. “I was at Moderna Therapeutics at the time,” he said. “I loved the job. But I’m sort of a born entrepreneur, that’s what I like to do, I like to build companies.”

A New Direction

As such, he would reinvent his company as Recruiting. “Among other things, I just wanted a fresh name,” said Mr. Celidonio. “I wanted a simple name that reflected the business we serve with an easy to follow URL/domain that contained rich content and an effective job board and so we built on that theme. Now we’ve added a bunch of new recruiters into our eco-system, and we are a diversified-on-demand, recruiting-on-demand firm totally dedicated to life science recruitment.”

The pandemic temporarily stalled what had started out as busy year for, though this past summer saw an uptick in business once again. Recruiting employs 35 people, including 20 recruiters both full-time and part-time. Two or three members of the team are focused mainly on operational components.

“We also have several contractors, many of them are higher end that we offer to clients more for their payrolling function or just to serve on a consultant basis,” he added. “We’re a diversified search firm that can credibly offer contract recruiting services, contingent and contractor search, and executive retained recruiting.”

Sci-bio’s clients include Translate Bio, which recently enlisted the firm for a 120-person buildout that will stretch over the next year; Goldfinch Bio; Tango Therapeutics; Sarepta Therapeutics; and Acceleron Pharma, to name just a few. “All of our clients with a few exceptions are long-term, multi-year relationships that have enjoyed the partnership and built on what we started,” said Mr. Celidonio. “These are companies that have used us for the different segments that we offer. And they’re not only clients but they’re also advocates.”

Knowing What to Look For

What differentiates Recruiting, said Mr. Celidonio, is that its recruiters are steeped in the sciences. Many of its team members are experienced industry professionals who have worked in technical and scientific capacities. “You don’t see that every day,” he said. “Furthermore, several of us have worked in corporate recruitment. We know what that looks like, whereas most of the contingency firms are just people who have come from other contingency firms or other areas of recruitment. And, so, they don’t know what ‘corporate good’ looks like. I’ve sat on executive committees and in senior leadership meetings and I understand what a big pharma like a Novartis or a Pfizer would look for in talent.”

That is backed by a deep consultative approach, and’s three segments go together well to complement the full needs of any given client. “We’re not just a one-tool solution,” said Mr. Celidonio. “We have a full assortment of tools we can work with. We can be a full-service firm and genuinely lead with a service combination that suits our clients rather than say, ‘We can’t do this,’ or, ‘We don’t want to do that.’ We can make things work. Furthermore, we are employee owned, meaning that we do not have to answer to a private equity stakeholder or large staffing firm. Our credit is strong. We have a stable base of employees. And we have a unique value proposition to attract other strong talent. That is our big initiative of 2021. That is what makes us stand apart from other firms. We have the ability to partner much deeper than them.”

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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