The Specialist Global Boutique: Challenges and Opportunities in Life Sciences

November 13, 2015 – One of the hallmarks of outstanding companies is that they have a knack for being one step ahead of others in understanding where the market and the innovations that drive it are headed. Bianca Coulter has built a career out of staying ahead of that curve. After a successful 10-year stint with Korn Ferry in London, she spent some time developing a healthcare practice for an executive search firm in the U.S. Then in 2003, she founded London-based Coulter Partners, which specializes in global life sciences.

Back then Europe seemed way behind the North American market and less obvious as a place to build bio-pharma and med-tech businesses. Big companies and investors interested in that market were wary of committing their resources for such endeavors in the United Kingdom and Europe.

Today, Coulter Partners is held as a trusted adviser to the sector on senior leadership roles in the American, U.K. and European markets. The firm has a combined expertise gained over 25 years in the industry, concentrated in the largest dedicated life science team in North America and Europe. Some 50 consultants work together from eight offices as a single global P&L, with a single shared network, to source and evaluate candidates worldwide.

In the following interview, the firm’s founding chief executive discusses the changing dynamics within life sciences and how finding leaders for organizations throughout the sector impacts the industry’s ability to deliver advances in diagnosis, prevention, treatment and management of disease. She explores why specialization works so well in this sector, allowing for access to leaders across its entire value chain. She concludes with a look at her teams’ culture and personal reward system – founded on commitment to client and candidate service.


Bianca, what features of your sectors of specialization have affected the way the firm has evolved?

When I left Korn Ferry in 2000, the bio-pharma and med tech sector in Europe was pushing, with mixed results, to catch up with the huge growth seen in the U.S., and struggling to persuade major companies and investors to establish and commit large capital sums in the U.K. and Europe. The perception was that the conditions for employing large numbers in European locations were not as good as in North America, and that for earlier stage businesses, it was extremely hard to find entrepreneurial leadership, let alone ROI success stories. We did very well serving the needs of companies bucking the trend in the U.K. and Europe, and built our team here, but also started to work extensively in the U.S. too. This was initially because we were trying to bring talent over to Europe and then we began working for clients there as they got to know and trust us for the U.S. market.

Since 2000 there have been massive and exciting changes in our sector. We have evolved from a Europe focused business which sourced talent globally but mainly served U.K. and European-headquartered businesses, to having 50 people working from eight locations for companies in all major markets.

Tell us more about the sector change and its implications?

Our sector has changed beyond anyone’s expectations over the last two decades. Vast volumes have been written about changes in understanding of disease progression and causes, gene and cell therapy approaches, the role of the immune system in cancer treatment, the rise of the rare diseases and personalized medicines business models, the power that technology advances have brought to scientific and medical endeavor, the patient journey, pricing and reimbursement etc. Advances in science and technology obviously cause the bio-pharmaceutical and medical devices sectors to evolve at a pace that outstrips most others. This has major implications for search firms serving the sector. Specialization as a search firm in this sector involves keeping very close to a host of scientific, technology and market trends, and requires deep understanding and access to leaders across the whole of the sector’s value chain.

How does this affect your business model?

We need to understand the appetites and needs of the major multinationals to understand the drivers for investors and entrepreneurs in the early stage company sector. In the mid-cap and growth segments we have seen that the type of leadership required is competed for and still rare. We need to be able to evaluate who can succeed as a leader in each different type of business model – and to keep in touch with academia and leadership in research institutes to know the implications for business models of the latest discoveries, and scientific/technical progress.  In our sector the combination of the patent cliff and the constant innovation and progress of science means that any business has to evaluate its relevance and future potential on a very real time basis. In order to evaluate leadership we need to be absolutely up to date with these drivers and we therefore need people on the team who can engage highly intelligently with the market. We rarely find them in other search firms.

And how have you addressed this?

Most search firms do not go into such depth and so growing our own team has involved hiring PhD scientists and experts from R&D careers, and from top quality consultancies and leading edge companies in our sector. We do not rely on public domain information on databases or broadly accessible networks. We engage with the marketplace as peers, to help understand what has and has not worked, the pros and cons of specific scientific approaches and disease treatment strategies, the impact of new technologies, and the threats and opportunities that exist. This means that when we consult with clients about their leadership needs, and the specialists they are going to have to compete for to succeed in such a fast-paced change environment, we can truly add value to the debate and help them secure very rare and highly valuable specialist leadership.

Other implications are that the team needs to be truly global in reach. Money and talent flows across borders in this sector, seeking out the innovations in science, and often needing to have multiple centres of scientific excellence as well as internationally experienced leadership, flexible enough to move around the globe. We often experience investors and founders asking us to help them decide where to build headquarters for new companies where they are likely to find the most appropriate leadership talent, and of course we are constantly required to find people who will relocate as well. Again this requires reach into all corners of the market but has little to do with bricks and mortar. While our office network is growing (eight locations in North America and Europe) the key has been to have multilingual, multi-market experienced and connected researchers and consultants. Our team speaks many languages and has worked in all major bio-pharma markets and is organized as one P&L, to ensure collaborative information and experience sharing.

Again this has given us challenges in growing our own team in that we rarely find people in other search firms who can fit our team culture and approach. The ‘eat what you kill’ remuneration structures of many of our competitors do not equip people with a team mindset! The great by-product of this challenge for us is that we have evolved our own excellent personal development and training processes and systems, and hired exceptionally team-orientated people who care about one thing above all – client and candidate satisfaction.

Contributed by Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor, Hunt Scanlon Media

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