Biotech Startups Have No Excuse to Ignore Employer Brand

Guest Post by James Ellis, Principal of Employer Brand Labs
April 17, 2023

Biotech startups are defined by two things. First, by their idea, the reason they took on the burden of starting a company in the first place. Maybe it was a new approach to drug discovery, the use of cutting-edge technology on a known condition, CRISPR, data science, or AI, but that idea is the core of the company.

But the second thing that defines a biotech startup is what grows around that idea. The people. 

Hire well, and the idea can become more defined, more real, and make the leap from concept to clinical trials. And it can happen relatively close to your founder’s timelines. 

Hire poorly, and that idea gets bogged down in friction, disagreement, and distraction. Personal agendas and divergent working styles doom what might have been a world-changing idea.

So it stands to reason that since “the idea” is already established as the core of the company, the best way to influence a biotech’s chance of success is to hire the right people.

But what makes a “right hire?” Gallup recently found that companies pick the wrong hire 82% of the time.


A good hire is a lot more than raw technical skill. Sure, you need someone who can do that advanced biochem or pharmacology, data science, or gene editing, but you need them to do that in a way that aligns with your company’s overall culture and values. That raw technical skill is great until their disruptive style meets your collective focus (or vice versa). A good hire is someone who wants to be rewarded for the things you reward and wants to be part of the mission you offer.

But there’s nothing that would credibly explain your culture, your reward structure, your work style in any of the places where you are looking for talent. It isn’t in your job postings. It isn’t illustrated on your social media channels. There are some suggestions of “values” on your career site along with an award for being a positive place to work, but they aren’t descriptive. They aren’t credible. And they aren’t attracting the people you actually want to hire.

What if the reason we’re making sub-optimal hires 82% of the time is because we’re not being specific about the kind of people we want and why they would want to join us (instead of any other biotech startup)?

And this is where employer branding’s value and impact becomes clear.  

So in an effort to make things clear, this is what employer brand is:

  • Perception: Your employer brand is what individuals think it’s like to work at your company (provided they know anything about you at all).
  • Strategy: How do you influence specifically the kind of person you’d want to hire to see you as different and attractive so that they take action and learn more (as opposed to saying positive things that turn into a pile of applications of people with minimum qualifications).
  • Focus: Figuring out what you can say that is specific, attractive, different and real about working for you.
  • Activation: Telling compelling and credible stories that will reach your target audience to influence their perception of you.

A review of most biotech career sites (including start-ups) shows that companies of every size are over-indexing on messages about innovation (Invent something! Make something! Launch something! Change something!) and mission (Patients are waiting! Better line-of-sight to the patient! Less pain and suffering! Better patient outcomes!).

The assumption is that these two ideas, innovation and mission, are values that prospective hires care about. And they do. The problem is that while these things are valued, they do not create differentiated value. When everyone offers these things, no company looks different from any other.

An employer brand identifies your own differentiated value to new potential hires. It isn’t about ginning up some positive mentions about you. It isn’t a make-over movie where the nerd takes their glasses and suddenly becomes gorgeous. It’s about becoming crystal clear about your differentiated value, describing it and proving it to the point where those ideas are credible, and then embedding those stories into every step and channel of the candidate’s journey.

This might mean talking about your culture less as “positive” or “award-winning” but in describing it, talking about to whom this culture would be ideal and the kinds of people for whom it won’t be a strong fit. 

This might mean talking less about your benefits package and more about thinking beyond your benefits package as a way to show what leadership cares about.

This might mean fewer videos of “happy shiny scientists” and more videos showing how people resolve conflict, how they brainstorm together, when they feel the need to work past office hours and what they feel rewarded for.

The value is two-fold. 

First, there’s the long-tail impact. Building your brand, adding more credible material to it, connecting it to your corporate marketing and investor relations helps will establish what your company cares about, how it differs from other startups, so that candidates can make a more informed choice.

Second, it immediately helps you decide what to do. When you post to social media, do you talk about your benefits or about your all-hands meeting? When you talk about it, what impression should someone reading it come away with? This leads to building objectively more useful content faster.

This is employer branding. And as the fight to hire capable scientists and technicians continues to scale up, the smart talent leader will stop running around in every direction and begin to focus their efforts where they matter most.

It won’t be long before you start to see your own numbers of bad hires go down, positioning your firm for success.