It’s almost like Massachusetts has too many biotechs.
The industry is hotter than ever, with companies routinely raising millions of dollars in venture capital, startups blooming on a weekly basis, and developers planning more lab space seemingly by the day. But the pipeline of qualified workers to fill all of the added jobs can’t keep up with the burgeoning demand.
The market for biotech talent in Massachusetts has long been robust, but lately the crunch has turned critical. That’s causing some in the industry to worry that it will not only inhibit growth, but also affect the quality of work as key positions become harder to fill and lower-level workers jump from company to company in search of a better compensation package.
Hiring “is definitely more competitive than it was a few years ago, there’s just no question about it,” said Michael Gilman, chief executive of Waltham-based Arrakis Therapeutics, which more than doubled its staff during the pandemic.
The surplus of startups reflects investors’ desire to pour more money into the world’s leading biotech hub. But with every new company that comes out of stealth mode or a mega-funding round that comes with mega-hiring goals, the people problem has gotten worse.
According to the latest report from industry association MassBio, nearly 85,000 people work in the state’s life sciences sector, up 55 percent from 2008.
Most of the hiring is happening in Cambridge, where companies posted more than 2,630 biotech job listings on Indeed.com from July through mid-January, according to Biotech Networks, which tracks employment.
Large companies, such as Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Takeda Pharmaceutical, as well as Moderna Therapeutics and its venture capital backer Flagship Pioneering, were seeking the most workers during that period.
“You can’t walk two blocks around Kendall Square without receiving a job offer,” said Jeanne Gray, chief people officer at Relay Therapeutics in Cambridge, only half-kiddingly. “I get the sense that a lot of candidates know the market is hot.”
Employee turnover is on the rise, too. About 16.5 percent of life sciences employees in Massachusetts voluntarily quit their jobs last year, a recent survey from research firm Radford found, up from 13 percent in 2018. Both figures are high enough to affect a company’s effort to grow.
Naturally, one way to recruit and retain people is to keep paying them more.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary in Massachusetts for chemists and scientists was about $100,000 in May 2020. But biotechs are finding that historical data and closely watched benchmark surveys from Radford quickly become outdated.
“One of my companies realized they had fallen behind in some positions by more than 10 percent,” said Tony Mullin, a biotech human resources executive. “They offered $130,000 and were losing candidates because they were getting $145,000 or $150,000 from other companies.”
Executives said some firms seem to be aggressively outbidding each other for candidates, though most agreed it isn’t a sound strategy.
“That’s not a sustainable game to be in, upping the ante all the time,” said Diego Miralles, chief executive of Flagship-backed Laronde, which came out of stealth mode last May and raised $440 million three months later. “Candidates definitely get offers that are higher than ours. Some we can’t match.”
There’s also a sense that employees are easily swayed by “title inflation,” a phenomenon that occurs when people climb the corporate ladder faster by bouncing around.
”There’s a short-term satisfaction with getting a bigger title,” said Daphne Karydas, chief financial and operating officer of Flare. “But then along with it comes expectations of doing a certain role.”
Beyond compensation, biotech firms are also paying close attention to perks and benefits. It’s not uncommon for companies to have ping-pong tables in their offices or to provide catered lunches Silicon Valley-style.
Dyno Therapeutics’ new office will have a rock climbing wall. Relay recently began offering employees free diapers for the first year of a child’s life. Pet insurance is becoming more common.
These offerings, long popular in the tech world, are somewhat new in the more conservative biotech industry, and many of the firms splurging on them don’t yet generate revenue.
“When I started, all they gave you was bad coffee,” Miralles said.
Of course, there’s more money to go around now.
Gilman said the first biotech he founded raised $4 million in its first round of funding more than 15 years ago; today, companies can raise $400 million at the same stage.
Cambridge-based Generate Biomedicines, which just raised $370 million, plans to hire 420 people over the next two years. The company, founded in 2018 by Flagship Pioneering, is willing to pay the price for top candidates and reaches out to some before they’ve graduated.
But with such an ambitious hiring goal, Gevorg Grigoryan, Generate’s chief technology officer, admitted, “It’s kind of not entirely clear how we do that.”
“We’ve internally said keeping the bar high is the primary goal,” he said, referring to the quality of hires. “We will be hoping to reach our numbers, but the numbers will never come first.”
Several companies said the pandemic, combined with the desire to grow quickly, prompted them for the first time to hire workers who don’t live in Massachusetts and have no plans to move to the state. It’s becoming a popular option for recruiting hard-to-find computational scientists, or even some executives, who don’t need to do experiments in a lab. But because of the pandemic, even local lab-based employees are being given more freedom to do their reading or analysis at home a few days a week.
Grigoryan said expanding the talent pool beyond Massachusetts is an “easy way to kind of simplify the problem for yourself” in a tight labor market. But he warned that hiring too many remote employees to fill job openings could be a quick fix that forever changes what it means to work in the biotech epicenter of the world.
When it comes to culture and career development, Grigoryan said, “Oftentimes, we found that being local is really important, both for the company and the employee.”
Brendan Frey, chief executive of Canada-based Deep Genomicssaid that in Toronto, the artificial intelligence drug discovery firm had the “luxury of being the main act in town.” But after setting up an outpost in Boston with fewer than a dozen employees over the summer, Frey said, attrition is already an issue.
“People know in their gut that all of this kind of hyperactivity is perhaps not best for them or for the companies,” he said. “Forgetting about whether they should join Deep Genomics or not, I’m thinking, ‘You’re going to run into trouble later on.’ ”
Adam Koppel, managing director of Bain Capital Life Sciences, said he often gets asked about what could slow the momentum of the Cambridge-Boston biotech ecosystem.
“The proliferation of new companies has created somewhat of a supply and demand mismatch in the marketplace for skilled managers,” he said.
Koppel said the talent pool has not matured enough to fill key areas from the C-suite and clinical development, all the way through to the commercial launch of products. And, he said, there is increasingly competitive intensity in the industry due to many “copycats” that are “going after the same targets.”
“The ecosystem could benefit from a certain degree of consolidation,” he added.
At least for now, though, executives seem to believe that the biotechnology business in Massachusetts will keep expanding, regardless of its hiring and retention problems.
“It is conceivable that all the capital dries up in our industry, companies shut down, lay off scientists, and they have no place to go,” Gilman said. “I don’t see that happening anytime soon, honestly.”