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Purpose: health tech’s secret weapon in the war for talent

By Mike Drew and Chris Hamilton




Odgers Berndtson’s Mike Drew and Chris Hamilton, explain what start-ups and established companies in health tech can learn from one another when it comes to purpose.

In the war for talent, big pharma and MedTech face exceptional competition.

The health tech sector has entered an era of true disruption; in less than five years’ time both drug discovery and therapeutics will be revolutionised by artificial intelligence.

At the vanguard of these advances in science and technology are a growing number start-ups. Increasingly, the sector’s best talent wants to go and work for them.

That is not to say start-ups are the ‘promised land’ of career success in health tech. The proverbial giants in the space still have a number of advantages, enabling them to outcompete their smaller rivals.

Importantly, if companies at either end of the spectrum learn from one another, then both can attract top talent.

The appeal of the start-up  

There has always been a level of scepticism about the true potential of many of the start-ups in the health tech sector.

With genuine results always years away, it has been difficult to discern between those with substance and those making empty promises.

But a growing ecosystem of these start-ups is starting to achieve what they set out to do.

As a result, there is more interest than ever from talent to go and work in these companies. And it is easy to understand why.

Professionals in all areas of healthcare work in the industry because of their belief in the impact of their work; it is this purpose that drives them.

Start-ups on the bleeding edge of innovation and whose purpose is evident in the way they are redefining their fields, are understandably more attractive to these kinds of individuals.

In these organisations, there is a clear opportunity to make a difference. The impact made can be seen on a day to day basis.

Strides forward aren’t lost in bureaucratic hierarchies and the environment is often low ego without the cut and thrust of the larger firms.

On top of this, there is often a genuine belief in the technology itself, which underpins a strong culture of working for a mission.

Because of this, smaller health tech companies can offer more enriching career paths, which are more attractive than the thirty year grind in a large corporation.

This shift is seeing many purpose-oriented leaders in the peak of their careers move out of large life-sciences firms and into the start-up scene.

The strengths of big-pharma and MedTech players  

Even those start-ups revolutionising the industry still have all their hopes pinned on one or two assets.

Their much larger competitors are diversified. Financial security is far more certain, and therefore, so are the careers they offer.

Career length is also, almost, guaranteed. The ‘snakes and ladders board’ is much broader and fuller in large life sciences companies.

While medical and technical professionals might find more fulfilling jobs in start-ups, they are likely to gain this at the expense of career progression.

The financial weight of these larger companies also enables them to acquire digital innovators and bring them in house.

While there still exists the unattractive structures and layers, big-pharma and MedTech are on a path towards encapsulating the innovation of start-ups within their own companies.

Done correctly, this could be a strong sell to individuals who want the creative environment of a start-up and the career opportunities of a large company.

What they can learn from one another  

The opportunity to make an impact and work with purpose, now drives the career decisions of many people in health tech.

They understand they are more likely to attain this in a smaller company than a large one.

For big-pharma and large MedTech players this could be an opportunity.

If they become more agile, de-layer their matrix working, and unpick their structures then they could start to feel like a smaller company.

Providing fringe comforts and space for career progression at the same time, means they can offer career satisfaction that rivals those of smaller companies.

Realigning culture to embed the kind of mission-driven feel of smaller health tech businesses is also not impossible.

The demand for engagement directors and culture officers is growing across all sectors. Their sole responsibility is to drive engagement and create an inspiring workplace; to build purpose into companies.

Likewise, start-ups should understand career development still holds a lot of weight for people.

More and more people want to work for a mission that is greater than themselves, but they also want to get better at what they do.

The sweet spot is work that has genuine, meaningful impact, that at the same time, provides progression on a personal level.

When it comes to talent acquisition, both large firms and start-ups in health tech have an advantage here.

They are competing for talent with the tech and digital industries, yet few pure tech or digital companies can claim the same societal impact as those in health tech.

Capitalising on what they have, and creating organisations that are purpose-first is therefore a winning strategy in the war for talent.

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